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Inquiry launched into care thresholds

MPs to explore disparity in thresholds for taking children into care

Published on 31st July 2017

The All Party Parliamentary Group for Children is launching an inquiry into the disparity between thresholds for taking children into care across the country.

The new Inquiry, led by APPGC chair Tim Loughton, will explore the causes of different threshold levels for accessing children’s social care services. This follows the group’s Inquiry in 2016/17 ‘No Good Options’ which found significant variation in the number of children accessing children’s social care services across the country.

Loughton said the inquiry wants to hear from social workers in a bid to understand the pressures affecting services and their decisions around when to take a child into care.

The All Party Parliamentary Group for Children (APPGC) published the findings of their Inquiry into children’s social care services in England in March 2017. The Inquiry brought together evidence about the current resourcing of children’s social services and changes in the nature and level of demand, to improve understanding of the challenges facing under-performing children’s services, and how to address them.

One of the key recommendations to government was to commission an independent Inquiry into variation in access to children’s services across England, and the impact on outcomes for vulnerable children.

No Good Options highlighted how the average national rate of looked after children per 10,000 was 60. Six local authorities had half or less than half this rate and three local authorities had double or more than double the national average. The lowest rate was 22 looked after children per 10,000 and the highest rate was 164 per 10,000. The highest therefore had over seven times the rate of the lowest.

Experts told the Inquiry that the reasons for these variations are little understood. It was suggested that just 10 per cent of variations between local authorities in terms of the number of children in care could be explained by differing levels of deprivation in the those areas. It showed that while there appears to be a loose relationship between the two, there are many local authorities with relatively high levels of deprivation but low numbers of children in care, and vice versa.

The report said that variation cannot be explained by demographics alone, suggesting the key factor is local practice, specifically, difference in thresholds and in the interpretation of statutory duties.

The Inquiry heard evidence of variation in eligibility for support in terms of disabled children and children from migrant families. The Inquiry also heard that local authorities are taking widely divergent approaches to the challenges facing the system. Oxfordshire was planning to focus on the children in greatest need, while Dave Hill, President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services told the inquiry that in Essex where he is Executive Director, they had reduced the number of children in care and those subject to child protection plans through investment in earlier intervention, including multi systemic therapy and the troubled families programme.

Eleanor Schooling, Director of Social Care at Ofsted, told the Inquiry that caseloads could range from eight to 40 families, and that while all local authorities were able to recruit social workers, not all could keep them in post for long periods. The national vacancy rate for social workers at 30 September 2015 was 17 per cent, with 5,470 full-time equivalents nationally. However, 12 local authorities had over double the national average, with the highest local authority having a 57 per cent vacancy rate, over three times the national average.

The local authority spend varies widely too. The National Audit Office found that average reported spend on a child in need ranged from £340 in one local authority to £4,970 in another. Ashley McDougall, Director, National Audit Office, highlighted that there was no clear relationship between spend and either quality of services or outcomes.

“There is a clear need to improve understanding about the underlying causes of such wide variations in practice and outcomes. Whilst local authorities must be empowered to innovate and respond to local need, children and families must also have universal and consistent entitlements, no matter where they live,” said the Inquiry report No Good Options.

A statement from the APPGC on the latest Inquiry said: “To help us to understand this issue, we are keen to hear directly from social workers about their experience of dealing with care thresholds, and about how decisions are made in practice.  We want to hear from those from the full range of children’s social worker roles - from newly qualified social workers, to independent reviewing Officers, principle social workers and senior managers.”

Social workers can take the survey here.

 

 

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