New centres aim to cut the number of Lancashire children in care - and better support those who are
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Lancashire County Council’s cabinet has given the go-ahead to the creation of two new adolescent support units in the Central and Eastern parts of the county.
A separate reception centre will also be introduced in Central Lancashire. Suitable sites have yet to be identified for any of the facilities.
The support units are intended to provide assistance to youngsters who are described as being “on the edge of care” - and those who have been in care and are at the point of returning to their families.
The facilities will deliver outreach services – including family therapy, parenting classes and one-to-one support – designed to rebuild relationships which may be at risk of crumbling or have previously broken down. They will also be used for young people whose foster care placements have failed.
Overnight respite breaks will be provided at the weekend for children aged 10 and above.
Meanwhile, the reception centre will offer placements for anything up to 28 days to allow for the assessment of youngsters who need an immediate place of safety – and may ultimately move into a residential facility or be enabled to return home.
Cabinet members heard that the unit, for a maximum of two children at a time, would benefit young people poised to move into a children’s home – and those already living in one by enabling a more managed process.
It would help to reduce “the anxiety of children arriving at a home that already has an established group of children” and lessen the distress for existing residents who “have no idea who may turn up for breakfast”, a council report noted.
“[The assessment centre] is a transition point where…we are able to assess them carefully and sensitively, so that we can either hopefully return them to their family, but if not, to place them [somewhere] that is absolutely right for them and will be a long term solution,” cabinet member for children and young people Phillippa Williamson explained.
The county council launched a new "family safeguarding" model earlier this month, designed to provide earlier intervention and wholesale support for families in order to reduce the numbers of children in care.
County Hall hit an area-wide target last year to reduce the proportion of looked after children living in children’s homes to 8.7 percent – but the figures in Preston, Chorley and South Ribble remain higher than that after 13 more youngsters moved into homes in the 18 months to September 2020.
Rates also remain above the desired level in Fylde, Wyre and Lancaster, in spite of a reduction in two occupied places over the same period.
The new facilities are expected to cost an additional £3m per year to run, but that is expected to be offset by the savings generated by them.
The county’s only existing adolescent support unit, in Lancaster, has generated a four-to-one return on the cost of creating it as a result of the number of children who have been kept out of care. A reception centre also already exists elsewhere in the county.
At the end of September 2020, there were 2,131 looked after children in the Lancashire County Council area, which excludes Blackpool and Blackburn. Currently, 202 of them reside in children’s homes.
The majority – 73 percent – live in homes provided by agencies at a total cost of £578,000 per week. The weekly cost for each place depends on the needs of the individual, but can range from £2,500 to £9,500.
The remainder live in local authority children’s homes, with a total weekly bill of £142,000 – a basic cost of £2,600 per child per week. The county council says that the cost difference requires it to increase the use of in-house provision and “consider carefully our use of agency placements”.
Under the plans approved by cabinet – which include an overarching strategy for looked after children for the next three years – the county will reduce the number of mainstream placements from 48 to 36, something which it hopes will be enabled by the creation of the new adolescent support units.
It will increase the available “complex” placements by nine for children who may not currently be able to have their needs met close to home – and so are generally found places elsewhere via independent providers. The plan is to introduce smaller local accommodation with higher staff ratios to provide council-run facilities for the needs of such young people.
Lancashire is already above the national average for the proportion of its looked after children who are provided with placements within the county’s own borders – 75 percent compared to 58 percent nationally. However, the county council acknowledged that those young people who are sent elsewhere “wish to be returned to their community”.
The authority’s leader, Geoff Driver, said of the planned new arrangements that they were designed for children who are “by definition…disadvantaged”.
“When they come into our care, every single county councillor is a corporate parent, so it’s absolutely vital that we do our best for them,” he added.