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Revolving Door Part 1: Are Vulnerable Children Being Overlooked?

We are concerned that some of the most vulnerable children in society are not getting the support they need. Our evidence raises questions about the availability of early help provision for an estimated 140,000 children.These children have needs that are too great for schools, health or other universal services to meet on their own, but they are not eligible for support from statutory social care services. They have been referred to children’s social care services because of concerns around domestic violence, parental mental health, neglect and physical abuse (among others).

If assessment does not lead to appropriate support for a child, then we miss an opportunity to act early. Some children may be stuck in a ‘revolving door’ into children’s services, repeatedly referred and assessed but not receiving help. This risks children undergoing “prolonged periods of unmet needs and recurrent episodes of abuse, neglect [or] maltreatment”1 before they receive help.

Addressing the financial pressures on local authorities and strengthening the statutory framework for early help would go a long way to meeting the needs of these children. It has to be clear who should do what, when, to make sure children get the right help at the right time.

Policy context

Now is an important time to put the spotlight on how we support vulnerable children who do not reach the threshold for social care. Ofsted recently identified assessing risks and taking action to help and protect children as “one of the greatest challenges and one of the hardest things to get right” for local authorities. A National Audit Office (NAO) review suggests that the quality of help and protection for children is inconsistent across the country. The NAO suggests that this is caused by issues with the system rather than local failure.

We know there are record numbers of children needing help and protection while local authority budgets are increasingly stretched. This means that resources for providing support early are under pressure, making it harder for local authorities and their partners to fulfil this role.

However, despite these pressures, there are also opportunities to improve support for children at this time. The new Government has signalled that it will introduce reforms on mental health and legislation on domestic violence, both issues which affect thousands of children around the country. It has also indicated it is reviewing section 17 of the Children Act 1989. This review includes looking at what more support Children in Need might require and could be an opportunity to consider whether section 17 could be a vehicle to provide support for children who do not meet statutory thresholds.

The Department for Education is aware of the children we are focusing on; the 2016 policy paper Putting Children First acknowledges the need to rethink whether the support currently given to children “on the edge of the social care system” is effective. The Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme recently announced four targeted support projects which explore new models of providing support to children whose “needs are considered serious enough to warrant a social work assessment, but do not go on to become in need”. The Department is also aware of the Revolving Door effect. It recently published research, which found that over half of children referred to children’s services in 2010-11 were re-referred at least once by 2016. This indicates that problems persisted for 50% of children, and they were referred back to children’s services multiple times by professionals concerned about them.

Similarly, the Children’s Commissioner’s recent work on vulnerable children highlights those that are hidden or invisible in official statistics. This includes “children not meeting the threshold for social worker intervention” as one of 32 key groups of vulnerable children.Another key opportunity relates to the Children and Social Work Act (CSWA), which gained Royal Assent in early 2017. Under the CSWA, the local authority, health and police must make arrangements to work together “for the purpose of safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children in the area.” How these new arrangements are designed and implemented will have significant impact on the safety and wellbeing of children and young people. The CSWA regulations offer an opportunity to improve how organisations support the children and families we are focussing on here, whose needs are below statutory thresholds.

We know that there are high numbers of children experiencing neglect whose needs do not meet the threshold for statutory support and that neglect can have a cumulative impact on children’s mental and physical health. We cannot afford to “only focus on those cases reaching the threshold for statutory intervention” but must take a wider view and respond to children below the threshold as well.