In January 2024, the NSPCC and Action for Children published ‘Home Again’, a report considering the potential benefits of reunification, following research conducted into local authorities’ existing reunification practices.
Reunification refers to children in care returning to the family home and the care of their parent(s) following a period in care.
The report is related to the ‘Big Ask’ survey, and ‘Stable Homes, Built on Love’, two publications from early 2023. The picture from these reports was one of a system that is not currently sufficiently protecting children or ensuring that children in care are given the best opportunities.
The concerns in these reports have not improved. The number of children in care continues to rise and is at a record level. Sir Andrew MacFarlane recently opined that austerity was contributing to the record number of children in care. The cost-of-living crisis compounds this and further contributes to both the number of children in care and the issues faced by local authorities trying to care for children.
Numerous recommendations were made within the ‘Stable Homes, Built on Love’ report. Generally,, these focus on preventing children from entering care. However, the NSPCC and Action for Children have identified a potential gap in the recommendations that could have benefits for both families and local authorities: the reunification of children with their families. They published their research and recommendations in ‘Home Again’ in January 2024.
Primary research was completed by the NSPCC and Action for Children, although they acknowledge that further research is necessary. A survey drew responses from 75 of 153 local authorities and they also conducted semi-structured interviews with senior staff from some local authorities.
Some of the key findings of the research were:
In short, there is interest in and recognised benefits of reunification, but on the whole local authorities lack guidance and resources to develop clear reunification strategies to unlock its potential.
Some local authorities had taken novel approaches and reported good results. For example, one respondent advised that in some cases they had assisted families with financial barriers to reunification, such as rent arrears preventing parents getting social housing. This authority noted that it is worth paying for this to have a child reunified and save on the cost of an expensive local authority placement. This pragmatic approach is something for authorities to consider in appropriate cases.
The report notes that it is a key principle of the Children Act and international law that children should live with their families wherever possible. A good reunification practice significantly increases the prospects of children remaining at home and not re-entering the care system.
The benefits of this are twofold:
The NSPCC and Action for Children argue that resources can be better spent on reunification rather than funding placements which may well break down. Placement breakdown is common and can cause harm to children in care.
Local authorities that were focusing on reunification reported both benefits – they were seeing more children successfully returning home and making savings which one authority reported amounted to £2m per year.
However further research is needed, and funding is crucial. It appears the authorities who responded to the survey appreciated the possible benefits, but a lack of funding and resources were significant barriers to them implementing changes. The NSPCC and Action for Children call for help from the Government, political parties, and local government leaders to further explore reunification and assist local authorities with implementing new guidance.
On reading the report it is clear that the benefits of reunification are such that this is undoubtedly an area worthy of further research and funding.
Reunification reaps multiple benefits for the children, their families, and the local authority. However national guidance as to best practice would be beneficial. Reunification must be done in a planned manner with support for families to have the best chance of success. A failed reunification may cause further damage to children. Furthermore, it must be ensured that children are only reunified in appropriate cases. Care will need to be taken where there are any concerns of abuse or neglect to ensure that additional harm is not caused to vulnerable children.
To date, the Government has provided no response to this report. We await any comment they may have with interest. It is clear that there is potential for significant benefits if reunification is encouraged on a national level, with the requisite support for families and children both before and after reunification.
For more information, please contact Anna Churchill, File Handler.
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