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England's children social care review acknowledges impact of poverty and need for investment

Interim report sets out challenges facing the sector

Published by Professional Social Work magazine, 17 June 2021

A need to recognise the impact of poverty on families, invest in early support and create systems that allow social workers to do more direct work with people are among key messages from England’s review of children’s social care.

They are outlined in a 103-page interim report published today by the independent review spelling out what it considers to be wrong with the current system.

The report, called The Case for Change, follows feedback from hundreds of people with lived experience, practitioners, researchers and sector organisations, including BASW.

It marks a significant stage in the review which has proved controversial since its launch on 1 March due to the government’s appointment of Josh MacAlister to lead it.

MacAlister was formerly the chief executive of Frontline, the fast-track graduate programme into children and families social work which enjoys significant support from government and big business sparking fears of a private sector bias and a reduction in children's rights.

The report says in most cases families become involved with children’s social care “because they are parenting in conditions of adversity”.

But instead of receiving support, it maintains an "adversarial" system increasingly focuses on assessment and investigations, adding further stress to the lives of people who are already struggling.

The report cites as evidence the fact that there were 135,000 investigations of suspected significant harm of children in England in the year ending March 2020 that did not result in a child protection plan - a threefold increase over a decade.

It says care "too often weakens rather than strengthens relationships" with children sometimes moved far from where they have grown up, separated from siblings, forced to move schools and experiencing "a revolving door of social workers". With many care leavers reporting a lack of support networks, it suggests the state's role should be more focused on "enabling lifelong loving relationships for children in care".

The report is unequivocal about the impact of poverty, maintaining this can no longer be treated at the “wallpaper of practice”.

Citing influential research by Professor Paul Bywaters and others it says: “We have now reached a point where the weight of evidence showing a relationship between poverty, child abuse and neglect and state intervention in family life is strong enough to warrant widespread acceptance.”

This, it says, calls for a new focus on child welfare inequalities similar to that seen within education in the noughties which is likely to have policy implications.

“Gearing central and local government to concerns about child welfare inequalities gives a different perspective to how children’s services are resourced, delivered and measured,” says the report.

“This could result in a focus on levelling up outcomes for the poorest children and families through children’s social care.”

It adds: “Anyone concerned with social justice who is working in children’s social care needs to take responsibility for leading a system that has agency and power to tackle these inequalities.”

According to the report, the state is “not a pushy enough parent” when it comes to getting support for children in care.

Making clear a need for more funding, it says: “There is no situation in the current system where we will not need to spend more – the choice is whether this investment is spent on reform which achieves long term sustainability and better outcomes or propping up an increasingly expensive and inadequate existing system.”

The the cost effectiveness of investing in children's social care must be better understood says the report.

“When we consider the case for investment, it is important we do not only focus on the cost of services, but also the longer term cost of later life outcomes of children...”

The cost of poor outcomes to society is estimated at £2.28 billion a year, says the report. The review will look at how to realise “potential longer term savings” as a result of better outcomes in its next phase which will focus on solutions.

While this is likely to advocate investment in preventative services, the report says there is currently a lack of “precision” as to what this means.

It puts forward a definition of “family help” as “high quality, evidence-led” support by skilled and trusted professionals providing support to keep families together.

This includes parenting support, helping families protect children from harm in communities, respite for those caring for children with disabilities and support for substance misuse, mental health, poor housing and debt.

When it comes to the workforce, the review calls for systems and organisations that “are happy to hold risk and consider complexity instead of defensively following process”.

It adds: “Anxiety in the system and a lack of knowledge too often leads to an over-reliance on proceduralised risk assessment creating further bureaucracy.”

Because of this, social workers too often do not have the freedom to “follow their judgement of what is in the best interests of children and families”.

The report adds: “A significant proportion of social workers’ time is currently absorbed by activity away from direct work with children and families.

“If we consider that the greatest value of social work is in the interaction between social workers and children and families, then it should be an ongoing source of alarm that one in three of all social workers in children’s services do not work directly with children and families.

“Even those in direct practice spend less than one third of their time with families. This is a staggering misuse of the greatest asset that children’s social care has – its social workers.”

The report calls for more to be done to incentivise experienced practitioners to stay on the frontline rather than going into management roles.

It also acknowledges the need to address working conditions including high workloads, stress and poor working environments and a lack of diversity among managers resulting in high staff turnover and over-reliance on agency staff.

The report criticises the “market for care” and lack of "the right homes in the right places”.

