Who is responsible for this child?

A reflection on the Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Children's Social Care Report written by Carolyn Housman, CEO at Children and Families Across Borders.

As a mother of a young child, I often find myself in playgrounds.  When a child falls off the slide and starts crying, there is a collective clamour of parents nearby who rush in to check the child is okay.  Quickly thereafter, the adults look around wondering who is responsible for the child?  Afterall, whoever is caring for the child should be looking out for them, protecting them from dangers large and small.  This is what we expect for any child.  

Yet there is a group of children who do not seem to get that attention when something goes wrong.  Or, if they do, it comes quite late in their lives.  At least this is what the Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Children’s Social Care report suggests.  Children from minoritised communities seem to have less contact from social services when they are young.  When they do have contact with a social worker, in their teenage years, there is often less time between the local authority completing an initial children’s social care referral and these children entering care (Ahmed, James et al., 2022).  The data does not yield much insight as to why this might be.  

We shouldn’t be categorising people, but we don’t have a better option - yet...

Before reflecting on the Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Children’s Social Care report data, or the heavily cited Ethnicity and Children’s Social Care report, it is important to acknowledge that it artificially places children into categories which are, at best, reductionist and aren’t always entirely helpful.  For example, to understand the experience of a Jamaican child, we need to look through data which includes ‘White and Black Caribbean’, ‘Caribbean’, ‘Black’, ‘Any other Black, African or Caribbean background’. The Caribbean has thirteen countries, so imagine the difficulties when trying to understand the experience of a Nigerian child who is classed as 'African' (covering 54 countries) or ‘Black’ or ‘White and Black African’ or ‘Any other Mixed or multiple ethnic background’.  Language is important, and the experience of someone from Nigeria will not be the same as someone from Sudan or Jamaica; nor will the experience of a Canadian be the same as a Ukrainian, but both are classed as ‘White’.  

Nationality (and, separately, ethnicity) is a field that every social worker should fill in when working with a child or family.  Unfortunately, this field is skipped – often for good intentions like building trust – but it can have dire consequences for a child if further support is needed.  Children leave care without settled immigration status. Families flee overseas and social workers have no idea where a vulnerable child has been taken.  

While categorising ethnicities is reductionist, it does help us identify when things are going wrong.

And some things do seem to be going wrong.  

Ethnic groups are treated differently in a way that creates disadvantage

If we can sidestep the challenge of language for a moment, there are two important trends that can be observed:

  • Children from ‘Black’ ethnic groups are overrepresented in care (Ahmed, James, et al., 2022).
  • Nearly a third of social workers reported witnessing racism directed towards families or service users by colleagues or managers in a recent survey (What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care, 2022a).

There is a problem in the system if those who are meant to bring social justice to the disadvantaged and vulnerable of society are discriminating (consciously or unconsciously) against them.  More research is needed into who these ‘Black’ children are and why they are overrepresented in care, as well as how to prevent further harm and promote better practice by the majority of social workers who want to help.  

Unfortunately, when ‘Black’ children experience social care, they seem to face even greater challenges as a result. For example, the Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Children’s Social Care report notes that “Black Caribbean and Any other Black ethnic groups experienced high rates of residential placements, close to 1 in 3” (Ahmed, James, et al., 2022).  Children in residential placements are known to have worse life outcomes than those in non-residential placements, including being more likely to offend (What Works for Children’s Social Care, 2022b).  

Moreover, “children whose ethnic group was Black Caribbean have notably higher proportions (15 – 21%) of experiencing 3 or more placements during the year” (Ahmed, James, et al., 2022).  This is highly disruptive and destabilising for a young person.  It is unsurprising then that the psychological, social and academic outcomes are worse for people who have many changes of placement than for those who do not (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence).  

Ethnic minorities are ‘disappearing’ overseas, and we don’t know why

Finally, there are two interesting statistics related to children and their families.

