Children in care of the local authority

Children can looked after by agreement with parents or by order of a court. Most children in care are safe from harm and do well, however for some there are particular risks.

A child is ‘looked after’ (in care) if they are in the care of the local authority for more than 24 hours. Children can be in care by agreement with parents or by order of a court. Most children in care are safe from harm and do well, with strong plans to ensure that their needs are met (this being supported by 2017 research which found that of 611 children and young people, 83% reported that being in care had improved their lives).  For some there are particular risks. Children in care have many different experiences prior to becoming looked after, and this increases their vulnerability (e.g. adverse parenting, abuse, poor emotional well-being).

Research shows that many of these risks are reduced when there is stability in placement with good professional support from a range of agencies.

Definition of being looked after

“Under the Children Act 1989, a child is legally defined as ‘looked after’ by a local authority if he or she:

  • gets accommodation from the local authority for a continuous period of more than 24 hours
  • is subject to a care order (to put the child into the care of the local authority)
  • is subject to a placement order (to put the child up for adoption).”

HM Government

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Children who are looked after may be living:

  • with foster parents;
  • at home with their parents under the supervision of Children’s Social Care;
  • in a residential children’s home;
  • with extended family members (known as kinship placements);
  • with friends of the the family (also known as non-relative placement); or
  • other residential settings like schools or secure units.

Therefore, even though the child is looked after, they may not be living in what may be traditionally seen as a “care” environment.


  • Over 50,000 children in England were identified as needing protection from abuse in 2016.
  • Children in care are 4 times more likely than their peers to have a mental health difficulty.
  • Approximately 70,500 children are in care, this figure has changed little since 2016.
  • A small proportion of children in care experience further abuse and neglect whilst in care.
  • The limited evidence available about the attachment classification and/or prevalence of attachment disorders in looked-after children and young people and those adopted from care suggests that only 10% are securely attached (NICE).
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Know the vulnerabilities

Children who are looked after are:

  • at greater risk of being bullied or abused by peers;
  • more likely to be the target of sexual exploitation;
  • significantly more likely to run away from home;
  • at greater risk of misusing substances due to early life experiences;
  • more likely to suffer social, emotional and mental health difficulties due to trauma;
  • at a higher risk of having some form of developmental delay;
  • potentially going to have issues with their identity;
  • more likely to have special educational needs or disabilities.
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Know the risks

Children who are looked after often face a number of additional risks:

  • risk of offending behaviour;
  • risks associated with separation and loss;
  • risk of institutional abuse;
  • risks regarding lack of suitable placement;
  • risk associated with instability in placement / lack of consistent carer;
  • risks in transition to adulthood;
  • risk of educational failure and exclusion;
  • previous experience of abuse increases risk of being abused in the future.
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What you can do

Schools play a key role in protecting children in care.  Although every school should have a designated teacher for looked after children, it is everyone’s responsibility to make sure that children who are looked after are safeguarded.

  • Be aware of signs of abuse and neglect.
  • Be aware of vulnerabilities of children in care.
  • Focus on the individual needs of the child.
  • Know what the specific plans are for any looked after child that you are responsible for.
  • Listen to the child’s voice and act upon it.
  • Work collaboratively with other agencies.
  • Report any concerns to the designed safeguarding lead and follow your safeguarding procedures.

Take action and keep taking action until you know they’re safe.


  • Designated teacher for looked-after and previously looked-after children

    Statutory guidance for local-authority-maintained schools carrying out duties for looked-after and previously looked-after children.

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  • Training resources for DSLs to use in team meetings;
  • Reference documents for additional information;
  • Handout for school staff summarising children in care;
  • Quiz to test staff understanding.
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