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.