Children’s social services have never had an easy job, but recently the challenge has taken on a whole new dimension.
At the same time as the overall spending power of local authorities is falling, councils are grappling with new challenges like online grooming and the increased number of refugee children.
An inquiry into the social care of children and young people, has found the system is struggling to keep pace with the rising numbers of children and families who need help, with nearly 90% of senior managers saying they find it increasingly difficult to provide children ‘in need’, including those with disabilities, families in crisis and those at risk of abuse and neglect, with the support they require.
The All Party Parliamentary Group for Children Inquiry heard repeatedly that local authorities are having to target dwindling resources toward children who have already suffered abuse or neglect, or those at a high risk of harm, rather than nipping problems in the bud. The shift toward late intervention makes it harder to engage with families before they reach crisis point. For some children this means, by the time social care services are involved, there is no option but for them to be taken into care.
The Inquiry’s report ‘No Good Options’ is published as the numbers of child protection plans, when social workers believe a child is at risk of harm, have risen by over 29% between 2010/11 and 2015/16. Over the same period, the numbers of children being taken into care rose by 17%. Yet despite these increases in demand, local authority spending power has decreased by over 20 per cent in the same period.
The Inquiry also found a postcode lottery in how law and policy relating to children is applied in different parts of the country. Figures indicate that local authorities are taking wildly different approaches to early intervention and identification of ‘children in need’, and rates of children taken into care vary significantly.
Evidence to the Inquiry suggests quality of social care, often determined by the relationship between professionals and the children and families they work with, is being undermined by staff shortages, high turnover of social workers and multiple care placements. In some local authority areas agency staff accounted for more than 40 per cent of social workers.
The inquiry also heard that while many local authorities involve children and young people in high level decisions about local services, too often children were not routinely involved in decisions about their own care. Some children didn’t even know why they were in foster care or residential care, rather than with their birth families.
Tim Loughton MP, who co-chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group for Children, has voiced concerns over whether the current ituation is sustainable.
‘Children’s social services have never had an easy job, but recently the challenge has taken on a whole new dimension. Our Inquiry found that there is huge variation in the way in which local authorities decide to support the most vulnerable children. Perhaps most strikingly, the proportion of children taken into care varies from just 22 per 10,000 in one local authority to 164 per 10,000 in another. This cannot simply be explained by differences in deprivation – it points instead to variation in policy and practice. Given we know that children in care are far less likely to gain good GCSEs and to go to university, and more likely to have poor physical and mental health, such a “postcode lottery” is deeply worrying.
‘I urge Ministers to focus on realistic resourcing of all children’s services, from prevention to early help for families, to care and child protection; and to look at ways to tackle the stark variation in standards across the country.’
We believe, children’s social care is in crisis across the country. Some services cannot even fulfil their legal duty to support children in need. This is happening right now and the evidence we have heard over the last year indicates that it could get even worse.
Increasing demand set against dwindling resources is placing intolerable strain on the system, at a time when children’s social care teams are having to deal with a host of new pressures and challenges, from refugee children to online grooming. It is time the Government recognised that asking children’s services to do more with less, ultimately results in misery for children and families.’
The report calls for:
- A Government review of resourcing for children’s social care services, and a plan for incentivising investment in early intervention and prevention.
- The Department for Education to commission an independent inquiry into variations in access to children’s services across England, and the impact this has on outcomes for vulnerable children.
- A better approach to intervening in failing children’s services and a national program to allow senior staff to ‘buddy’ with staff in outstanding local authorities.
- The Department for Education to support and incentivise local authorities to improve participation practices so that vulnerable children can play a meaningful role in their care.
No Good Options is available from www.ncb.org.uk/nogoodoptions from the 21st March 2017.