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.

Legislation and guidance

Legislation, policy and guidance on looked after children

There is legislation and guidance in each nation of the UK that sets out how the child protection system works and what agencies’ responsibilities are to children and families who need support.

In addition, there is specific legislation, policy and guidance relating to looked after children and care leavers. We’ve outlined the key points below.

Looked after children


In England and Wales, the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 aims to ensure children in care receive high-quality care and services, which are focused on and tailored to their needs.

In England, the Department for Education (DfE) has provided guidance and regulations on care planning, placement and case review (PDF) (DfE, 2015).

The DfE has also published a protocol for local authority children’s services, local care providers, police forces, criminal justice agencies and local health services (including mental health services) on reducing criminalisation of looked after children and care leavers (DfE, 2018a).

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) quality standard on the health and wellbeing of looked after children and young people sets out best practice in meeting the health and wellbeing needs of looked after children and young people in England (NICE, 2013).

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 sets out the duties, powers and responsibilities of local authorities regarding looked after children. It includes provisions about care and supervision, protection of children and children’s homes.

The Department of Health in Northern Ireland has published a series of regulations and guidance relating to the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. Volume 4 is about children in residential care (PDF) (Department of Health, 2006).

The Department of Health has also published Protecting looked after children (PDF), which advises professionals on protecting and safeguarding looked after children (Department of Health, 2016).

The Department of Health and Department of Education in Northern Ireland have set out proposals for a new strategy, Looked after children: improving children’s lives (PDF). (Department of Health and Department of Education, 2018). Once finalised, this will replace the Care matters strategy (Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, 2007).


In Scotland, the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 sets out many of the duties, powers and responsibilities that local authorities hold in respect of their looked after children and care leavers.

The Foster Children (Scotland) Act 1984 sets out provisions for foster care in Scotland. The Looked After Children (Scotland) Regulations 2009 includes provisions about care planning, fostering and emergency measures. It also sets out when a child can be classed as ‘looked after’ but still lives with their parents.

The non-statutory guidance Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014: national guidance on part 12: services in relation to children at risk of becoming looked after, etc (PDF) gives frontline practitioners, managers and strategic leaders an overview of the legal framework for providing support services where there is a risk a child may need to go into care, and describes for whom relevant services must be provided (Scottish Government, 2016a).

The Scottish Government has also published guidance to clarify local authorities’ duties under the Looked After Children (Scotland) Regulations 2009 and the Adoption and Children (Scotland) Act 2007. This includes:

  • the legislative and policy context
  • the child’s plan
  • the death of a looked after child
  • looked after children cared for by their parents
  • recruitment of foster carers and the fostering panel
  • the assessment and approval of foster carers
  • placement of children (Scottish Government, 2011).

The Scottish Government’s strategy for looked after children (PDF) sets out priorities to improve the lives of looked after children and young people (Scottish Government, 2015).


In England and Wales, the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 aims to ensure children in care receive high-quality care and services, which are focused on and tailored to their needs.

In Wales, The Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (Wales) Regulations 2015 set out the responsibilities of local authorities to plan looked after children’s care.

The Welsh government has issued a code of practice for looked after and accommodated children (PDF), which provides guidance on supporting looked after children, including:

  • care and support plans
  • accommodation and placements
  • secure accommodation
  • children accommodated in other types of establishment (Welsh Government, 2015a).

The code of practice for advocacy (PDF) sets out the requirements relating to advocacy services for looked after children in Wales (Welsh Government, 2015b).

The Welsh Government’s strategy for social services is set out in Sustainable social services for Wales: a framework for action (PDF). The strategy highlights four key priorities around families with complex needs:

  • supporting families to care for their children
  • to ensure greater stability in placements, friendships, school lives and support for children who are looked after
  • to ensure that children living in Wales who need to be looked after are accommodated and rehabilitated in Wales, close to their home or neighbouring community, unless there is a good reason not to do so
  • to act sooner to find permanency or replacement families for those children for whom a return is not in their best interest (Welsh Assembly Government, 2011).

Corporate parenting

In England, the Children and Social Work Act 2017 introduces corporate parenting principles, which set out local authorities’ responsibilities for looked after children.

The Department for Education (DfE) has published guidance on the role of local authorities and the application of corporate parenting principles. Applying corporate parenting principles to looked-after children and care leavers: statutory guidance for local authorities (PDF) sets out seven principles that local authorities must follow when supporting children and young people in care and care leavers (DfE, 2018b).

In Northern Ireland, the Standards for Leaving Care Services (PDF) (DHSSPS, 2012) set out that the Health and Social Care Trusts have ‘lead responsibility as corporate parents to safeguard and promote the well-being of young people in and leaving care.’

In Scotland, the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 sets out the law on corporate parenting.

In Wales, Part 6 of the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 covers Welsh local authorities’ duties to children in their care.

The Welsh Assembly Government and the Welsh Local Government Association have published If this were my child: a councillor’s guide to being a good corporate parent to children in care and care leavers (PDF) to remind elected members of their responsibility to act as good corporate parents to looked after children and care leavers (Welsh Assembly Government and Welsh Local Government Association, 2009).

Children missing from care

In England, the Statutory guidance on children who run away or go missing from home or care (PDF) outlines action that local authorities and their partners should take to stop children going missing from home or care and to protect those who do (DfE, 2014).

In Northern Ireland, the Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI) and Health and Social Care Board have published a missing children protocol (PDF), which aims to ensure that the police and health and social care agencies work together effectively, and that the best interests of the child underpin their work (Health and Social Care Board and PSNI, 2015).

The Scottish Government has published a National missing persons framework, which includes provision for children (Scottish Government, 2017).

