Another Black Hole In The Making

The budget proposal for Children’s Residential services could not be more opaque. A £1.6m cuts target has been set against Birmingham’s Children’s Homes in the Draft Budget going to the Council meeting on the 26th February but any decisions on service closures will be deferred against the outcome of two service reviews which could report as late as December 2013.

The avoidance of hard decisions may also reflect the genuine difficulties of how to make these cuts which also assume significant changes in the way other Children’s social care services work. Some 200 children out of nearly 2,000 children in care in Birmingham currently live in residential placements including the Council’s Children’s Homes.

Unlike Birmingham’s failing child protection services Ofsted has rated the City’s Looked after services to be adequate and the large majority of Children’s Homes are rated as outstanding or good.

The Draft budget sets out to protect funding for front-line social work, child protection and fostering teams but identifies Children’s Residential care for the closures of a further 4 Children’s Homes, on top of the 5 Homes currently being closed as part of the 2012-13 budget cuts.

So what does the Draft budget tell us:

Closure of Respite Care for children for disabilities is back on the agenda

The draft budget announces the review of “the provision of respite through traditional residential care. For the majority of children and families more flexible packages of support are appropriate – we will retain some residential respite provision…”

This did not appear in the Budget factsheets that formed part of the consultation. During the Consultation over the Budget 2012-13 parents from Charles House successfully waged a campaign to stop the respite care unit from being closed. Questions have to be asked as to why they weren’t consulted this time round.

Loss of in-house Children’s Home placements

There will be a net decrease in in-house residential places but there is no direct reference to Home closures. It is claimed that the proposed increase in foster carers will mean that fewer residential places will be needed in the future.

Reducing in-house provision and increasing the use of private and voluntary provider to provide residential placements is referred to obliquely in the Budget consultation fact sheets, and appears again in the draft budget where “part of the process of consultation and development will be to identify… which groups will benefit more from care offered in the private and voluntary sector, for example smaller homes.”

What has happened recently is that as the Council has closed homes we have seen a related rise in the number of privately provided Children’s Homes. OFSTED figures show that between 2009 and 2012 in-house provision in Birmingham declined from 22 to 16 homes while over the same period privately sector homes increased from 30 to 33.

A Heroic presumption

The Council is proposing to reduce the number of looked after children which includes children placed in Children’s residential care by shifting the balance of the Children and Young People’s Budget towards early intervention and preventative services. The intention is that more children and young people will be kept within their families and there will be an increase in internal foster placements for those young people crossing the threshold of care.

To achieve this ‘we propose to shift the profile of spend over the next three years as follows:

  • from 43% on acute (including services for children in care) services to 30%
  • from 46% on targeted support to 69% (this includes those children and young people who are in need of protection and disabled children)’

Never before has there been such a massive realignment of resources to services in the context of massive year on year cuts and over such a short time period. The Brighter Futures transformation programme which ran from 2008 to 2011 was based on this same assumption of frontloading early intervention and preventative services, and did not deliver such a dramatic change in the configuration of services and outcomes for young people.

Birmingham City Council is also piloting a Payment by Results scheme to develop services for young people at the edge of care. An unproven methodology, which encourages Private sector providers to game their results for profit.

There is a significant risks of a wholesale destabilisation of Children’s Social Care of making these service changes without adequate resources.

Words of caution

At Page 159 of the Draft Budget the practical consequences of what is being proposed start to be considered. The suitability and availability of alternative foster placements as an alternative to Residential placements for some young people comes into question:

‘This is based on the premise that children will be found foster/family placements. Such placements may not be easily available. Also, children coming out of these homes will be competing for places for foster/family placements with other children who have been assessed for care.’

And ‘… any reduction in Children’s Homes will affect the number of internal placements available.’

These difficulties have become apparent in the current round of home closures where a recent progress report to Cabinet states ‘there has been a rise in foster care recruitment recently but it is still uncertain as to how many foster carers will be able to care for more challenging young people.’

Critical questions

In principle, keeping children at home and within their families and out of care is a desirable policy, where they are not experiencing significant harm.

We cannot campaign to keep one or two children’s homes in isolation from the wider proposed policies relating to children’s social care and most importantly the ways these changes in services will impact on young people.

We have to fundamentally question the practicability of the proposed policies to re-distribute and deploy resources within children’s social care in the context of £22m of cuts and their likely impact on vulnerable young people.

The Labour Cabinet needs to be challenged to answer these questions:

  • What proportion of residential care is to be provided through future contracts with the private and voluntary sector?
  • How has the Council assessed the needs of looked after young people to make the determination as to the balance and supply foster and residential placements?
  • In making decisions about the range of care what consideration will be given to proving young people with an effective choice of placements?
  • If the Service Review does not conclude until December how will £1.6m cut will have to be made in the final quarter of the financial year?

There are important arguments about the range and type of services that will best meet the needs of young people who cannot be looked after within their own family and how this will be adequately funded. There is also a related and significant issue of how to ensure the quality of those Residential children’s care services so that they provide the best possible experience and outcomes for young people in care.

What we know is that what is driving the Council is not best policy for looked after children but how to yield the axe to core services to cut the budget. We have to fight for a vision for a better future for our young people as well as engage in defensive struggles to keep publically provided Children’s Homes open.

An Activist From West Midlands Social Work Action Network

1. Report of the Strategic Director of Children Young People & Families on CHILDREN IN CARE STRATEGY PROPOSED RESIDENTIALL HOME CLOSURES (CHAMBERLAIN HOUSE, FOUNTAIN ROAD, KINGS LODGE, SOUTH ACRE AND VISCOUNT HOUSE) 19th November 2012

All other references are to ‘Budget for Birmingham – Business Plan and Budget 2013+’

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