The county council is spending up to £28,000 a week on some of the most vulnerable children in care, it as emerged.

There are currently just over 800 children in the care of the local authority in Hertfordshire, who have been removed from their parents to keep them safe.

Although there are fewer children being cared for than in the past, the cost of providing that care has risen significantly.

Last year spending on ‘looked after children’ exceeded its £44.5 million budget by more than £4 million.

A meeting of the county council’s resources and performance cabinet panel on Friday scrutinised the ‘value for money’ of existing arrangements.

The panel heard that the authority aims to place as many children as possible with their network of foster carers, at a cost of £383 a week – or with independent foster carers, who cost around £969.

But where this isn’t possible they look to place children in residential care homes, in or out of the authority – which can be run for profit and situated in areas of the country where property is cheaper.

Typically this residential care will cost £2,901 within the authority and around £4,608 from providers elsewhere.

But for a small number of children who need more specialised care, the panel heard the costs can be significantly higher.

Councillors were told of six children in the past years who could not be placed with a foster carer or a children’s home – because their needs were so extreme.

Instead they needed bespoke placements with independent care agencies with round-the-clock care – each costing between £16,000 and £28,000 a week.

Operations director for specialist services Marion Ingram told the panel officers reviewed every child in residential care on a regular basis, ensuring those with the highest needs were in the highest cost placements .

In order to counter the rising costs, she said the authority was already looking at residential provision in the authority and the rates paid to foster carers.

She added council staff are searching for buildings that could each become residential homes for up to four children – in a bid to provide 30 more residential places.

And they are reviewing the rates paid to Hertfordshire foster carers, which was said to have fallen behind some neighbouring authorities by as much as £100 a week.

She said: “We know there are always children who will need to go out of county, but we need more residential provision in Hertfordshire.”

The panel heard that in recent years the age profile of children in care had changed with fewer younger children and more older – which had itself impacted on provision.

According to the report to the panel, the number of looked after children under 10 is now 157 lower than it was five years ago. Yet the number of youngsters over 10 has increased by 52.

Because children are entering the care system at an older age they are presenting with more complex needs and require more specialised support.

Executive member for resources and performance Cllr Ralph Sangster stressed that their focus had to remain on the ‘value for money’ of the service – and to consider where investments could be made to improve these conditions.

A number of councillors praised the “exemplar” wok of the children’s services team in this area.

Some pointed to the “exploitative” costs charged by the private sector. And there were suggestions that ‘invest to transform’ funds from the council’s reserves might be used to support future provision.

In May this year (2019), according to the report, there were 943 children and young people in care in Hertfordshire. Included in this number are 102 ‘unaccompanied asylum seekers’.