By Linda Tanner, Education Correspondent
BRISTOL has a record number of children in care – and it is putting a huge strain on the city council’s budget.
Seventy-five more children have come into the care of the local authority since March last year, which is a rise of 11 per cent.
The city is looking after 724 children. Most are placed either with in-house or independent sector foster carers.
The council had allocated an extra £1.7 million in its £42 million safeguarding budget this year but figures for the first quarter suggest this will not be enough. Councillors will be told this week that there is
a risk of £2 million overspend by April if action is not taken.
Obviously, the authority is limited in what it can do because it cannot compromise children’s safety.
But savings can be made by recruiting more foster carers directly employed by the council.
It costs an average £13,000 a year for each child cared for in this way, compared with £37,000 for an independent provider.
The council has now set an ambitious target to create 82 more in-house foster placements by October 2012
This does not necessarily mean it will need that number of carers, as many are able to take more than one child.
There are currently 280 carers working for the council.
Numbers of children coming into care have been on the up since the Baby Peter case in Haringey raised public awareness.
But the main reasons for the big increase in Bristol is simply the rapidly growing child population, which is also putting pressure on schools and other services.
The annual birth rate in the city has risen in the last ten years from 4,600 to 6,400 and the population aged nought to four is said to have increased by more than 13 per cent.
One additional pressure this creates is the need for more assessments of newborns potentially at risk so the authority can decide whether they can safely be looked after in the community.
This area is facing a predicted overspend of £450,000.
Children come into care either by court proceedings or by arrangements between the council and families.
A 50 per cent rise in care proceedings has brought a big legal bill and half a million pounds in overspending is forecast.
Another factor is a court ruling known as the Southwark judgement which obliges local authorities to take into care any 16 and 17-year-olds at risk of becoming homeless.
This has led to all councils having to shoulder a financial responsibility previously met through housing benefit.
Bristol City Council leader Barbara Janke said: “There are many reasons why children may need the safety and security of local authority care. Our foster carers can change a young person’s life forever. We cannot place too high a value on the care they give and the home they provide for children and young people who have not had the best chances in life.
“We need to ensure that we make the best use of external support, boost the numbers providing in-house care and ensure good quality support for children on the edge of care to reduce spending. An action plan will be reported to cabinet in September.”
If you want to help…
Foster carers come from a range of backgrounds. People can apply to become a foster carer whether they are married, single, gay, straight, a homeowner, renting, employed, or unemployed.
ristol City Council offers a basic allowance of up to £222 per week to care for each child being looked after, plus full training and support, including your own social worker and an out-of-hours service.
People who have specialist skills and experience working with children may qualify for the council’s fee-paid fostering scheme. For emergency carers, this pays up to £11,544 per year per placement. This is in addition to the basic allowance.
To find out more about fostering a Bristol child, go to www.bristol.gov.uk/fostering or call Bristol City Council’s family placement team on 0117 353 4200.