A new study published yesterday (21 December 2015) indicates that local authorities are, for the most part, still in the early development stages of making reunification processes for children in care a focus of policy and practice.
The research, undertaken by the National Children’s Bureau and Loughborough University’s Centre for Child and Family Research, examines the manner in which local authorities support young people who return home from being in a care placement and their families. Returning home to a family is now the most common outcome for looked-after children in England, and the study investigates how local authorities utilise existing research on the subject to hone their processes for supporting the reunification of children in care with their families, and how they go about monitoring these children after their settlement back home.
Split into six sections, each based on a different stage of reunification as identified and explored by existing research, the report observes the ways in which local authorities:
Make decisions regarding a child’s readiness to return home from a care placement;
Plan a child’s future transition from care to a home environment;
Support children who make this transition, as well as their families;
Monitor young people who have returned home; and
Train and supervise staff in charge of supporting those children who do return home from care.
The study reveals that existing evidence relating to this topic is being used by local authorities in limited yet varying degrees to help inform and guide policies and practices concerning the reunification of looked-after children with their families. Local authority senior managers generally recognised the necessity of reviewing and formalising their approach to placing children in care back with their families, but, troublingly, only one local authority included in the study had a specific written reunification policy. On this aspect, the study concluded that local authorities were mostly still in the developing stages of focusing on reunification.
Interestingly, the research also found that there seems to be a correlation between the age of a child and a local authority’s approach to reunification: the possibility of older children ‘voting with their feet’ was considered. The age of a young person was identified by local authorities as being an influence on the pace of the reunification process once the decision that a child may return home had been made.
Of final note was the report's discovery of a number of barriers against local authorities applying effective practices based on research evidence, and what should be in place for an authority to carry out successful reunification processes. The research goes on to acknowledge the necessary importance of communication with families, perhaps using an independent third party uninvolved with any aspect of a child’s accommodation and/or care placement. Emphasis was also placed on the significance of professionals understanding the local structure of support provision, as well as any weaknesses in this provision being addressed swiftly and effectively.
The full study is available to view and download here, and the additional documents accompanying the study are available on the government’s website.