5,500 Children in Care Who Could Be With Their Families: CFAB’s FOI Findings Revealed

In August 2021, CFAB sent Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to 211 UK local authorities to gather data on the number of Looked After Children (LAC) who had family members abroad explored as potential carers. We asked how many placements occurred and which placement orders were used. With one in three children in the UK having at least one foreign born parent, there are many LAC with family overseas who are willing and able to care for them, but these placements often go unexplored as a result of their international location. This report highlights our concern that many LAC are being denied their right to family and the need for greater monitoring and guidance to ensure that support for overseas placements is on par with what a child would receive in the UK.  

The Data  

The data we uncovered revealed both the low rates of international placements and data recording - the requests had a 94% response rate from the local authorities, however, only 40% of local authorities were able to provide answers to all three questions. The key stats for each question are detailed as follows:  

The first area of enquiry regarded the total number of LAC who had family members outside the United Kingdom explored.   

  • Consistent with the findings from CFAB’s 2015-2017 FOI, over half of local authorities (52%) could not provide CFAB with a response to this question.    
  • 39% of local authorities that responded stated they explored family members abroad as possible carers of LAC in 2018-2020. This has dropped from 49% in 2015-2017.
  • Of those local authorities that did respond, an estimated 233 LAC had family abroad explored as potential carers in 2018-2020, a rise from 202 in the previous FOI.

The second area of enquiry concerned the number of LAC that were placed outside the United Kingdom

Out of the local authorities we sent FOI requests to, 17% could not provide a response, with the most common reason given that the information was not centrally collated or available in an extractable format. This is despite that this information is required in the SSDA903 statistical returns to the Department for Education.  

  • Of those which responded, only 24% of local authorities placed a LAC abroad in the three-year period, a similar figure to the 2015-2017 data of 23%.  
  • An estimated 112 LAC were placed with family members abroad in 2018-2020, which is 9 fewer than in 2015-2017. A decrease was expected as, in 2020, the pandemic resulted in many border closures.  

The final area of enquiry was regarding the number and type of placement orders used when placing LAC overseas.

  • 18% of local authorities could not provide and a response, and the most common response was that the order used to place a LAC was unspecified (41%)  
  • 18 (29%) of the responses were ‘Care Orders’ I.e. a Full Care Order, Interim Care Order, Adoptive Placement Order or Child Arrangement Order.      
  • Similarly, to the 2015-2017 findings, among those specified, the most common order used to place LAC abroad was a Special Guardianship Orders (33% in 2018-2020, 45% in 2015-2017) followed by Full Care Orders (30% in 2018-2020, 24% in 2015-2017).  This raises questions about the sending local authority’s ability to exercise rights over the child once the child is outside jurisdiction.    

Analysis of Findings  

Overall, the numbers of LACs with families abroad explored has risen since the 2018 data has risen, but the number of local authorities exploring these type of placements has actually dropped. It is encouraging to see that more children in care are having potential family carers abroad explored. This suggests the child's right to family - a fundamental aspect of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Children's Act 1989 - is being better upheld. However, it is worrying that the number of local authorities exploring family abroad has dropped. It seems that those local authorities considering overseas care are doing so more regularly. Although the number of children who were actually placed with family abroad was lower than the previous FOI request, by 7%, the pandemic is likely to account for this.  

So, whilst there are some positive improvements from individual local authorities, the overall picture still shows a significant need for more exploration of family abroad as potential carers for LAC, with current placement numbers shocking low. In 2019 there were over 104,000 LAC, with 42 of these children being placed in international placements, representing only .04%. CFAB estimates that there are at least 18,500 children in care with family members abroad in England and Wales.  If this is the best option for them, using a conservative placement rate of 30%, there are 5,500 children that are currently in care that could be with their families.

The challenges of obtaining the data highlight CFAB’s concern that, without the data, we don’t know if support for overseas kinship placements is on par with what a child would experience in the UK. CFAB’s Safe, Secure and Thriving campaign calls for the improvement in the quality of the data gathered and its regular publication and analysis, so the true number of children placed abroad is known and their outcomes evaluated. Without official governmental monitoring and guidance for overseas placement, the risks to these already vulnerable children are hidden and often missed by sending authorities.

CFAB believes that international placements are hugely positive, often resulting in family reunification and preventing a child from going into foster care. We would hope to see a higher number than 39% of local authorities exploring international placements for LAC, with current numbers of LAC being placed abroad being extremely low. However, it is essential they are in the best interest of the child, and that the right support systems are in place to prevent a placement breakdown that can leave a child even more vulnerable. As such, CFAB’s campaign calls for support for overseas kinship placements to be on par with what a child would experience in England, and that a high-quality contingency plan, is written for all children before they are placed overseas. The data gathered in this report is essential to CFAB’s work of upholding the right to family and protecting children overseas.    

Learn more about CFAB’s Safe, Secure and Thriving Campaign here, and you can read the full report and findings here.