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Children with experience of care: understanding definitions and terms used

Many children have experiences which result in the need for extra care, support or protection from public agencies. In some situations, a national state or local government institutions many enact a policy to enable intervention in family life to protect children at risk from harm or where children require support in the absence of family. The language to describe this varies in different countries and jurisdictions across the world. Internationally, organisations such as the United Nations will refer to the care provided in these situations as ‘Alternative Care’.

In Scotland, children and young people in need of care and protection may be cared for in a number of ways, supported by their local authority. Legislation that supports a local authority to take on some legal responsibility for the care and wellbeing of a child, defines a child as being ‘looked after’. This process most often happens through Scotland’s unique Children’s Hearings System, but the law courts also have relevant powers, and in many cases the arrangement is made on a voluntary basis between the child’s family and their local authority.

Children who are ‘looked after’ are considered to be either ‘looked after at home’ (living with a parent in the regular place of residence), or looked after away from home (living with carers provided, or financially supported, by the local authority).

There are just over 13,000 looked after children in Scotland, according to the latest statistics for 2020-21, and just over 2,000 on the Child Protection Register.

Read the latest looked after children and care leaver statistics

Looked after children and young people can have experienced the most disadvantage in their childhood. While the specific reasons for why a child becomes ‘looked after’ will vary, they will require support that recognises they will have been through a traumatic or difficult life experience which can result in instability, distress, poor emotional and physical health, or lack of social and educational development.

‘Looked after at home’

This description used for official processes and documentation describes where a child is looked after at home and there is a supervision requirement in place.

This arrangement could apply where a child might have experienced some neglect or physical, mental or emotional abuse, or may live with parents with substance abuse issues, or where parents are struggling, and support is being given to the child and their family to work through the problems affecting the child, rather than separating the child from their family.

‘Looked after away from home’

This description used for official processes and documentation describes where a child is being cared for away from their family home either with foster carers or kinship carers, prospective adopters, in residential care homes, or in a group care setting (residential schools or secure units).

Care may be provided away from home because a parent is unable to look after their child; a child may require support for the complex disabilities or special learning needs they have; a child may have arrived in the UK as an unaccompanied refugee and is seeking asylum; a child may have been trafficked; and in a small number of situations, child may have been involved with the criminal justice system.

The term ‘Looked after and accommodated’ is also used as an alternative to ‘looked after away from home’.

Because ‘looked after’ is the term used in law, when referring to legal status of a child or the entitlements and rights of a child, it may be a necessary to specifically use these terms.

However. experience of formal and informal care can vary. In Scotland, different national and local policies may be applied based on different experiences and criteria, and these may be applied to children and young people currently living in care under any one of these situations to support their needs, and/or to children and young people who may no longer be living in a situation where the local authority has a responsibility for their care, but it is recognised that having an experience of care in their childhood should provide an opportunity for ongoing, additional or specific support.

‘Care experience’ and ‘care experienced’ are both therefore recognised and understood terms in Scotland and is felt to be language that feels more appropriate to the children, young people, and adults these terms describe. If and when speaking directly with or about a person with experience of care, it is always best to ask the individual which term they prefer to use when referring to their own experience.

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