Wide variation in social care across England putting children at risk

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MPs and peers are calling for urgent action after a parliamentary inquiry finds that vulnerable children are missing out on early help and face a postcode lottery of support.

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According to findings from All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children inquiry, four in five directors of children’s services say that vulnerable children facing similar problems get different levels of help depending on where they live.

The new report, Storing up trouble, suggests that children’s safety is being put at risk by a social care system that varies widely in different parts of the country, with children often having to reach a crisis point before social services step in.

The National Children’s Bureau, which is the secretariat for the APPG for Children, carried out several online surveys as part of the inquiry, which had over 1,900 respondents, including 97 directors of children’s services (out of 152 in England); 1,710 child and family social workers and 101 local authority lead members for children’s services.

Four in five children’s services directors reported a postcode lottery of support, with two-thirds saying this applied  to cases where the child was at serious risk.

Of the 1,700 social workers surveyed 70 per cent said the threshold for helping ‘children in need’ - a legal term for children who require extra support but are not at risk of serious harm - had risen in the last three years, with half saying that the point at which a child protection plan was triggered had gone up.

Funding constraints are affecting day-to-day decisions about whether to intervene to support a child.

Budget pressures are particularly undermining decisions about how to support a child early on, through, e.g children’s centres, family support, and respite breaks for families of disabled children.

There are reports that pressures on resources are influencing decisions about whether to take action to safeguard children at risk of harm.

Tim Loughton MP, the APPG chair and former children’s minister, said, ‘Children and families around the country with the same urgent needs are getting significantly different levels of help, and in some case, no support at all.

‘This is true for families who struggle to cope on low income, living in poor housing which puts their children’s health in jeopardy. It’s true for children who are harming themselves yet are kept waiting for treatment because they aren’t at immediate risk of suicide. These people need help now, regardless of where they live.'

The latest inquiry follows the APPG for Children’s first inquiry into children’s social care in England, No good options, published in March just year.

This found that the system was struggling to manage more complex demand in the context of cuts to resources.

The new inquiry sought to explore these findings further and find out the extent to which thresholds for accessing services varied across the country, as well as whether it is getting hard for children and families to get help.

Key findings:

  1. The children’s care system is struggling to meet demand, with resources directed towards children already suffering abuse and neglect, rather than to early intervention and prevention.
  2. Local authorities are struggling to keep up with demand from rising numbers of children and families needing support.
  3. Stable relationships are key but are being undermined by staff shortages and high turnover.
  4. Children are not routinely involved in decisions about their support and sometimes do not understand why they are looked after.
  5. Negative Ofsted ratings lead to instability in children’s services. A need for strong, stable leadership.
  6. Wide variation across the country in the number of children accessing social care.

Anna Feuchtwang, director of the National Children’s Bureau, said, ‘It makes no moral sense that families are left to face crisis and children are put at risk of serious harm because services are chronically underfunded.

‘What’s more, it makes no financial sense. The evidence from social workers, academics and service leaders is overwhelming: early help services reduce the need for crisis support later on. It is a farce that social workers and service leaders have to put cases to one side because they haven’t got the resources to intervene – knowing full well that many of those same cases will be back with a vengeance later, at much greater personal cost to our children and families and at much greater expense to our services. This is storing up trouble and it cannot go on.’

Mr Loughton added, ‘In some places, the pressure on children’s services is so acute it is leaving social workers feeling that the only tool available to them to keep a child safe is to remove them from their family. As a result, families may look at these skilled and caring professionals with mistrust. But this is wrong. It is the woeful underfunding by Government of a proper breadth of social care interventions that is to blame.’

Reaction

The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) said it backed the APPG’s recommendations.

Maris Stratulis, BASW England manager, said, ‘BASW members tell us the same thing every day, that punishing austerity policies have led local authorities to drastically cut services, including family support, leaving large numbers of children on the fringes of social care without the help they need.

‘Meanwhile, the poorest families are increasingly forced to deal with severe housing and socio-economic stress. In-fact, children are now twice as likely as pensioners to be living in poverty. The fabric of the social protection system is degrading.

‘Changing public perceptions and ensuring in practice that children’s social care and social work can be beneficial, compassionate and helpful first and foremost is made increasingly difficult when early help services, such as Sure Starts and Family Centres, are not available. These, alongside community and voluntary sector groups and organisations, are vital threads in the fabric of child welfare.’

Dr Alison Steele, child protection officer for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), said, ‘This report shines a light on what can only be described as a dismal, unfair and unsafe situation for children.

‘It is completely unacceptable that a child’s postcode determines the level of support they receive and how soon they receive it. We feel that the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) are correct and lack of resources are influencing decisions about whether to offer support to vulnerable children. The Government must ensure funding arrangements are put in place in the short and long term in order to support all children who need help, as early as possible.’

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