29/04/2012 22:13 BST | Updated 29/06/2012 10:12 BST

Returning Home From Care: What's Best for Children?

You'd think that once action has been taken to protect a child from abuse or neglect that they'd be protected from further harm. Sadly it's not always the case. We face a hidden problem of what happens to our children when they leave care.

Recent debates about adoption and record numbers of care applications have rightly highlighted the need to do more for children in care. The majority of children come into care as a result of abuse or neglect, and they are four to five times more likely than all children to have a mental health problem. It is clear that we need to do much more - we are nowhere near to living up to our responsibilities as 'corporate' parents.

But whilst the debate on adoption is welcome, we need to move the debate on from the 3000 or so children who are adopted each year, to the 90,000 who are in care.* We need to identify how we improve the support for all of our most vulnerable children.

In 2011, 39% of children leaving care returned to live with a parent or relative - the most common outcome. But the report, 'Returning home from care: what's best for children?', published by the NSPCC on Sunday, showed that these children can face significant risks of harm.

Around half of children who entered care as a result of abuse or neglect are abused again when they return. Children tell the NSPCC that they suffer repeated instances of physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

The trauma caused to children who are abused, go into care, and are then abused again when they return home is unimaginable. Their trust in adults and their ability to speak out and seek the protection they need is shattered.

Despite these problems, returning home from care remains the focus of little policy or practice development. In 186 pages of care planning guidance for local authorities in England, only a handful of paragraphs discuss a child's return home. Whilst guidance alone isn't going to tackle this problem, the absence is indicative of the lack of action. We need a renewed effort to protect these children from harm and close the revolving door of care.

The NSPCC is working in partnership with eight local authorities to identify how we can improve decisions about when it is a child's best interests to return home, and the support they, and their parents, need to ensure that their return is successful.

Our work has shown significant variations in practice across different local authorities. Indeed, the biggest factor in determining whether or not a child will return home from care is not the needs of the child but the practice and approach of the local authority.

The reasons for these difficulties are complex and social workers are continually have to balance difficult decisions in deciding if it is in a child's best interests to return home or remain in care.

But whilst local authorities put considerable effort into protecting our children, tackling this problem requires us all to do more.

We need to improve assessment about whether a child should return home. Support for parents to tackle problems such as drug or alcohol abuse, domestic violence, or mental health conditions must increase. And we must address the monitoring of children's needs after they return home. At present, cases are often closed too soon, even where there are ongoing concerns.

We need to increase accountability for what happens to children when they go home. The government should publish data on outcomes for those who return home, including the number returning to care and the reasons why they return, placing it at the heart of improving local practice.

Lead Members and Directors of Children's Services must address the variation between different local authorities. Good practice exists across the UK, but it is not universal. All local leaders should understand what happens to children who return home from care and where support needs to improve.

And whilst our courts can play an important role in scrutinizing care plans, improving a child's preparation for their return home, too often their decisions can result in children suffering further harm. Our judiciary needs better information on the impact of their decisions and an improved understanding child development, abuse and neglect.

Clearly we should do all we can to enable children to be supported in their families. But the evidence shows that at present some children face unacceptable risks to their safety when they return home. Our care system does provide support and safety for some of our most vulnerable children. But only when all children and parents receive the support they need, and when all children are protected from harm, will we start to be able to say that we are an adequate corporate parent.

*In the year leading up to March 312 2011 there were 90,920 children looked after in England

Read the NSPCC's latest report: 'Returning home from care: what's best for children?'