The National Children’s Bureau and University of Cambridge have raised concerns that support for vulnerable children is being driven by what is easiest to measure, rather than deliver the community-based and family-orientated services envisioned in the Children Act.
‘Early Help’ is one element of support that services should make available to all families, and can help prevent children reaching a crisis where interventions by social workers are necessary.
NCB and Cambridge University have found convincing evidence that early help improves the lives of children and families, preventing unnecessary distress and harm which would require considerable extra expense to the public purse.
However, a lack of a clear shared definition of early help, including little agreement over the thresholds for stepping in to provide support, means that measuring what works is difficult.
In the void, it has been difficult for local and national policy-makers to make the case for early help, leading to an overemphasis on ‘late intervention’ with families in the form of statutory social work investigations.
Researchers found the situation has been compounded by a decade of severe cuts to local authority budgets for children. Furthermore, national Government has shied away from tackling thorny issues like poverty and poor housing, which are often closely linked to family troubles.
The National Children’s Bureau is calling for:
- A legal duty on local authorities and statutory safeguarding partners to provide early help to children and families. This should encompass a broad definition of early help, including support to alleviate the impact of poverty and poor housing.
- The Department for Education should seek to reduce variations in thresholds for early help by providing clear guidance and training on assessing eligibility.
- Government should develop a national outcomes framework for early help services, building on the work of the Supporting Families programme. This framework should be co-produced with children and families.
- The Treasury should increase its funding in order to support implementation of this new duty, factoring in the levels of poverty within a local authority area.
- The impact of these measures should be rigorously evaluated over a number of years. In particular, this evaluation should include use of routinely collected data from different services, to explore the outcomes for children and families receiving early help and social care interventions over time.
Anna Feuchtwang, Chief Executive of the National Children Bureau, said:
‘If a doctor sees someone in pain, they step in immediately. Yet when it comes to vulnerable children and families, their suffering is allowed to fester. One of the central aims of the Children Act was to give a sense of urgency to authorities when they take action to protect the welfare of children as soon as they can. But progress has stalled, and funding cuts mean that services often let children and families’ lives spin out of control before doing anything. It’s time for a rethink of how we configure services – and that action starts with Government lifting the pressures on struggling families, and not ignoring factors like poor quality, over-crowded housing and poverty.’
Josh MacAlister, Chair of the Independent Review of Children's Social Care, said:
‘When parents need help to raise their children because they are caught in abusive relationships, because they are caring for disabled children or because they have an addiction, our response is too often to investigate rather than help. Too often our approach to families default towards the firm hand of safeguarding when more often the appropriate response would be an open hand of support. This report, and the evidence base it draws on, is a hugely welcome building block for the Independent Review of Children's Social Care and I look forward to working with the National Children's Bureau to learn more about their recommendations.’
This research is part of Living Assessments, a five–year research project on children’s health and social care funded by the Wellcome Trust in a partnership between NCB, University of Cambridge and University of Kent.
Early help is a form of service-provision prior to Section 17 involvement, used by Working Together to Safeguard Children, and implies a focus on intervention before a challenge facing a family escalates to the point where statutory services are required. Its philosophical basis is rooted in the 1971 reorganisation of personal social services based on recommendations from the Seebohm report, and later reaffirmed in the Children Act 1989. At their heart, was the idea that the “new local authority departments would be a community-based and family-orientated service which would be available to all”.
Prevention is a term similar to early help that is often used in public health policy; its use usually connotes more attention to proactive avoidance of potential problems than reactive assistance to alleviate problems that have already emerged. A preventative approach may emphasise reducing poverty or improving access to education, and such services may not therefore now always come under the remit of children’s services despite having ramifications for children’s social care.
Early intervention is a term that is often used interchangeably with ‘early help’, but has important differences in its historic development and associated evidence-base and approach. The history of research on early intervention is heavily informed by neuroscientific studies on the effects of neglect, attachment styles, and, later, Adverse Childhood Experiences, on the development of children’s brains.
‘Family support’ is a term often used to refer to community- and family-based practical and relational support, with a strong focus the social needs of families and how they are related to poverty and inequality.