Reunification as a permanency route for children in care

Reunification as a permanency route for children in care

This research used data made available via the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Secure Research Service, which is being expanded and improved with ADR UK funding.

Authors: Dr Birgit Larsson, Professor Elsbeth Neil (University of East Anglia), Dr Marcello Morciano and Dr Yiu-Shing Lau (University of Manchester)

Date: March 2020 – March 2022

Research summary

Returning home to family, or ‘reunification’, is one option for permanency for children who have been in care. This research used administrative datasets held by the Department for Education (DfE) to create the first national picture of who reunified children are, and to explore the stability of their reunifications as well as their educational outcomes. The findings have been used to make recommendations on routes for children in care, and were presented to the Independent Care Enquiry.

Published figures demonstrate that approximately one third of children leaving care return home, making this the most common way for a child to achieve permanence in England. However, though reunification is the main route to permanency, it has been given less focus in policy and research than other permanency routes such as adoption and special guardianship.

This research was funded by Action for Children and aimed to answer three questions:

  • How many children experienced reunification in 2015/16, and what are their characteristics?
  • How many of these children re-entered care by 2017/18 and what are the characteristics of children more likely to experience unstable reunification?
  • What are the educational outcomes of reunified children at Key Stage 4, and what are the characteristics of children more likely to experience worse educational outcomes? 

Data used

This project used national data on reunification from the Children Looked After Returns  and the Children in Need datasets. This data was linked to school census pupil level data and Key Stage 4 data, all of which are included in the National Pupil Database (NPD). Compiled by the Department for Education, the NPD contains various datasets covering all pupils within schools in England up to the age of 19. It contains pupil-level exam results data by qualification for Key Stages 4 and 5, covering A Levels, GCSEs, and other vocational or technical qualifications. The pupil datasets contain anonymised demographic and protected characteristics data.

Methods used

The research looked at 7,250 children who were reunified in 2015/16 and followed them until they were old enough to sit their GCSEs within the 2018/19 academic year. Researchers focused on the year 2015/16. This allowed for enough follow-up time to pass to identify whether a reunification was successful (two years) and for a proportion of the children to sit their GCSEs at Key Stage 4 (three years). Children were only included if they appeared in all three of the datasets (Children Looked After Returns, Children in Need, National Pupil Database) by 2018/19. This means that children aged 0-2 who were reunified in 2015/16 were not included in the analysis.

Descriptive analysis was used to describe the main characteristics of children who returned home in terms of their:

  • age
  • gender
  • ethnicity
  • disability
  • legal status on entry and exit
  • pathways into and through the care system – such as reason for care entry, mean number of placements, time in care, placement type prior to reunification, and length of last placement in care
  • Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) scores – the SDQ is an emotional and behavioural screening questionnaire. Children aged 4-16 who are looked after continuously for 12 months are required to complete it.

Logistic regression methods explored factors associated with ‘stable’ reunification and ‘worse’ GCSE performance. Covariates used in the analysis were:

  • age
  • gender
  • ethnicity
  • disability
  • SDQ scores
  • free school meals eligibility
  • number of placements in care
  • primary need code
  • legal order
  • type of school.

Analyses included local authority fixed effects (variables that don’t change or change at a constant rate over time). This accounted for determinants of outcomes that differ across local authorities but are common to all children in that local authority.

Research findings

Children who returned home were more likely to be female, from a minority ethnic group, not disabled, and not to have emotional and behavioural problems in the clinical range. They were also more likely to be accommodated under Section 20 as opposed to on a legal order.

  • Approximately 69% of reunified children had planned reunifications
  • 17% had unplanned reunifications
  • 14% returned to someone with no parental responsibility.

Compared to children with planned reunifications, children with unplanned reunifications were more likely to have a disability, more likely to have an SDQ score in the clinical range, and were more likely to attend alternative education provision (such as Pupil Referral Units and special schools). They were also more likely to be accommodated under Section 20, they had spent a shorter amount of time in care, and they were older when they returned home.

Further findings included:

  • The majority of reunified children stayed home for the remainder of the two-year observation period. 22% returned to care within two years (unstable reunification)
  • Children who experienced unplanned reunification were the most likely to experience unstable reunifications (30%) within the two-year follow up period. This was followed by children who experienced planned reunifications (21%) and children who returned home to someone with no parental responsibility (14%)
  • Unstable reunifications were more likely for children who entered care due to parental illness or disability, family in acute stress, or due to their own socially unacceptable behaviour. Unstable reunifications were also more likely for children who had a higher number of placements in care, and for children accommodated under Section 20. In contrast, Asian children were less likely to have unstable reunifications
  • Children with unplanned reunifications had the lowest educational outcomes, with 11% achieving 5 A*-Cs at Key Stage 4. Children with planned reunifications had the highest educational outcomes, with 19% achieving 5 A*-Cs
  • Lower educational outcomes were more likely for boys, children with elevated SDQ scores, and children attending non-mainstream schools (in particular special schools or Pupil Referral Units). Within the reunified group, factors predicting higher educational outcomes included coming from an Asian background. These findings regarding children's characteristics and higher/lower educational outcomes are similar to those of students in the general population.

Research impact

As a result of this project, the researchers were able to make three key recommendations:

  • Thorough planning is required to return children home. The study demonstrated that children with unplanned returns had higher rates of reunification instability. While unplanned returns cannot be eliminated, engaging in planning with children and families even after an unplanned return has occurred is recommended.
  • The rate of children returning to care is higher for reunified children than for other permanency routes such as adoption or special guardianship. New and improved support is needed for families of reunified children to ensure children and young people’s needs are being met.
  • The study showed that reunified children’s educational outcomes at Key Stage 4 are lower than for children in the general population, and no higher than the educational outcomes of looked after children. In order to improve the educational outcomes of reunified children, they should receive the same educational support and entitlements as those received by looked after children.

Researchers have presented the emerging findings to the Independent Care Enquiry. Two peer-reviewed articles for academic and professional audiences are planned as outputs. The findings will also be disseminated at virtual policy practice seminars in Manchester and Norwich, and in a seminar by Action for Children.

Research outputs

Publications and reports

Presentations and awards

About the ONS Secure Research Service

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