Efforts must be made to stop children being placed in care far from their local communities, a charity has urged after data suggested many are ending up miles away.
Children in care in England are, on average, placed more than 18 miles from home, the Become organisation said, as it warned that in extreme cases some have been moved 500 miles away.
The national charity for children in care and care leavers said those who have just one placement are moved on average 15.8 miles away from home while those who have multiple different placements are placed on average 22.4 miles away from home.
Children who are moved more than 20 miles from home are more likely to have lower wellbeing and experience emotional difficulties than children who are placed closer to home, the organisation said.
It said it recognises that for some children it is right for them to be moved away to a different area to ensure their safety, protect them from exploitation, or to move them closer to other family members.
But the charity warned that a lack of suitable places in their local area means more and more children are being moved far away when it is not in their best interests.
The charity’s findings came from Freedom of Information requests to the Department for Education (DfE) and to 151 local authorities in England between October 2022 and February this year.
A total of 138 local authorities (91%) responded but the charity said many were unable to provide full responses to the information request, and some local authorities were not able to provide any information.
The top five areas with the highest rates of distant placements (more than 20 miles from home) were Cumbria, Lincolnshire, Dorset, Cambridgeshire and Somerset, while the five with the lowest rates were Salford, Bolton, North Tyneside, Stockton-on-Tees and
Trafford, the report said.
In Cumbria, it was more common for children in care to be placed more than 20 miles from home than it was for them to be placed within 20 miles of home, the report stated, adding that children in care in Cumbria were more than nine times as likely to be in a distant placement than those in Trafford or Stockton-on-Tees.
More than 800 children under the care of local authorities in England in 2022 were moved to Scotland or Wales, Become said the figures also showed.
The charity said that when asked what the maximum distance was for children who were moved, the DfE said some were over 500 miles but did not say which areas.
Katharine Sacks-Jones, chief executive of Become, said: “We hear time and again from the young people we work with that they’ve been made to move – often without warning – to an area they don’t know, far away from everything that matters to them.
“Being moved can disrupt a child’s education, life outcomes, and relationships – including with brothers and sisters who might live miles away. Poor transport links can make it difficult or even impossible for a young person to get to school or college, see their friends or stay connected to their community. Young people tell us how lonely, isolated, and stigmatised it makes them feel.
“It’s unacceptable that children are being moved away, not because it’s the right decision for them, but because there are no suitable options closer. It cannot continue.
“There are 82,000 children in care, more than ever before, with numbers continuing to rise. Without urgent action this problem will continue to get worse. We need a national commitment and strategy to keep children close to the people and places that matter to them. All children in care deserve the love and stability they need to heal and thrive.”
The Local Government Association said: “We know that too many children are placed further from home than we would like, a result of what the Competition and Markets Authority described as ‘dysfunctional children’s social care market’.
“As the CMA recognised, councils cannot fix the market alone. The Government has committed to trialling two Regional Care Cooperatives to try to improve the availability of local placements, along with support for all councils with commissioning.
“However this will take time to see results, and better commissioning will not address a fundamental lack of suitable homes. Councils need support to increase sufficiency of placements quickly, with capital and revenue funding and support to roll-out those things that we already know work when it comes to recruiting and retaining foster carers.”
A DfE spokesperson said: “Every child deserves to live in a safe and stable home and local authorities have a responsibility to place children in an environment that is in their best interests, usually within 20 miles of their home.
“We are investing £259 million to create more placements for children in high-quality and safe homes, while developing a new model for care placements to keep more children close to home networks.”