Is the welfare of children being undermined by varying thresholds for social care?

Featured article - 11 July 2018
By Tim Loughton MP, former Children’s Minister and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children

Head-shot of the author, Tim Loughton MP, former Children’s Minister and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children

If you had to choose one thing that required a consistent response from services, surely child safety would be a leading contender?

But, over the course of ten months, an inquiry by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Children has considered the causes and consequences of varying thresholds for social care and concluded that inconsistency is undermining children’s welfare and safety.

Thresholds vary from place to place

The inquiry, coordinated by the National Children’s Bureau, started by surveying Directors of Children’s Services, the senior managers responsible for the broad range of services that children, young people and families rely on.

More than four in five Directors of Children’s Services described a postcode lottery of support, where children facing similar problems get different levels of help early on depending on where they live, with almost two thirds saying this even applied to cases where the child was at more significant risk.

And, worryingly, things may be deteriorating.

Thresholds for children’s social care are rising

Social workers gave evidence that when services did step in, it was increasingly only when children and families had reached crisis point.

Of the 1,700 social workers surveyed, 70% said the threshold for helping ‘children in need’ – a legal term applied to children who require extra support but are not at risk of serious harm – had risen in the last three years.

Funding pressures affect day-to-day decisions

These trends have come about within a context of significantly reduced funding. Research by the National Children’s Bureau, Action for Children, and The Children’s Society shows that central Government funding for children’s services fell by 24% between 2010/11 and 2015/16, despite a steep rise in demand for those services.

The Local Government Association predicts a shortfall of up to £2bn in funding for children services by 2020.

The voice of young people in the care system

So how does it feel for children, caught up in a system facing these challenges?

Children and young people in care and care leavers highlighted the frustration of relying on support from social care teams when resources are so scarce.

They called for much more to be done to allow children to understand the decisions that professionals make on their behalf, and for help to access and come to terms with their personal histories contained within case files.

What needs to change? Funding and early intervention

Responding to these challenges will take concerted action and should begin with a commitment by Government in the Comprehensive Spending Review to address the gaping hole in funding.

But there also needs to be a re-balancing in how support is provided. Prevention is always better than cure, yet we have evolved a system that is predicated on risk. While we must never forget the tragic cases that have propelled this shift, we also have a duty to help children and families before the misery multiplies, nipping problems in the bud.

Storing up trouble

It makes no moral sense that families are left to face crisis and children are put at risk of serious harm because services respond in different ways, at different levels of need. This is storing up trouble for children and families, but also placing intolerable strain on the professionals who really don’t want it to be this way.

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