Costs of looking after children in care are now predicted to be almost £16m more than expected in Rotherham this year because numbers have soared - with the police’s Operation Stovewood investigation into historic abuse allegations – believed to account for around 70 additional cases.
That could result in “significant cuts” to services elsewhere because of the strain the costs are putting on Rotherham Council’s overall budget.
When this year’s budget was set, it was anticipated the council would be responsible for somewhere between 460 and 480 ‘looked after’ children, with each creating a bill of between £40,000 and £50,000 a year for the authority.
In fact, the current figure is above 650, with 70 of those cases attributed directly to action taken as a result of Stovewood investigations conducted by the National Crime Agency.
Cost saving measures have already been put in place by the council’s children’s services department and councillors have been told that although those tactics are working, the level of increased demand has outstripped the effects of the changes.
Judith Badger, the council’s strategic director of finance, has told councillors the authority has no option other than to pay the care costs of ‘looked after’ children and that if numbers do not subside that will mean cuts to services elsewhere as councillors and officials struggle to balance the books.
She told a scrutiny panel meeting that officials’ “Feelings are we are not necessarily looking at a significant reduction in numbers.
“From their (children’s services) perspective, they have only the amount of money the council has given them.
“What we have to assess is if we are confident that numbers will be smaller...or what we determine to be a realistic number. We need to make sure the budget is set appropriately and how that is managed in the overall council budget.
“They cannot avoid the cost and we as a council have not given them the budget for the numbers of children in care at the moment.”
Coun Victoria Cusworth questioned the longer term implications of the recent spike in numbers of children in council care, because when children reach the age to leave care, the council continues to have an obligation towards their welfare to the age of 25, meaning as one cost is removed, another is generated.
The council’s ‘leaving care’ budget is also £1.8m overspent. “Some children will become care leavers, will we just shove that responsibility from one section to another?” she asked.
Ms Badger said: “When we are talking about are looked after children numbers potentially being 200 higher than some years ago, that is a huge amount of money.”
Some of the reasons children remained in care were beyond the control of council staff, such as delays in the legal hearings needed to formally allow children back to their families.
In terms of finding ways to keep costs down, she said: “When all options are exhausted within the department, when children need to be protected, they need to be protected.
“We have to do it as cost effectively as we can. If the council is in this position, we have to look at other services in the council.
“That means significant cuts in other things the council does,” she said.
Because the council has so many children in care, it also needs more staff in its legal department to oversee their cases and has been using expensive locum staff in a deal with Sheffield Council, because it has struggled to recruit its own.
That department is now almost £1.5m overspent, but plans are in place to bring down staffing costs, either through a longer-term arrangement with Sheffield, or through recruiting staff directly in Rotherham.
The council has been introducing measures to try improve care for children at the same time as saving money, with a new project recently launched to identify suitable candidates for intensive work to rebuild bridges with their own families, meaning shorter spells with the council.
The scrutiny panel has concerns over the “escalating costs” of children’s services, said chairman Coun Brian Steele, with meetings now planned with the service director.