Social Care Wales provides a protocol for children who run away or go missing from care (Social Care Wales, 2011).

Other types of care

Fostering for adoption

The Children and Families Act 2014 introduces ‘fostering for adoption’ in England. This allows approved adopters to foster children while they wait for court approval to adopt.

The fostering for adoption legislation only applies to England but adoption may also start on a fostering basis in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales (Coram BAAF, 2018).

Family and friends care, kinship care or private fostering

Family and friends care (or kinship care) is an arrasngement where a child who cannot be cared for by their parent(s) goes to live with a relative, friend or other connected person.

The arrangement can be a private arrangement directly between the parent(s) and the relative, friend or connected person or it can be arranged with the involvement of the local child protection services.

In England, the Department for Education (DfE) provides statutory guidance for local authorities about family and friends providing care for children who cannot live with their parents (DfE, 2011).

In Northern IrelandThe Children (Private Arrangements for Fostering) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1996 set out how arrangements should be made for fostering a child privately. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) has published guidance on children living with carers in private fostering arrangements (DHSSPS, 2011).

The DHSSPS has also published a set of minimum standards for kinship care in Northern Ireland (DHSSPS, 2014).

In ScotlandThe Looked After Children (Scotland) Regulations 2009 set out legislation around foster and kinship care. The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 includes provisions about kinship care.

The Scottish Government has published interim guidance on the assessment and support of kinship carers of looked after children (PDF) (Scottish Government, 2008).

In Wales, Section 81(6) of the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 covers family and friends care.

Children in Wales has produced a guide on kinship care in Wales (PDF) (Children in Wales, 2014).

Special guardianship

Special guardianship is when a local authority places a child or young person to live with someone other than their parent(s) on a long-term basis. It aims to provide more security than long-term fostering for children where adoption is not the best option.

In England, the regulations for special guardianship are set out in The Special Guardianship Regulations 2005 and The Special Guardianship (Amendment) Regulations 2016.

The Department for Education (DfE) also provides statutory guidance for local authorities (DfE, 2016).

In Northern Ireland, the draft Adoption and Children (Northern Ireland) Bill 2017 includes special guardianship orders.

In Wales, the law on special guardianship is set out in The Special Guardianship (Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2018.

The Welsh Government has also published guidance (PDF) on local authorities’ functions in relation to special guardianship orders.

Voluntary care

In some circumstances, children may be taken into care with the permission of their parents. For example, this may happen if a child’s parents are unable to look after them for a period of time due to illness. When this happens a parent retains all their legal rights and can ask for the child to be returned at any time.

A child may be taken into care voluntarily:

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) provides guidance on the use of Section 20 in England and Section 76 in Wales (PDF) (ADCS, 2016).

Care leavers

In England and Wales, the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 aims to improve the life chances of young people living in and leaving local authority care.

The Children and Social Work Act 2017 introduced a new duty on local authorities in England to provide personal advisers who will support all care leavers up to age 25, if they want it. It also extends additional educational support to care leavers.

The Department for Education (DfE) has published statutory guidance on extending personal adviser support to age 25 (PDF). This sets out the responsibilities of local authorities in England around extending personal adviser support to all care leavers up to the age of 25 (DfE, 2018c).

Keep on caring: supporting young people from care to independence (PDF) sets out the English government’s strategy to improve services, support and advice for care leavers. The strategy makes recommendations for local and national government, and wider society (Cabinet Office et al, 2016).

In England, the Department for Education (DfE) has announced the Care Leaver Covenant, a scheme which aims to create 10,000 work opportunities for care leavers over the next 10 years (DfE, 2018d).

In Northern Ireland, the Children (Leaving Care) Act (Northern Ireland) 2002 sets out agencies’ responsibilities for young people leaving care.

The Children (Leaving Care) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2005 goes into more detail about the matters to be taken into account when assessing and meeting the needs of young people preparing to leave care and care leavers.

In Northern Ireland, there is a duty on Health and Social Care Trusts to assess and meet young people’s individual needs up to the age of 21 (or beyond, if in education) (Department of Health, 2018).

The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) has published Standards: leaving care services in Northern Ireland, which sets out minimum standards for leaving care and aftercare services (DHSSPS, 2012).

In Scotland, Part 10 of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 states that any young person who ceases to be looked after on or after their 16th birthday, and is less than 26 years of age, is eligible (between the ages of 16 and 19) or potentially eligible (between the ages of 19 and 26) for aftercare. This applies to all care leavers regardless of the placement type while looked after.

Provisions in Part 11 of the Act state that a young person born after 1 April 1999 who is looked after in foster, kinship or residential care is eligible to remain in their current care placement until they turn 21. This is called Continuing Care.

The Scottish Government has published guidance to explain the changes made by Part 10 (Aftercare) and Part 11 (Continuing care) (PDF) of the Act (Scottish Government, 2016b and 2016c).

Staying put Scotland: providing care leavers with connectedness and belonging (PDF) provides guidance for local authorities and other corporate parents, and outlines an explicit philosophy of care. It emphasises the importance of relationship-based practice and extended and graduated transitions (Scottish Government, 2013).

In Wales, the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 places a duty on local authorities to provide support for children and young people leaving care. The support provided should be equivalent to that which a child who has not been looked after might reasonably expect from his or her parents.

The Care Leavers (Wales) Regulations 2015 make provision about the support to be provided to young people who are no longer looked after by a local authority.

In addition, the When I am ready: good practice guide provides guidance for practitioners involved in making and supporting arrangements for young people leaving care (Welsh Government, 2016).

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.


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.