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Make Not Break: New study finds ‘Lifelong Links’ improves children in care’s mental health and wellbeing

Published: 4th April 2022

4 minute read

A study into the effectiveness of an innovative programme for children and young people in care, now operating in more than 30 local authorities in the UK, found improvements to children’s mental health and wellbeing. It has also led to children being more settled in their foster care or children’s home.  

Developed by leading charity Family Rights Group, ‘Lifelong Links‘ aims to ensure that a child in care has a positive family and friends care network around them to help them during their time in care and into adulthood.  

In 2017 the Department of Education Innovation Programme funded a three-year trial of Lifelong Links in 12 English local authorities. A longitudinal study, led by Professor Holmes on behalf of the Rees Centre at Oxford University, has followed the outcomes of 164 children in care who had participated in Lifelong Links from two of the trial local authorities.

A new report setting out the study’s findings, found that: 

- Children were more likely to continue to remain in the foster or children’s home. Placement stability improves over time for those children and young people, with the average number of placements dropping from 1.99 prior to Lifelong Links, to 1.31 at the time of the analysis. 
- The children’s mental health and wellbeing, as measured by Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) scores, improved year on year. Average SDQ scores the year before children and young people took part in Lifelong Links were 16.77 but had fallen to 12.44 three years after they had started participating in Lifelong Links (note a reduction in score is a sign of improvement). 


The study builds on an independent evaluation conducted by Rees Centre and published in 2020, which found that: 

- Over three quarters of children and young people who participated in Lifelong Links felt an improved sense of identity. 
- A significant positive impact on young people remaining in their placement, with 74% children and young people who participated in Lifelong Links remaining in their foster or children’s home a year later compared with 41% of a comparator group.   
- Children and young people on average increased their social connections from 7 to 26.  


The new report also indicates that Lifelong Links can help shift the culture in the way local authorities work with birth families. But it concludes that there is an ongoing need for commitment to Lifelong Links across all parts of the local authority children’s services department. 

Commenting on the latest report, FRG’s Chief Executive Cathy Ashley said: 

“Too often the care system breaks rather than builds children’s relationship, leaving them lonely and isolated, with lasting consequences.  Yet we all need people in our lives to turn to emotionally and practically. Lifelong Links involves a trained coordinator working with the child to find out who is important to them, who they would like to be back in touch with and then brings these people together to make a plan of support with and for the child. And as this new study finds, the results can be transformational for the child or young person. Currently more than 30 authorities in the UK are offering Lifelong Links to children in care and more than 1700 children have participated in Lifelong Links. We think it should be an offer to all children in care.”

One of the young people supported by Lifelong Links is Bradley who had never had contact with his paternal family:

“At my Lifelong Links family group conference my grandfather stood up and welcomed me into the family and gave me a hug…. I can just go to my aunties, uncles, granddad, go have a catch up, have a cup of tea, help grandad up the allotment. They are always there and they know I’m there for them too.”

Alfie, who has also taken part in Lifelong Links, said:

“Lifelong Links helps you get answers to questions you had for years. It’s life changing. I don’t think anyone would regret doing it.”

Professor Lisa Holmes, lead researcher on the Rees Centre study, said:

“It has been a great opportunity to continue to build the evidence base for Lifelong Links and encouraging to see continuing positive outcomes for young people in terms of stability and wellbeing.”

Family Rights Group is working with local authorities to expand Lifelong Links, providing training for coordinators, publishing tools and resources and providing consultancy support.  

The research has been funded by the Department for Education. 

Notes to editors: 

  • Local authorities implementing Lifelong Links: 24 in England, 7 in Scotland and 2 in Wales. 
  • Over 1700 children and young people have benefitted or are currently benefitting from Lifelong Links.  
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