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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Children coming into care

One of the most difficult decisions a child protection worker must make, is whether or not to bring a child into care. In a 2007 study, Joseph Doyle from MIT in the United States concluded "Large marginal treatment effect estimates suggest caution in the interpretation, but the results suggest that children on the margin of placement tend to have better outcomes when they remain at home, especially for older children"

In a very fascinating presentation available on Doyle's website, he talks about Type I and Type II errors - being False Positive and False Negative errors. Public scrutiny is often placed on Type II errors as these are the ones that lead to deaths of children and thus high profile media cases (Jeffrey Baldwin in Canada and Bapy P or Victoria Climbe in England would be examples). He suggests that not enough attention is given to Type I errors which can lead to children coming into care who should not be there (Logan Marr in the USA is a good example). In his talk, Doyle notes that children at the margin of whether or not they should be brought into foster care ---"Taken together: children at the margin of removal perform better when they remain home:
– Adult Arrests
– Delinquency
– Teen Pregnancy – Employment & Earnings"

A newly published study in the UK looked at the views of children who have come into care. There is quite a bit of fascinating material here. One finding that struck me is that 3 out 10 children either do not know why they are in care or are unsure. Along the lines of what Doyle talks about, 43% believed that, with supports, they could have stayed with their families. The report makes a very valid point on that, however: "We also heard that it is not enough for social workers to say that a family needs help and support, and to refer them for this. The help and support needs to come quickly. If a family needs urgent help to keep a child out of care, children told us that it can be a long time after a referral is made before help actually happens, and things can get worse in the meantime: ‘Help needs to come quickly.’ Appointments for services to help families also need to be at times the family can manage, and need to be often enough for things not to go badly wrong between one appointment and the next." (p.9)

They note that 42% of children thought that they should stay in care as it was the best place for them.

Returning home for children in care is often thought as something that is desirable and should be done quickly. This research suggests that there should be some careful thought into how this is done. "Our discussion groups gave us their ideas on how children’s services should go about reuniting children with their families when this was safe and the right thing for the children concerned. One group suggested having regular respite care for the child once they had returned home. Another stressed that both parents and children need reassurance, and that going back home should not be sudden but gradual, done cautiously and with support to children in getting to know their parents again. We heard that going back home will always bring back underlying issues for both children and parents, and these need to be thought about and dealt with. Both parents and child ‘need to build confidence with them by getting to know them’ again." (pp.14-15)

The children in the study also noted that timing matters. The longer they are out, the harder it is to go back. "f they are returning home, children should go back before it has become too late for it to work, because as time goes on the emotional attachments between children and parents change and may become weaker. As one child put this,
‘The bond that the child used to have will never come back.’ Others described how things had changed after they left home, making it difficult to return later on: ‘As soon as I left home, I did not exist; my picture was taken off the wall.’" (p. 15)

The children were wise in their views about how to make being back home successful. They recognized that it was more than just being there. They need transition support as well as supports that may go on in order to make being back home workable. "A very strong view from many of the children and young people in our groups was that help and support needs to carry on for both children and parents after a child goes home from care. One child summed this up for us: ‘Keep offering the support that a child had while in care – social services shouldn’t just cut us off.’ Another said that in their experience of going back home, ‘It’s like a ghost really – once they are gone they are gone.’ They should not be ‘cutting the ties off straight away’.
Children going home should not have their hobby and interest activities cut off by the move, and the money they had to support their schooling, for clothing and for activities, should not just be cut off when they go home, or that could cause going back home to break down again. One young person explained this and proposed a solution: ‘When young people are in care they receive a lot of stuff that their parents can’t give them so a lot of arguments are caused. The council should give parents something to keep the young person on track.’" (p. 17).

Some very important key messages came out of this research:

1. Social care services should communicate better with children and families – for example, not moving a child to a new placement just after telling them they will be staying in their placement.

2. Parents with mental health problems are less likely to get their children back.

3. There’s more attention paid to you while you’re in care than after you have been sent back home.

4. ‘Give parents more support before taking kids off them.’

5. If family problems really have improved, you can give them a second chance.

6. When siblings are separated and the younger ones are adopted, all the contact between the siblings is stopped. Something should be in place so siblings could still have contact.

7. Being settled in a placement and then being moved is not a good thing

8.‘Don’t take them in care too quickly.’

9. Children should not go home until things have cleared up there.

10. ‘When I moved into care I got told what to do and given more discipline, whereas I’d never had that before. So it was a good thing.’


Doyle, J. (2011). Consequences of Placing Children in Foster Care: Issues in Child Welfare Research. Presentation to the 2011 Children in Court Summit, Princeton N.J. Accesses 2011/05/14 at

Doyle, J. (2007). Child Protection and Child Outcomes: Measuring the Effects of Foster Care American Economic Review 97(5). December 2007: 1583-1610

Morgan, R. (2011). Children on the edge of care: A report of children’s views by the Children’s Rights Director for England. Manchester: Ofsted. Accessed 2011/05/14 at

Tags: child protection; foster care; returning children; Joseph Doyle; Ofsted; views of children;

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