  • Children from Asian, Black and Any other ethnic groups had high proportions of children returning home or going on to independent living.  Children from these groups also had higher proportions of children leaving care for other reasons such as moving abroad (36 – 40% compared to 26% for all children) (Ahmed, James, et al., 2022).  
  • Children from Asian, Black or Other ethnic groups had comparatively low rates of leaving care to adoption or special guardianship (5 – 7%).  The rate was up to six times higher for White, Mixed and Refused/Missing ethnic groups (30%, 28% and 36% respectively) (Ahmed, James, et al., 2022).  

In the 67 years that Children and Families Across Borders has been operating, we have overseen approximately 20,000 international cases – so we know there is no typical experience for a child and no end to the horrible situations children find themselves in.  Yet, it is surprising to see the assertion that a notable number of children from ‘Black’ or ‘Any other ethnic group’ leave care for other reasons, such as moving abroad.  How significant are these numbers and why do these care leavers move overseas?  Are these the 5% of Looked After Children who are Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children (UASCs) (Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, 2022)?  Or the 10% of Looked After Children with unresolved immigration or citizenship issues (South London Refugees Association, 2021)?  Did they fail to receive settled status whilst being looked after by their local authority and are now forced to leave?  If so, this is worrying given the traumatic experience they have had which “significantly impacts their mental, emotional and physical health” (Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, 2022).  It is also a major financial drain, as the Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Children’s Social Care Report cites: “One study has shown local authorities can potentially save more than £130,000 per child (in some scenarios) by submitting a citizenship application at age 13 instead of waiting until the young person reaches the age of 18” (South London Refugee Association, 2021).  

In a similar vein, it might be that these are children with heritage from another country, so perhaps are they now returning to that country to reconnect with family there?  If so, why weren’t these family members explored as carers for them, as seems to be the case for ‘White’ children (for whom 30% leave care through adoption or Special Guardianship)?  Even though the report cites SSDA903 returns as the source, CFAB’s own Freedom of Information request to local authorities showed that effectively 0% of children in care are reunited with family overseas (Children and Families Across Borders, 2022).  

So, who are these Black children leaving care to move abroad?  The lack of understanding of these children’s’ experiences tarnishes what should be an exemplar social service system but also is a real loss for the country as, when they leave care, Black children have the highest percentage of being in education, training or employment (73%) versus other ethnicities (Ahmed, James, et al., 2022).

When a child is removed from their parents’ care, who is responsible for the child?

The Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Children’s Social Care report raises so many more questions than it answers.  When a child becomes Looked After, they join some of the most vulnerable in society.  A collective responsibility ensues where the council, elected members, partner agencies and employees must promote the welfare of the child and, in some cases, retain parental responsibility for them.  Reading through the reports on ethnic disparities in children’s social care raises the question: who really is responsible for these children?  

We live in a country with deep traditions and a wide variety of cultures.  A country which hosts nearly two hundred different nationalities and where one in three children born in England and Wales have at least one foreign-born parent. So, we need to be more sophisticated in how we deliver and evaluate care for children.

Although Children and Families Across Borders (CFAB) is a small charity, we are committed to using our knowledge of working across hundreds of countries every year to support social workers to better deliver social justice to families.  Please subscribe to our newsletter to receive updates about our forthcoming cultural capability training and resources.

By: Carolyn Housman, CEO, Children and Families Across Borders


Ahmed, Noor and Darecce James, Adnan Tayabali and Matthew Watson.  May 2022 “Ethnicity and children’s social care”.  Department for Education.

The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care. May 2022. “Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Children’s Social Care

Children and Families Across Borders. 2022. “Freedom of Information Request Findings on Looked After Children and International Placements”.  

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.  Looked after children and young people: statement 3: Stability and Quality of Placements”. Last accessed 28 September 2022.  

What Works for Children’s Social Care. 2022a “Understanding formal kinship care arrangements in England – analyses of administrative data”.  

What Works for Children’s Social Care. 2022b “Residential Care: Comparing the outcomes of residential care with other types of placement, such as foster care”.  

South London Refugee Association. 2021. “Taking Care: How local authorities can best address immigration issues for children in care