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'Blame culture' contributing to rise in children in care, MPs told

Public Accounts Committee takes evidence on transforming children's services...

Published by Professional Social Work magazine – 6 February 2019

An "increasing culture of blame” in social care is impacting families and social workers and contributing to a rise in children in care in England, a group of MPs has heard.

Giving evidence to a hearing of the Public Accounts Committee's inquiry into children's services, Cathy Ashley, chief executive of the Family Rights Group, said the “phenomenal” pressure on council budgets and deprivation levels were also having an effect.

She said: “Deprivation and pressure on resources are having an impact on the increase in numbers, but there is also an increasing culture of blame.

"People in every part of the system feel that the finger is pointed at them: families feel that they are under the microscope from social workers, social workers feel that judges will point the finger at them if they have not taken action in relation to proceedings, and so on.”

Lucy Butler, director of children’s services at Oxfordshire County Council, said backing from local politicians and councillors and other agencies was vital to tackling a blame culture.

She said: “Do your health partners have a real focus on children? Do the police have a focus on children? If you are working in that context- it is important to say that not all local authorities are - then you are able to kind of combat that blame culture.

“But let us not kid ourselves: if anything goes wrong, the press are on it in the blink of an eye, and it is really difficult for social work to flourish in that environment. It is high risk. There will be times when things do not work out brilliantly for children and families through no fault of any professional, and if that happens, there is no forgiveness for that. It is a really difficult arena to work in.”

Pre-proceedings work

Ashley said a more consistent and effective pre-proceedings approach to families, including kinship care assessments and family group conferencing, could help prevent children being “unnecessarily” taken into care. She pointed to Leeds as a council where leaders had created a culture where families were seen as a “resource to children”, something she said was “too often overlooked in our system”.

“They shifted the way that they approached looking at risk by saying, ‘Okay, if we acknowledge that for around 10 per cent of the children coming through our door it is deliberate harm, and for 90 per cent it is issues such as neglect and so on, how to we respond differently, and how do we utilise the family in being able to protect children more effectively?’” she said.

Innovation projects

Isabelle Trowler, England's chief social worker for children and families, said the Government’s Family Justice Board had recently agreed an action plan designed to improve the quality of case preparation and make more use of family networks.

She said a number of projects funded by the Department for Education’s innovation programme were also helping to cut numbers of children being taken into care in some areas.

“We have three really good examples: Leeds, which the previous panel mentioned, but also Hertfordshire and North Yorkshire. They are three strong authorities, which have shown that you can reduce your rates of intervention for care and care proceedings. We now have an £84 million uplift from the autumn settlement, and we are spreading that out to 20 authorities.

“I was at West Berkshire, which is one of the authorities that has adopted the Hertfordshire model, about three weeks ago. They have been live for about nine months, and they tell me that they have reduced the number of children going into care by 38 per cent in that period. There are things we could be doing.”

Trowler said the number of children coming into care for the first time had fallen three per cent in the last year.

“It is really important to recognise that local authorities, which are up against it in a number of ways, are actually making a difference,” she said.

Councils needed to consider whether the early help and preventative services they currently commissioned were sufficient to work with families who ended up in care proceedings, she said.

"The families that end up in the court system, or children that end up in care, are coming from families with really entrenched difficulties, often across generations. That is serious violence, addiction, sexual abuse perpetrators. I do not think that the sorts of early help services that we have been commissioning generally, have much of a chance of ever stopping that trajectory into the high-risk part of the system.

"That does not mean that those family support services have not had value; but they have value for a different cohort of families. So having those strong, locally-based, community-based family support services is in my view a good thing.

"You help families with problems have fewer problems, or just help them not get much worse. But actually the families that we are talking about need a much more sophisticated response."

This article is published by Professional Social work magazine which provides a platform for a range of perspectives across the social work sector. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the British Association of Social Workers.