By Matt Jarram, Local Democracy Reporter
Nottingham City Council can pay up to £220,000 a year per child to support some of the most complex children in care – as the number of children being removed from parents rises during the pandemic.
Service leaders have lifted the lid on the scale of the problem which is now starting to eat away a quarter of the local authority’s budget.
The Labour-run authority is currently supporting 715 children in care – a rise from 650 just two years ago.
Sometimes a shortage of options, such as placing a child with foster families or at a residential children’s home, means it must turn to external providers to deliver the service on its behalf.
According to the council, external agencies can “name their price” with an average cost of £4,228 a week for the most complex children in the city.
Currently, around 80 children are with external providers.
However, the council says it will not be ‘held hostage’ and has ‘block arrangements’ with providers to drive the costs down.
The council has a statutory duty to look after children in care and the cost of running the service is constantly rising, partly due to the pandemic.
Cllr Cheryl Barnard (Lab), portfolio holder for children and young people, and a foster carer herself, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “It is not just the numbers, but in the complexity needs of the children we are having to take into care.
“Covid has really impacted on children – the isolation, the school closures, being home schooled and just the general additional pressures and poverty on families means that parents have been unable to cope.
“There has been an increase in domestic violence, parents taking to self-medication such as increase in drugs and alcohol which has exasperated family dynamics.
“Less money coming in, poverty increased, and it is a whole picture that has impacted on families and then the children we are having to take into care.”
She said court delays due to the pandemic have also meant adoption orders have taken much longer than planned.
“There is more coming into care than leaving care because of the delays and that’s the bit we are looking at,” she added.
Mary-Anne Cosgrove, Head of Children’s Regulated Services at Nottingham City Council, added: “Covid has had a huge impact on the mental health of the whole family. Some children can be quite hard to engage with and can be violent and self-harming. It can be difficult to place them in a foster family.
“We work very hard with families to try and turn things around – it is the whole family not just mum and dad. We try and help them change and it is often they are overwhelmed by life.
“To move a child from a family is one of the most serious things you can ever do – you have to be convinced it is the right thing and there is no other option. We try whenever we can to keep them within the family, as long as it is safe.”
The council currently has six mainstream residential homes, one home dedicated to children with complex needs and five semi-independent units for young people who are 16 years and over.
There are now plans for a new four-bed home to be opened next year as well as a contract with a not-for-profit organisation for another 10-bed home.
Currently there are also 180 foster carers looking after around 240 of its children. However, recruitment has been difficult during the pandemic and some carers are leaving the service as they move into older age.
The council therefore wants to drive the number up.
Mrs Cosgrove said: “One of our issues is our carers really commit to these children – they are a long-term match, and you can’t introduce new children.
“We have a lot of them going on to adopt the children or guardianship which is wonderful. That’s why we need new ones all the time because we get new children coming in.
“We have foster parents that are getting older. Carers we have had for years who are too old to take on any other children.
“It has also been harder for people (during the pandemic) – they are worried about having people in their home. It has had a big impact on recruitment.”
However, despite these options, the council can still be forced to turn to external providers to place some of the city’s most complex children.
Cllr Barnard said: “The shortage of external residential placements means providers can ‘name their price most of the time’ especially for complex children. You hesitate and the place has gone. Sometimes we are having to pay a lot more than we would like to.”
She said if a child is placed with one of these providers at age 13, the council must pay the cost every week until they turn 18, at “a huge cost to the service.”
There is also the added worry as the council faces dramatic financial decisions in order to balance its budget.
The cash-strapped authority is already having to find £38m of savings over the next four years – £28m of which will need to be made next year.
This includes controversial proposals to close six of its nine children’s centres, a lifeline for struggling parents, which ‘risks’ driving more children into the care system.
Cllr Barnard: “That is a worry, because the preventative work we do with families is not a statutory service. When we are looking to save money, we can’t save it through statutory services.
“We have to look at the other things we provide and quite often they are the things that prevent family situations getting worse.
“We have been lucky to keep so many of our children’s centres and some are attached to schools now.
“To contemplate closing some of our children’s centres is a drastic measure and it is only because we need to save money because our statutory costs are going up.
“While we will be working out of three centres and using them as hubs, we will be making sure for the most vulnerable families there are things in their neighbourhoods that they can access.
“Parents are telling me how it helps their mental health and how it helps them with their parenting skills and reducing isolation, so it is really important.
“When we are making the decision on which ones we intend to close we will be looking at local need, footfall, and whether there is other nursery provision children could go to.”
Talking about whether the council needs more children’s homes in Nottingham to cope with the demand, Mrs Cosgrave said: “I would not put a number on how many more residential children’s homes we need.
“What we need is in-house provision and block contracts – good providers that we trust. We need that mixed market.
“If we over-invest and don’t need them then that would be a cost. It is a balancing act. The extra children’s homes (planned for next year) will make a big difference.”
If you are interested in fostering a child, you can visit https://www.nottinghamcity.gov.uk/foster. Alternatively you can email [email protected] or call 0115 876 3335