Statement from BASW CEO Dr. Ruth Allen:
A clutch of important national reports in recent months have considered the state of children’s social care services in England. Their findings do nothing to allay widely held concerns that children’s services are under unsustainable pressure, and that far too many children and families are left without the support they need.
The Children's Commissioner's report on child vulnerability, the recent Local Government Association analysis into underfunding of children’s services and predictions of a £2 billion gap by 2020, and most recently Action for Children's (A4C) ‘Revolving Door’ report all point to a lack of investment undermining crucial services, as demand continues its seemingly inexorable rise of recent years.
What they all highlight is the loss of early help and preventive services, and how this is contributing to more children in need falling through our supposed safety net - and potentially going ‘off the radar’ all together.
Children referred to social services because of perceived risks may be bounced around between service providers or receive no help at all if they do not meet statutory thresholds for help. And we believe these thresholds vary widely.
The British Association of Social Workers and National Children’s Bureau are currently working with the All Party Parliamentary Group for Children to survey social workers’ views on the degree of variation and ask the question – why should child and family welfare support be a thing of location lottery?
The A4C report suggests up to 140,000 vulnerable children each year are not getting the help they need. These are children who have not met the threshold for statutory help, but nor are they signposted or guided to other suitable services.
The report also – along with every recent report into child welfare and disadvantage – points out that the number of children living in poverty now stands at 30% nationally, as families (in and out of work) are under increasingly severe housing and socio-economic stress. In-fact, children are now twice as likely as pensioners to be living in poverty.
All recent investigations reveal worsening family wellbeing, especially for the least well off in society, because of austerity policies on employment, tax, housing, education, disability support and many other domains of life. The fabric of the social protection system is degrading.
For most families, the prospect of social services being involved with their children for welfare reasons is too often imbued with fear. People do not – perhaps cannot – approach social services as they would their GP if they are not coping. It is associated with stigma, intrusion and the heavy hand of state interference in family life and parental rights.
This should not be the primary perception of helpful child and family social work - but culture, press and pressurised service systems continue to drive this. Yes, social workers will always need to take tough decisions and protect children from harm. But that is only an aspect of what should be primarily a preventive and enabling social work public service.
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.
They provide accessible informal support for families, giving them the space and guidance to get back on track. The help they offer to prevent the need for more intrusive state intervention further down the line for families is immeasurable.
Local community organisations can locate problems of parenting and child wellbeing in context of social factors – such as poor housing, insecure income or absolute poverty, multiple health needs, racism and prejudice, domestic violence – that most often must be addressed to protect children and support family recovery.
Of course, there is plenty of great practice in the field by dedicated and creative social workers. There are good models of services offered by local authorities and other organisations attempting to reverse the decline in early help.
We must learn from them, from social work practice and from what families tell us works. In the fabric of child and family support, a stitch in time saves lives.