This paper presents findings from a study of children looked after by 24 local authorities in England. The study combined analysis of key statistical data with a questionnaire survey completed by the social workers for a sub-sample of the children. This paper focuses on children who started a period of being looked after in the participating authorities during the 6 months from October 2000 to March 2001. The study found considerable variation between the authorities in their rates of children starting to be looked after, and the paper explores reasons for these differences. It also highlights the variety of legal routes and placement options used for children entering the looked after system, and proposes a matrix that summarizes the various combinations that the authorities were found to be using. The matrix can assist social workers and their managers in identifying the most appropriate option for individual children.