A child lived in 57 different places while in contact with social services, according to “troubling” research into the care system.
More than 200 children in one area were studied over 10 years by a team led by Cardiff University’s Dr Sophie Hallett.
She found children were moved nine times on average and saw seven different social workers.
While disruption could be harmful, care could provide a safe and happy environment, her research found.
The social policy expert at the university’s school of social sciences said finding one child had moved 57 times within the system and home was “shocking”.
Dr Hallett and her colleagues looked at the case files of all 205 children and teenagers, aged nine to 18, who were involved with a council’s children’s services in 2006.
Research into the unnamed authority in south Wales revealed one in three children had been sexually abused at some point in their lives – a much higher proportion than expected.
It also found:
- 70% suffered emotional abuse in the past
- 58% had experienced violence
- Half had been neglected by parents before going into care
For them it’s disruption, it’s rejection, a sense of loss and that can be really harmful. They begin to not trust people
In 2017-18, there were 6,407 looked after children in Wales – up 8% on the previous year – 10% of these had at least three care placements.
Dr Hallett’s study included all the moves in a child’s life that caused disruption, such as being homeless, living with friends and relatives or going into custody.
“You have a young person where all the relationships have broken down and they might not feel safe in residential or foster care so they might start sofa-surfing and moving around – it’s shocking,” she said.
“And nine times is shocking, but we need to be able to celebrate care for what it can be – which is providing a safe and happy environment for children who are not safe or happy.”
Dr Hallett said children could feel like they were being rejected, which could be “really harmful” and mean they started not trusting people.
This could leave them vulnerable to sexual exploitation, especially if there was nowhere safe for them to go.
“It’s not this sanitised idea of children packing their bags and moving onto the next place, these are children who are trying to settle, may have experienced abuse or rejection, and yet they’re being moved and moved.
“What happens is they have to keep trying to form relationships, to try to settle into this other home environment and that becomes really problematic for them.”
I have kind of gone more and more missing… So for example, like I get too many things from all of these people and my head just goes
She also said residential care should not be seen as a last resort.
“We need to be looking at what is the best place for this child to be and – unfortunately – residential care is seen as a negative and maybe that is the right and the first and the best option for these children.”
The Welsh Government is introducing targets to cut the number of children in local authority care as councils have reported soaring costs as the rate of children separated from their families increases.
The rate is significantly higher in Wales than in England and Northern Ireland.
Scotland’s rate is higher still, but it has fallen in recent years while Wales’ has continued to rise.
Dr Hallett, who spent six weeks in a residential home as part of her research and interviewed foster parents and young people, said social workers and those working in care homes felt their work revolved around managing risky behaviours, but did not have the resources to focus on deeper causes.
Foster carers were frustrated and angry about the lack of support for them and the children they looked after.
One-to-one work and engaging young people with activities or addressing confidence and self-esteem were likely to be beneficial, the study found.
The Welsh Government said: “When a child is taken into care, the local authority will seek to place the child in a stable placement where they can be kept safe and thrive.
“We are supporting local authorities to deliver this by recruiting more foster carers, and developing residential accommodation for children with the most complex needs.”