Page last updated at 23:46 GMT, Monday, 13 July 2009 00:46 UK

Family life 'more harm than good'?

A pupil at Kibble residential school
About 15,000 young people in Scotland are 'looked after' by the state

By Samantha Poling
BBC Scotland

Society tells us that all a child needs to grow up happy and healthy is a loving family. But what if a child's family is actually doing more harm than good?

A BBC Scotland investigation into children looked after by social work departments has revealed surprising evidence which raises the issue of whether more children should be taken away from their families and placed into care.

The common assumption is that a family is the best place for a child. But what about families where drug use, violence and other problems mean that parents can't care for their children?

The system currently says that children should only be taken away from their parents as a final option. But as this investigation reveals, this could be just as much a prejudice as a view based on evidence.

In Scotland, there are 15,000 children who are what is called "looked after". That's when the state intervenes in a child's upbringing, commonly because its own parents cannot cope.

Poor qualifications

Many of these 15,000 looked after children in Scotland will be placed in foster or residential care, yet surprisingly over half of them will remain with their parents or go to live with relatives under social work supervision.

So is there substantial evidence to support the fact that so many children remain in the care of their families? BBC Scotland spent months trying to find solid evidence which supports this theory, but discovered that there is only one indicator published - exam results.

They show that children living at home or with relatives do considerably worse than those who go into the care system.

More than half of those staying at home won't get a single qualification; with twice as many children living in residential care achieving Maths and English than those who remain with their families.

Almost all councils had workers with more than 20 cases, with at least five areas having them working with more than 30 cases

Part of the explanation for using the family may be that it is cheaper. All 32 Scottish local authorities were asked how much they spent per child who was living with their family as opposed to children in residential care. Only three could provide the information.

All of those spent significantly less on children living with their family than in residential care. In one local authority, Aberdeen, for every £60 spent on a child in residential care, only £1 was spent on the child who stayed with their family.

Social work expert, Donald Forrester, said: "The tragedy is that our perception that family is best for children, or our prejudice about that, and the government's wish to save money, go hand in hand to say we should reduce the number of children in care, when in fact the evidence doesn't support that at all."

The programme hears allegations that placements with families are cheaper because Social Work in the Community is being under-resourced.

BBC Scotland contacted frontline social workers to ask them. One said that the drive to save money means there aren't enough social workers on the ground, which in turn means that children who remain with their families are not being monitored properly.

Caseload pressure

After the tragic death of Victoria Climbie, who died after years of neglect, a 2003 inquiry recommended that no social worker should have a caseload of more than 14 children.

The caseload situation in Scotland has never been known, until now.

As part of the investigation, Freedom of Information requests were sent out to all Scottish councils asking about caseloads.

Of all the 32 councils contacted, less than half responded with details. The figures were concerning.

The average caseload was 19 - well in excess of the recommended maximum. Almost all councils had workers with more than 20 cases, with at least five areas having them working with more than 30 cases.

Social workers were reporting that the inability to get to grips with their workload was because they had too many children on their books.

Donald Forrester said of caseloads: "Some of these local authorities, the average figure was over 30 children that the social worker is working with. How can they possibly really know each of those children and their needs, let alone actually work with the family to create change?"

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