FAMILY breakdown will cost Blackpool more than £15m this year.
The town has the highest proportion of children in care in the country with 455 youngsters currently being looked after by the council – at an annual average cost of £34,000 per child.
The number has rocketed by almost half in the last five years and is double the national average.
The situation has left social services struggling to cope with the demand and Blackpool facing possible £30m cuts to council services over the next three years as it attempts to balance the books.
One leading councillor today described the situation as “shocking and heartbreaking”.
Since 2007, the number of children being taken into care in Blackpool has risen by 49 per cent – compared to around 10 per cent in the rest of England and the North West.
The current figure of 455 is double the national average per 10,000 of the population.
There were 409 ‘looked after’ children in August 2011 in the resort – compared to 331 in August 2009. There has been a sharp increase in care cases since the death of Peter Connelly – widely known as Baby P – in Haringey in 2008.
All parties agree more children are now being protected in the wake of the clear social care failings in the Baby P case.
But the strain on local services means around 100 children are currently placed outside Blackpool which is adding to the cost.
A report to Blackpool Council’s next Executive Committee says: “The largest part of childrens’ services is childrens’ social care and that is overspent by £2.1m, particularly as a result of the number of looked after children having risen by more than anticipated.”
Other areas of social care have underspent, including in adult social services with projected savings of £1.4m, which could help plug the gap.
Despite the high cost, social services bosses have begun work on a new strategy to ensure more families get the support they require.
Coun Sarah Riding, cabinet member for children, families and education, said: “The huge increase over the past five years of the number of children we look after is both shocking and heartbreaking,
“There was a sharp leap in national numbers of children in care following Baby P’s death, and they have continued to rise.
“Blackpool’s looked after children population has followed this national trend and we have one of the highest numbers of children looked after, per head of population, in the country.
“The key to reducing the numbers in Blackpool is to have an effective early intervention framework so we are able to offer support to families at the first sign there may be a possible problem and to prevent family breakdown further along the line.
“We are developing a new strategy to ensure fair access to support services for families and we are working with all agencies involved in child protection to ensure good quality joined up support which will result in fewer children entering the care system.”
In August Blackpool Council’s children’s services department was branded “inadequate” following a critical inspection by Ofsted.
The number of children going into care was seen as a symptom of the failure to offer troubled families the correct support, although Ofsted recognised the children in care were all there appropriately.
Last year The Gazette reported how family courts were at ‘breaking point’ under the weight of a massive increase in cases.
It is hoped recruiting more foster carers will also help tackle the issue. Coun Riding added: “The increasing numbers of families in crisis due to domestic violence, drugs, alcohol, and complex mental health difficulties will not go away overnight but having effective early intervention, on going family support, social care and other dedicated professionals is paramount in reducing the number of children in care.
“Local fostering means children can be close to friends and family and stay at their school. We are committed to ensuring those children who remain in care have the best possible life chances.”
Coun Tony Williams, leader of the Tory opposition group on the council, said he was pleased to see a firm strategy taking shape.
He added: “However, I fear it will get worse before real inroads are made into reducing the number of children coming into care and also getting the right foster and adoption placements. I offered my group’s support in a tri-party agreement in helping to fix the problem and I’m delighted we seem to be on a more focused route to do this.
“The solution seems simple – reduce the incoming numbers and increase the outgoing into fostering or a return to a family environment. However it’s not as easy as that. We have to consider the care of these children and it has to be equal to the level we would expect of our own children.”