Looked after children

Last updated: 04 Sep 2018

A child who has been in the care of their local authority for more than 24 hours is known as a looked after child. Looked after children are also often referred to as children in care, a term which many children and young people prefer.

Each UK nation has a slightly different definition of a looked after child and follows its own legislation, policy and guidance. But in general, looked after children are:

  • living with foster parents
  • living in a residential children's home or
  • living in residential settings like schools or secure units.

Scotland’s definition also includes children under a supervision requirement order. This means that many of the looked after children in Scotland are still living at home, but with regular contact from social services.

There are a variety of reasons why children and young people enter care.

  • The child’s parents might have agreed to this – for example, if they are too unwell to look after their child or if their child has a disability and needs respite care.

  • The child could be an unaccompanied asylum seeker, with no responsible adult to care for them.

  • Children's services may have intervened because they felt the child was at significant risk of harm. If this is the case the child is usually the subject of a court-made legal order.

A child stops being looked after when they are adopted, return home or turn 18. However local authorities in all the nations of the UK are required to support children leaving care at 18 until they are at least 21. This may involve them continuing to live with their foster family.

Most children in care say that their experiences are good and that it was the right choice for them (Biehal et al, 2014). But more needs to be done to ensure that all looked after children are healthy and safe, have the same opportunities as their peers and can move successfully into adulthood.


Impact of being looked after

Looked after children come from a range of different backgrounds and have varied experiences of care. Each child has their own different and specific sets of needs. However research can give us an insight into how their experiences before and during care makes them a particularly vulnerable group of young people.

Previous experiences of abuse

Children may enter care for all sorts of reasons. But many enter because they have been abused or neglected. These experiences can leave children with complex emotional and mental health needs, which can increase their vulnerability to abuse (Bazalgette, Rahilly, and Trevelyan, 2015; Luke et al, 2014).

Placement instability and disrupted relationships with caregivers

Many children move repeatedly in and out of care, or between placements. Placement breakdowns can have a detrimental impact on a child's emotional wellbeing and mental health. It can also prevent them forming stable relationships with the adults who could help protect them (Rahilly and Hendry, 2014).

Peer violence and abuse

Many looked after children have previous experiences of violence, abuse or neglect. Often they display behavioural problems and attachment difficulties (problems forming secure relationships) which are associated with their negative life experiences. This means that some find it hard to develop positive peer relationships.

The care system can struggle to provide effective management and interventions to address these problems (Bazalgette, Rahilly, and Trevelyan, 2015).

Going missing

Looked after children are more likely to go missing than their peers. Children may run away from care for all sorts of reasons. These include:

  • wanting to return home to their family
  • being unhappy or bored in their care placement
  • feeling like they didn't have enough control over their own lives.

Children who go missing are at greater risk of physical abuse, grooming and sexual exploitation (Coffey and All Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults and All Party Parliamentary Group for Looked after Children and Care Leavers, 2012).

Comparisons with other groups of children

Research suggests that when looked after children are compared with children in the general population, they tend to have poorer outcomes in a number of areas such as educational attainment and mental and physical health (Rahilly and Hendry, 2014).

However, this is not necessarily the case when they are compared with other groups of children who are likely to have had similar experiences, such as children in need. One study, which analysed Government data, found that looked after children who were continuously in care in England had better educational attainment than children in need (Sebba et al, 2015).


Supporting looked after children

Providing children in and on the edge of care with the support they need, when they need it, can help them to achieve their potential.

Deciding whether a child should enter care

Children who come into care are often known to social services for a number of years before action is taken (Masson et al, 2008).

For many children the need to enter care could have been identified at a much earlier stage. This delay in decision-making can prolong children’s experiences of abuse and neglect. This means that when they do enter care they can experience greater degrees of difficulty, and the specialist services they require are less likely to have an impact (Davies and Ward, 2012).

The New Orleans Intervention Model, first developed in the USA, helps social workers and judges decide whether a child should stay with their birth family or enter care permanently.

The model puts a child's attachment relationships at the heart of decision making, ensuring they experience a positive and secure care setting as early in life as possible.

> Find out more about the New Orleans Intervention Model

Children on the edge of care

Our publication Promoting the wellbeing of children in care (Rahilly and Hendry, 2014) identifies ways to better safeguard children on the edge of care:

  • improving understanding of how to identify damaging situations
  • improving decision making about when it is in a child's best interests to enter care ensuring that decisions are well planned and taken in a timely fashion.

Achieving these aims requires:

  • greater use of multi-agency approaches to assessment and support for children and families on the edge of care
  • revised training for social workers and other practitioners to ensure an improved understanding of:
    • child development
    • the identification of risk and protective factors
    • parental capacity to change
  • improvements in undergraduate and post-qualification training to ensure that social workers and other professionals are also able to develop a better understanding of the impact of care and effective interventions
  • greater effort to ensure stability for children and young people on the edge of care and following their entry to care (Rahilly and Hendry, 2014).

Supporting looked after children

Providing a secure, caring environment can help looked after children overcome their early life experiences.

