Are “corporate parents” the answer to a lack of clarity in the care system?

The plight of children in care is an issue of immense public and political concern. In her keynote speech at party conference last week, an impassioned Nicola Sturgeon insisted, “we can’t ignore the reality for many children in care,”[1] while earlier this year, David Cameron declared that children in care have been “let down for too long”.[2]

It is inevitable that children entering the care system are vulnerable – it is not inevitable that they remain so when they leave. Why then do so many looked after children leave school without GCSEs? Why do they disproportionately face mental health problems, homelessness, perhaps even a spell in prison in later life? Why, despite our best efforts, is the care system failing, with such disastrous consequences for those it is meant to help?

The idea of the “corporate parent”, which has taken off in children’s social care, brings us to the core of the issue. It refers to the principle that “the local authority, collectively with other relevant services, should have the same aspirations and provide the same kind of care that any good parent would provide for their own children.”[3] The number of people and organisations considered to be “corporate parents” is vast. It encompasses not only those councillors and council officers who have responsibility for children’s services, but all those who work for the local authority. It also involves a huge range of “other relevant agencies” such as CCGs, Police and Crime Commissioners, and independent providers of children services.  A child in care has not just one or two corporate parents, but thousands.

This might seem like a good idea. Outcomes of looked-after children are determined by not only children’s services, but by a wide range of departments and organisations – all of whom should consider the impact of their decisions on children in care. It is well known that looked-after children experience enormous levels of disadvantage. The more people fighting their corner, the better – right?

Wrong. During research for a report into the outsourcing of children’s services, to be released later this week, Demos uncovered a distinct lack of clarity around who is responsible for what when it comes to children’s services. The breadth of the term corporate parenting, which is “common parlance”[4] in the sector, simply reflects this lack of clarity.

Clearly defined roles and responsibilities are critical to the delivery of high quality children’s services. Dividing up responsibilities amongst different agencies avoids duplication and an inefficient use of resources. More importantly, it means that those with the best knowledge of the child have a strong say over the management of their case – and can also be held accountable for what happens to the child. As things stand, everyone is responsible for looked-after children, and for precisely that reason, no-one is accountable.

Clarity is more important now than ever. Increased outsourcing to independent providers, along with the adoption of alternative delivery models (e.g. independent trusts) are both trends which involve more organisations in the delivery of children’s services. We heard of numerous occasions in which a local authority and independent provider disagreed over how best to meet the needs of a child. It was usually the local authority that got their way, given their power as purchaser.

It seems sensible that the people most directly involved in looking after a child in care – whether that’s a local authority or an independent provider – should have a strong voice in what happens to the child. Part of the reason we give parents such important roles is because of their day-to-day contact with the child – they have a sharp understanding of what the child wants from life, and what they need to succeed. Why not apply the same principle to children in care, assigning the role of a “primary corporate parent” to the organisation with the closest relationship to the child?

Some might worry that assigning a primary corporate parent would hinder collaborative working within the sector – that the primary corporate parent would simply veto decisions they didn’t like. However, the suggestion here is not that they should have the power to make every decision about the child unilaterally. Parents don’t have this power, so why should corporate parents? More debate would be needed to determine the exact roles and responsibilities of the role, but it is more likely to include the right to express a preference (like a parent’s right to express school preference) or the right to be consulted (like a parent’s right to be consulted during the production of an EHC plan).

Many local authorities use their corporate parenting strategy simply to explain how they plan to improve services or outcomes for children in care. Taking an alternative approach by assigning a primary corporate parent could promote effective joint working, strengthen the voices of those who know the child best, and improve accountability. What this translates to in real terms is something we all want: more children in care going on to lead the happy, healthy and successful lives they deserve.