Vulnerable children missing out on vital support

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Financial pressures on local authorities are raising the thresholds which qualify vulnerable children for support and early help, social workers say.

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Social workers report that children and struggling families are increasingly at risk because local authority resources are stretched

The survey of more than 1,600 social workers by the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) in association with the British Association of Social Workers, suggests it is getting harder for vulnerable children to access the support they need.

Local authorities are legally required to provide services to any child whose health and development is at risk without extra support, but according to 70 per cent of respondents, the threshold for qualifying as a ‘child in need’ has risen over the last three years.

Children’s services are also expected to provide support for struggling families, known as ‘early help’, to prevent them from needing statutory intervention. Many respondents said financial pressures were affecting the availability of this support, however, with 60 per cent saying resources available to children’s services influenced decisions on the provision of early help to families.

Meanwhile, 45 per cent of respondents said a lack of financial resources influenced decisions about care orders, while 33 per cent said the same of child protection plans.

Social workers also reported that thresholds for receiving more urgent support had risen: 54 per cent said thresholds had risen for applying for a care order, while half said the same about making children the subject of a child protection plan. These steps are usually only taken when a child is at risk of, or already suffering from, neglect or abuse.

The survey was published as the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children (APPGC) launched a new inquiry into the causes of different thresholds for children’s social care.

Tim Loughton, chair of the APPGC, said, ‘This is an important piece of work providing extensive evidence from many social workers who deal with these issues day in day out across the country and must be addressed urgently by ministers.

‘There is now a very real fear that intervention for an increasing number of children is being determined not by vulnerability and threat of harm but by finances and availability of support. As we know from bitter experience that is a false economy, both financially and socially, which can have a lasting impact on a child’s life chances.

‘We risk entering a perfect storm where rising numbers of children in need, increasingly stretched social workers and a growing number of children’s services departments coming up wanting in inspections and having to focus on restructure, will inevitably mean more vulnerable children are unable to get the attention they need at the early stage when it can have the greatest impact.’

Anna Feuchtwang, chief executive of the NCB, said, ‘This is further evidence that children’s social care is becoming an emergency service, as councils struggle to meet their statutory duties to vulnerable children with dwindling resources and rising need. Central Government must act now, so that struggling families and children get the help when they need it, not just when they’re in immediate danger of harm. We also urge the Government to think bigger and consider how changes to health, welfare and housing policy can create the right conditions for children to thrive.’

In March the APPGC’s year-long inquiry into the challenges facing children’s services warned that many services were finding it increasingly difficult to meet rising levels of demand.

The Local Government Association has also warned that funding cuts and rising demand are raising pressures on children’s social services, which could face a £2bn funding gap by 2020.

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