NSPCC research has identified five priorities for change to improve the emotional and mental health of looked after children.

  • Embed an emphasis on emotional wellbeing throughout the system.
    Professionals working in the care system need the skills and knowledge to understand how they can support the emotional wellbeing of looked after children and young people.
  • Take a proactive and preventative approach.
    Support for looked after children should begin with a thorough assessment of their emotional and mental health needs.
  • Give children and young people voice and influence.
    Looked after children and young people need more opportunities to identify what is important to them and influence their own care.
  • Support and sustain children’s relationships.
    Children’s carers require training and support to be sensitive, understanding and resilient.
  • Support care leavers’ emotional needs.
    Help young people identify and strengthen their support networks (Bazalgette, Rahilly and Trevelyan, 2015).

Supporting the birth family

It’s important for professionals to support the child’s birth family, to address the problems which resulted in the child entering care. In time, many children can return home to their family but even if this is not possible their birth family are still likely to be a central part of their lives.

The quality of contact a child has with their birth family can have an impact on their wellbeing, so it’s important to support children to have safe, positive contact with their birth families if the child wants to (Bazalgette, Rahilly, and Trevelyan, 2015).

Children and young people leaving care

Children and young people leaving care

Returning a child home from care

For many children, returning home from care is the best possible outcome. But research shows that for others this can result in further abuse or neglect (Holmes, 2014).

Many children end up back in care, and a significant number move back and forth between care and their family. Other children remain at home despite continuing abuse or neglect.

There are a number of ways to improve a child’s experience of returning home from care:

  • Assessing the risks the family could pose to their child, how much they are able to change and their ability to protect their child from harm.
    The assessment should consider the family's history as well as the current situation.
  • Working with the child and their family to help strengthen their relationship.
  • Making sure the child has a trusted adult they can talk to.
  • Agreeing with the parents, in writing, what needs to happen before and after their child returns home.
  • Providing support and services for the child and their family before and after the return home.
    This should include support from foster/residential carers, the child's school and friends.
  • Returning the child home gradually, and putting in place plans for what will happen if the return is not going well.
  • Monitoring how the child and their family are doing.

Reunification practice framework

Our Reunification practice framework, created in partnership with University of Bristol, supports practitioners and managers to apply structured professional judgement to decisions about whether and how a child should return home from care.

The framework also helps families and workers to understand what needs to change, to set goals, access support and services and review progress (Wilkins and Farmer, 2015).

> Find out more about the Reunification practice framework

Supporting care leavers

For some looked after children, leaving the care system can be a challenging time.

In all nations of the UK, children leaving care at 18 are entitled to support from their local authority until they are at least 21. England and Wales are governed by the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 and there is separate legislation for Scotland (Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014) and Northern Ireland (The Children (Leaving Care) Act (Northern Ireland) 2002).

For some children this will mean staying on with their foster carers. For others alternative accommodation options will be required.

Local authorities across the UK have a duty to assess and meet care leavers’ individual needs and to develop a pathway plan, setting out the support that will be provided to the care leaver once they have left care.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland care leavers are also legally entitled to a personal adviser to help with the transition.

References and resources

References and resources

Bazalgette, L., Rahilly, T. and Trevelyan, G. (2015) Achieving emotional wellbeing for looked after children: a whole system approach. [London]: NSPCC.

Biehal, N. et al. (2014) Keeping children safe: allegations concerning the abuse or neglect of children in care: final report. London: NSPCC

Coffey, A, and All Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults and All Party Parliamentary Group for Looked after Children and Care Leavers (2012) Report from the joint inquiry into children who go missing from care. London: All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults (PDF).

Davies, C. and Ward, H. (2012) Safeguarding children across services: messages from research. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Holmes, Lisa (2014) Supporting children and families returning home from care: counting the costs. [London]: NSPCC.

Luke, N. et al. (2014) What works in preventing and treating poor mental health in looked after children? London: NSPCC.

Masson, J. et al. (2008) Care profiling study (PDF). London: Ministry of Justice.

Rahilly, T. and Hendry, E. (eds) (2014) Promoting the wellbeing of children in care: messages from research. London: NSPCC.

Sebba, J. et al (2015) The educational progress of looked after children in England: linking care and educational data (PDF). Oxford: Rees Centre.

Wilkins, M. (2015) How to implement the reunification practice framework: a checklist for local authorities. London: NSPCC.

Wilkins, M. and Farmer E. (2015) Reunification: an evidence-informed framework for return home practice. London: NSPCC.


Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014

The Children (Leaving Care) Act (Northern Ireland) 2002

Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000


If a child or young person needs confidential help and advice direct them to Childline. Calls to 0800 1111 are free and children can also contact Childline online or read about living in care on the Childline website. You can also download or order Childline posters and wallet cards.

Related NSPCC resources

Read our report about a whole system approach towards achieving emotional wellbeing for looked after children (PDF).

Further reading

For further reading about looked after children, search the NSPCC Library using the keyword “children in care”.

If you need more specific information, please contact our Information Service.