Number of children involved with Social Services rises dramatically

Author: Amanda Connor

Alarming figures have shown a steep rise in the use of children’s social services over the last decade which is pushing council budgets to breaking point.

According to research published by the Association of Directors of Children's Services, over the last year almost 2.4 million people reported concerns over the welfare of a child – a 78% increase on 10 years ago. The number of investigations in to children at risk of harm have more than doubled, from 77,000 in 2008 to almost 200,000 last year – a staggering 159% increase.

There are two types of child protection. Section 47 investigations - when there are fears that a child is at risk of significant harm - have seen the steepest rise. Social workers, police and other agencies are involved, so a huge amount of resource, money and effort goes in to these cases.

That said, there’s also been a considerable increase in the number of children placed on child protection plans. This is when social workers monitor the way a child is being looked after to keep them safe because their basic needs are not being met; for example not getting enough food, having nowhere suitable to sleep or living in a cold home.

Child protection is a really complex subject with no one reason being the sole cause of the problem. Here, we outline the study’s main explanations behind the surge in numbers and why they’re putting pressure on local authorities.

Well documented cases, such as Baby P and Victoria Climbié have generated greater awareness of child abuse and neglect. Now, the public is far more vigilant at spotting and reporting concerns over children.

The numbers in care
Although the majority of children on the social services radar will remain with their families, the number of children taken into care over the last 10 years has increased by 24%. Most of the 75,000 children in local authority care are there because of abuse or neglect. Other reasons for being taken in state care are family dysfunction or because their family is in serious distress. Disability makes up a small number of those children in care.

Age and gender
Children aged between 10 and 15 represent the largest group in care. More boys than girls tend to be entrusted to the local authority. Increases in the number of unaccompanied asylum seeking children, who are more likely to be male, is the driving reason behind this, according to official statistics. Despite 75% of the children in care being white, the over-representation of children from non-white backgrounds is thought to be linked to the number of young asylum seekers.

The number of children in care depends on where they live. In Blackpool, 184 in every 10,000 children are in care. Further south, the stats for Windsor and Maidenhead are in stark contrast. There, only 34 children in every 10,000 are being looked after by the local authority.

The research also suggests that regardless of where they are in the UK, those children living in the most deprived areas are 10 times more likely to be taken into care. Deprivation is the biggest factor for children becoming involved with child services, according to the Child Welfare Inequalities project. Around one child in 60 was in care in poor areas, while this was one in every 660 in affluent areas.

Domestic abuse
Domestic violence has also played a primary role in the number of children being a ward of child protection services. Nearly half of the cases assessed were as a consequence of domestic abuse. Mental health issues was the next biggest factor.

In an age of austerity, funding is an obvious problem. Despite councils maintaining they’ve tried to save children’s services from cuts, the effect of inflation has had a negative impact. Coupled with increasing demand and more complex cases it’s inevitable for councils to have overspent on budgets.

With such constraints, budgets have often been focussed on statutory services which protect children at risk of neglect or abuse. The bad news is that this has meant cuts to the early intervention teams who might be able to ease future pressures. The good news is that the government committed an extra £84 million for children's services over five years in the recent budget.

Staffing is a real problem for local authorities. Keeping consistent faces is imperative to build the trust needed to form relationships with children at risk. While there are a lot of vacancies, many of these roles will go to agency social workers which, of course, come at a higher cost than staff on the payroll. Figures collected by the BBC show that between 2012/13 and 2016/17 at £356 million, local authority spending on agency staff nearly doubled.

Foster care
Government policy since the 1960s has been to move away from placing children in residential care homes. Now, nearly 75% of those in local authority care are housed with foster parents, costing around £1.7 billion each year.

The importance of foster carers can’t be underestimated, but there aren’t enough of them. Adoption figures have fallen since their peak in 2015 when David Cameron championed a campaign to increase the number of foster carers in Britain. The shortage of foster carers, and their ability to take on ‘challenging’ children, depended on which area of the country a child lived, according to a review published in February 2018.

Around 4,000 children who aren’t with foster carers are still living with their parents under the supervision of local authority while almost 8,000 spend time in children's homes, secure units or live semi-independently.

Going home
Of the 31,000 children in care in 2017, almost a third of them went back to the families. 12% were placed under special guardianship orders where a relative took care of them. 14% of the children were adopted after having spent an average of two years in care and most of those were between the age of one and four. Sadly, only 1% of children aged 10 or over were adopted.

Life after care
Around 25% of children looked after by foster carers continue to live with them after they turn 18 and stop being under the remit of the local authority. For others, however, it can be difficult.

In terms of education, only 6% of care leavers went to university in comparison to 33% of all 18 year olds, although half of those leaving care were in some form of training, education or employment. It’s thought that around 25% of those in youth prisons have spent time in care.

Speaking of the report, Amanda Connor, head of family law at Russell & Russell, said: “The figures come as no surprise to me. As a practice, we’ve seen an alarming increase in the number of child protection cases over the last year.

“Clearly much needs to be done to secure the safeguarding of vulnerable children – from greater budget allocation, to resources to a more joined up service in order to ensure that children and young people are cared for and can look forward to a brighter future”.

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