Turning away from the public sector in children's out-of-home care: An English experiment

Stanley, Nicky orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-7644-1625, Austerberry, Helen, Bilson, Andy orcid iconORCID: 0000-0003-1243-2663, Farrelly, Nicola orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-9006-335X, Hussein, Shereen, Larkins, Cath orcid iconORCID: 0000-0003-2999-6916, Manthorpe, Jill and Ridley, Julie orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-0879-308X (2012) Turning away from the public sector in children's out-of-home care: An English experiment. Children and Youth Services Review, 35 (1). pp. 33-39. ISSN 0190-7409

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Official URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2012.10.010


This paper reports on the evaluation of an English experiment which, for the first time, moved statutory social work support for children and young people in out-of-home care from the public to the private or independent sector. Five social work practices (SWPs), independent or semi-independent of local government, were established and evaluated using a matched control design with integrated process evaluation. Social work teams in the public sector, selected to correspond to key characteristics of the SWP sites, provided control sites.

While most SWPs were perceived to be accessible and user-friendly organizations, children's and young people's accounts showed no differences between pilots and control sites in terms of workers' accessibility and responsiveness. Perceptions of SWP staff's decision-making were mixed. SWP staff reported spending more time in direct face-to-face work with children and families but this was attributed to reduced caseload size and a tight remit which excluded child protection work rather than to decreased bureaucracy. SWP staff morale was generally found to be high in terms of depersonalization and social support, reflecting an emphasis on staff supervision in these organizations. However, this was offset by slightly higher job insecurity which reflected the precariousness of employment in the independent as opposed to state sector.

Staff retention varied between the SWPs, but although children and young people in the pilots were more likely to retain their key worker than those in control sites, they experienced disruption in the move into SWPs and back to public services when SWP contracts were not renewed. While some SWPs succeeded in reducing placement change rates for children and young people, a policy of switching placement providers to achieve flexibility and savings increased placement change rates in some SWPs. SWPs did not achieve financial independence from the local authority commissioners with only one assuming full responsibility for managing the placement budget. Payment by results was not used consistently. None of the commissioners interviewed considered that the SWP model had resulted in savings.

The study highlighted the interdependence of public and private sectors. As small organizations, most of the SWPs succeeded in offering an accessible and personalized service, and public services should consider reorganizing to achieve similar outcomes. However, this evaluation found that contracted-out organizations struggled to provide children in out-of home care with the consistency and continuity they require.

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