First published in Public Finance magazine on 11th February 2020.

Only a few days into the new decade, we were offered a worrying insight.

The Local Government Association confirmed that the number of children in care has increased by nearly a third (28%) in the past decade.

In a public policy world dominated by metrics and measurements, which talks about rising demand for care in the same language as the ‘demand’ for avocados or iPhones, this figure risks melting into the statistical background as just another sign of our crumbling professional capacity to do everything people ‘demand’ of us.

But no one ‘demands’ for a child to be taken into care.

This is no mere statistic about pressurised service capacity – councils have become the corporate parent to every one of those children.

And, as for every family, more dependent children brings more responsibility on every level: more resources to be found and devoted to the children, more space to live in, more attention and care to invest their needs, feelings and futures.

If our councils’ dependent family has grown by 28%, that means 28% more safe, caring homes to be found, 28% more broken hearts and families to be heard and healed, 28% more brilliant, unique small people to simultaneously worry about and try to be strong and calm for.

I don’t know anyone among the dedicated, passionate people working in children’s services who would disagree with, or gloss over, the special nature of their corporate parenting duties to children in our care.

But, equally, I don’t know anyone who thinks our nation’s capacity to care for them has kept pace with the growing size and diverse needs of the increased numbers that councils now have to be parents for.

It would have been a challenge to meet such rising need even if council resources had stayed stable over the same period, but as they’ve become parents to ever-more children, councils’ spending power has been slashed so deep that ‘overspending’ is ubiquitous and some corporate parents face bankruptcy.

Millions of parents have felt the same sheer, impotent panic and despair as benefit cuts, sanctions, bailiffs, evictions, stress and hunger have entered their lives and made it feel impossible to be a good enough parent for the children for whom they would do literally anything if they could.

National government has expected councils to do more and perform better as corporate parents for more children, while steeply cutting the money they have to do it with every single year.

It’s exactly what they have been doing to low-income families too.

We must, of course, welcome and praise the exceptional places that have managed to reduce their local care numbers and offer outstanding services.

The same is true for the families who manage, somehow, not to break under the pressures that prove too much for so many.

Exceptions to the rule don’t change the bigger picture.

Even the most recognised and admired children’s services teams in the country have been outspoken about how cuts threaten and compromise their ability to keep being the kind of corporate parents they strive so hard to be.

When the struggle to be a ‘good enough’ parent becomes insurmountable, our society scorns the ‘failing’ parent, rather than investing time, care and resources in them precisely because they’ve reached a point where they’re struggling to cope.

Councils have been treated in their roles as corporate parents with the same judgmental abandonment as millions of families in their daily lives. It has to stop.

We have to make sure that the next Budget, the Spending Review and the Department for Education’s promised care review put children first – that means every child and parent in every family, and, particularly, every child in the care of the state.