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Identifying and Understanding Inequalities in Child Welfare Intervention Rates: comparative studies in four UK countries

Briefing Paper 1: England

The project aimed to quantify and begin to understand inequalities in the proportions of children who are either subject to childprotection plans (CPP) or who are being ‘looked after’ in out of home care (LAC).

 We found that children in some places are much more likely to be looked after than children in other places and in each local authority (LA) these differences are systematically linked to how poor they and their families are.

In England, children in the most deprived 10% of small neighbourhoods were over ten times more likely to be looked after or on a child protection plan than children in the least deprived 10%.

In every LA studied there was a strong social gradient in rates of intervention. Each step increase in deprivation was accompanied by an increase in children’s chances of being a LAC or on a CPP. The findings parallel inequalities in health and education with long term consequences for health and wellbeing in later life.

Deprivation was the largest contributory factor in children’s chances of being looked after and the most powerful factor in variations between LAs. This was seen for children of different age groups, boys as well as girls, and children on CPPs as well as LAC.

There were also very large inequalities between ethnic groups which can only be understood when deprivation is also taken into account.

LA responses to children and their families were also associated with deprivation. There was a systematic, structural relationship – the inverse intervention law (IIL) – between the overall level of deprivation in a LA and the proportion of children subject to intervention at any given level of neighbourhood deprivation. Low deprivation LAs were intervening more when similar neighbourhoods were compared. We consider it likely that the level and distribution of expenditure in LAs insufficiently reflects levels of need.

Processes for managing cases and managerial priorities focused on risk while reinforcing a limited attention to family or neighbourhood socio-economic and environmental conditions. Staff showed limited unprompted awareness of the impact of poverty on families’ relationships and behaviours. It was not considered part of their role to try to help families maximise their income, manage debts, maintain stable and affordable accommodation or cope with the stresses of low and insecure incomes. Many staff felt overwhelmed by the level of need they saw in families.

The actions of individual LAs are also important. Within these structural patterns we observed substantial variations in CPP and LAC rates between LAs facing apparently similar levels of deprivation. But this should not deflect attention from deprivation as the underlying driver.

Some broad policy directions are suggested: reducing children’s services inequalities as a policy objective, greater attention to the impact of socio-economic conditions on children’s life chances in policy, practice and training, better data, including data about family circumstances, and a review of the level and distribution of expenditure.