“We have heard that too often homes for children are chosen based on availability and price and not on what the child needs.

“We are also aware of cross border issues of English children being sent to live in Scotland…”

It adds: “The review is concerned about the cost, profit and financial health of providers and the impact of the current system on children."

The Competition and Markets Authority is currently looking into this amid rising prices and increased use of private providers which now account for around 70 per cent of all placements in England.

Unregulated accommodation for children under the age of 18 should also come to an end, says the report. A ban on their use for children under 16 comes into force in September, and the goverment is consulting on extending this for 16 and 17-year-olds.

The review says: "It is critical that the introduction of regulation leads to an urgent improvement in the quality of independent and semi-independent homes."

The report is particularly concerned about wellbeing of teenagers who are increasingly coming into the child protection and care system due to factors such as exploitation by gangs. A confused response by agencies means "accountability for keeping these teenagers safe is lacking".

Greater use of “the huge national resource” of kinship carers should be made, the review suggests, but they must be better supported. Charity Kinship, formerly Grandparent Plus, welcomed the recognition.

Chief executive Lucy Peake said: “It is time for kinship care to stop being marginalised by policymakers and treated as the poor relation to adoption. Those caring for the most vulnerable children in our society, whether foster carers, adopters or family and friends, deserve the same levels of support. They all need access to financial, practical, therapeutic and other help."

The review also calls for better support for parents who have had children removed: “We need to recognise that parents with their own complex needs need support for longer than the 26-week court deadline to achieve a durable recovery. As it stands we are failing to break an intergenerational cycle with devastating human cost.”

Responding to the report, BASW England national director Maris Stratulis welcomed its recognition of the "historical and current chronic underfunding of children’s social work and social care services".

However, she added the report lacked an "honest critique" of government policies: "This does not go far enough in challenging those in leadership, and ultimately their commitment to social justice, equality and human rights.

"While the report rightly is unequivocal about the impact of cuts, ‘austerity’ is never mentioned, meaning the government has been let off the hook for policy choices and reforms that has resulted in greater hardship for families."

She also urged the review to "avoid reiterating a government 'blame culture' and negative narratives around a workforce that has tirelessly worked pre and during the pandemic to deliver support, compassion and kindness to children and famiilies". 

Anna Feuchtwang, chief executive of the National Children's Bureau, said: "NCB fully supports the review's call for a more effective and compassionate response to families facing conditions of adversity.

"We cannot avoid tackling thorny issues like poverty and discrimination if we are going to reduce the number of children coming into care, and avoid the spiralling costs of child protection."

Donna Molloy, policy director of the Early Intervention Foundation, said the report made "a strong, timely case for radical reform" of children's social care and the support for families.

She added: "Parents who come looking for help are subjected to intrusive and stressful child protection investigations, whilst the meaningful support that can make a real difference for them is, all too often, lacking.

“Resources are increasingly stretched and skewed towards crisis services and away from early help. We need a strengthened family support system that can work with parents and children to build on their strengths, improve family relationships and prevent problems getting worse. Well delivered, skilled family support provided at the right time, can significantly improve children’s lives and lead to wide ranging economic and societal benefits."

Carolyne Willow, director of children's rights charity Article 39, said the report showed "real sensitivity and compassion for children and their families" but stressed concerns still remained.

“Reading between the lines, it does seem that the review is following a number of well-trodden government paths but is stopping short, at this stage, of explicitly setting out its plans – such as support for deregulation, more children’s social care services moving out of local authorities and reducing protections for vulnerable teenagers. It’s going to take a lot of trust and goodwill in the coming months to engage with this process without feeling a lingering sense of political manipulation, whether that is intended or not.”

Ray Jones, emeritus professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London, added: "The report is well worth a read for its analysis. What might be seen to be missing is the recognition that children’s social care has deteriorated over the past ten years as a consequence of increasing poverty for families, cuts in services, and blame piled on to poor families and on to social workers.

"Turning the tanker away from continuing politically-chosen and targeted austerity, the promotion of privatisation, and the overwhelming focus on risk will be a significant challenge. But the recognition of the importance of helping families care for children, the focus on communities, and addressing the time required for social workers to have sustained relationships with families all potentially chart a way forward. It costs money. It means re-routing from the journey of the past decade. This is the challenge and test now for Mr MacAlister."

The review's recommendations for reform will be published next year.

BASW England's concerns and its ten priority areas for the review are outlined here

See also PSW's analysis of the review's terms of reference here and a Q&A with Josh MacAlister in June's edition of PSW