Plans for 10 new children’s homes in Hertfordshire are a step closer, after councillors agreed a £2.42million package to support vulnerable young people in care. With a higher proportion of older children being ‘looked after’, the demand for places at the county council’s four children’s homes has risen.
And that has forced the authority to increasingly rely on independent care homes and foster carers, which can be ‘out of county’ and costly.
Some children have been placed more than 100 miles away from their families - in placements that can last years.
Others have even been placed with carers in ‘unregistered’ accommodation - including holiday cottages - until a more permanent place became available.
And some of the placements have been costing the council up to £10,000 per child per week.
On Monday (September 23) members of the county council’s cabinet agreed to invest £1.144million in a new ‘residential strategy’, which includes the creation of 10 children’s homes in Hertfordshire.
A further £286,000 will go into the recruitment and support of foster carers and £770,000 into a new ‘adolescent response team’, designed to keep young people out of care.
It’s been estimated that, by 2023/4, the investment - which will also require capital funding of £5.43million - could save the county council up to £3.6million a year.
But it’s also recognised that placing children closer to home - allowing them to stay at the same school, maintain family relationships and access support from council services - will be better for the young people too.
“It will mean we can keep the children closer,” said the county council’s operations director for specialist services Marion Ingram.
“It will mean the children will be able to maintain relationships that are positive and they also get to stay at the same school.
“Looked after children lose everything when we take them into care and when we put them far away it’s harder for them to re-establish that.”
The need for the additional care homes reflects both a national shortage of care places - with care homes concetrated in areas ofthe country where property is less expensive - and the changing profile of ‘looked after’ children in Hertfordshire.
Ms Ingram says the county council has been working hard to keep younger children out of care and with their families whenever possible.
But while that’s resulted in fewer children in care overall, those children who are in care are now likely to be older and to have more complex needs.
And it’s that changing profile that has made it harder to find suitable foster placements and increased the demand for care home places and more specialised support.
Just 18 months ago there were around 45 Hertfordshire children living in care homes - but now that figure is around 65.
Ms Ingram says there have been times when the county council hasn’t been able to secure a place at all - from any of the 300 providers nationwide.
And on these occasions they have had to use ‘unregistered’ accommodation, including holiday cottages, usually for a week or two.
“Over the last 18 months we have had to use unregistered placements on a number of occasions,” she said.
“And that’s because we haven’t been able to find placements anywhere in the country, because of the complex needs.
“Almost every local authority is using unregistered care homes at the moment.
“It’s got to a point where nationally we recognise that we don’t have enough - and we don’t have the right workforce.”
Although work on some of the planned children’s homes is due to start immediately - some will require funds from a capital bid of £5.43million, which will be part of the council’s budget process.
It is expected that most - if not all - of the homes will be converted from buildings already in the ownership of the county council.
According to the plan, one of the homes will be run by the county council and the remainder will be run by private providers, on block contracts.
Meanwhile the package of funding agreed by the cabinet will also be used to recruit and support more foster carers - who look after the vast majority of the county’s 800 ‘looked after’ children.
Despite the need for care homes, Ms Ingram stresses that the ideal world be for all of Hertfordshire’s children in care to live with foster carers.
She says this would offer children the experience of positive and nurturing family relationships that they may not have had previously.
The council now intends to review foster carer payments and allowances, particularly for children with higher needs, and the support provided, particularly for adolescents and those with higher needs.
Processes willl also be reviewed to reduce the time taken to follow up enquiries.
At the meeting of the cabinet executive member for children, young people and families Cllr Teresa Heritage highlighted the rising costs of independent placements - which she said had increased by 30 per cent since March 2017.
And she said the investment in the new homes would not only remove some of the cost pressure, but would mean better outcomes for more young people.
Cllr Terry Douris, executive member for education, libraries and localism, said he welcomed the proposal, saying that life had not been good to these young people and anything that gave the a better chance was to be welcomed.
And council leader David Williams pointed to the council’s positive track record in terms of investment made to transform services.