The wide-ranging investigation from the Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA) into the social care system across the UK found stakeholders had raised concerns about the practice, warning that youngsters were being put into a different legal and educational system – and suffering disruption to schooling – due to a lack of suitable care places in their home area.
It is believed that some children are being placed in Scotland from as far away as London – more than 350 miles.
Meanwhile, although the supply of placements for Scottish youngsters in need of care was not found to be as much of a problem as in England and Wales, the report highlighted issues in placing children with complex needs or disabilities in Scotland.
Scottish children placed in care were also more likely to be separated from their siblings than their counterparts south of the border.
The report said figures show that for fostering in England in 2019/20, 1,400 siblings – 13 per cent of all siblings in care – were not placed according to their plan. In Scotland, however, there were 200 sibling groups separated upon placement in foster care, just over one in five of all sibling groups in foster care.
The report, the interim update from a market study the CMA launched in March, said: “We were told there is a general shortage of foster carers and particularly so for children with more complex needs, such as complex disabilities or older children with risk factors, and for family groups.
"Fewer concerns were raised around the overall capacity of residential care, but shortages were reported for residential care for children with disabilities and for children with mental health issues.”
Each local authority is responsible for providing accommodation for any children in their care and must take steps to ensure that sufficient accommodation is available within their area to meet the needs of the children they look after.
Children may be placed with foster carers, who are recruited either directly by the local authority or by an independent fostering agency, which can be run for-profit in England and Wales, but not in Scotland. Children may also be placed in children’s homes which can be run directly by local authorities, by the private sector or by charities.
However, figures showed more than 2,000 children from England were being placed in care over 100 miles from home, with many moved over the border into Scotland.
It is understood the issue was raised with the CMA by the Coalition of Care and Support Providers, which represents third-sector social care organisations.
Court documents seen by The Scotsman show English local authorities which have applied to place children in Scotland include Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council, the London Borough of Ealing, Cumbria County Council, Stockport Metropolitan Council and Blackpool Borough Council.
The report said: “Stakeholders report concerns about children being placed across national borders, particularly placements from England into Scotland where children may be very far from home and in a different legal and educational system.
"While there can be legitimate reasons why it would be in a child’s best interests to be placed out of area (eg to separate them from negative influences), we have been told that it is lack of suitable places available within a reasonable distance that is driving the out-of-area placement of children in many cases.
"Children moved away from their home area may suffer loneliness and isolation at being separated from their support networks, have their schooling disrupted and may experience difficulty in accessing social services.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesman Willie Rennie said: "Just because children are in the care system does not mean that they don't have familial or other ties to the area they are from.
"Sending them to another part of the UK is a huge upheaval and one that may not always be in the child's best interest.
"Both the Scottish and UK governments need a fresh push on recruiting carers across the country so that support networks can be maintained, and the burden inflicted on the children at the heart of these cases is kept to a minimum."
Scottish Conservative shadow health secretary Dr Sandesh Gulhane said: “In circumstances where children need to be placed in foster care, their needs and safety must always be the first priority.
“Foster carers do incredible work to provide normality in children’s lives. Ideally, children would remain at the same school, but sometimes that either isn’t in their best interests or, sadly, impossible for logistical reasons.”
He added: “Being taken into foster care is unsettling for a child, especially if they are separated from their siblings, as so many have been in Scotland. The SNP must do more to ensure that, where possible, siblings are kept together while in foster care.”
Scottish Labour’s spokesperson for children and young people Martin Whitfield said: “The report highlights the real challenge in finding safe placements for our young people.
“It is appalling to read capacity problems appear to be leading to children being needlessly uprooted. It is incumbent on governments to ensure our young people who are at a vulnerable and sensitive period in their lives are fully supported.
“This must include planning in advance to establish and support foster families. The first and only priority in children’s social care needs to be doing what’s right for the child.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Cross-border placements of children and young people into Scottish residential care settings largely occur due to a lack of provision elsewhere, particularly in England.
“While there may be very infrequent circumstances where we would accept such placements are in the child’s interests, we are generally concerned that these placements are not the best approach. As such, we share concerns expressed by children’s organisations and are urgently looking at the best way to address this issue.
“The Scottish Government is committed to Keeping the Promise. Fundamentally, The Promise is about significantly reducing the number of children and young people who are living away from their families by 2030 which means reducing the number of children in residential care to an absolute minimum.”