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More than 2m children in ‘complex’ family circumstances

It is unclear whether 1.6m are getting any help at all, children’s commissioner warns

Published on 4th July 2018

More than two million children are living in complex family circumstances which make them vulnerable, the children’s commissioner for England has warned.

The report, “The Children’s Commissioner’s 2018 Report into Childhood Vulnerability”, estimates that 2.1 million of England’s 11.8 million children – one in six – are living in families with risks so serious that they need some level of help. This includes 1.6 million vulnerable children where the support is effectively ‘invisible’ – as it is unclear whether they are receiving any coordinated help, despite the difficulties they are growing up with.

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said: “Over a million of the most vulnerable children in England cannot meet their own ambitions because they are being let down by a system that doesn’t recognise or support them – a system that too often leaves them and their families to fend for themselves until crisis point is reached.

“Not every vulnerable child needs state intervention, but this research gives us – in stark detail – the scale of need and the challenges ahead. Meeting them will not be easy or cost-free. It will require additional resources, effectively targeted, so that we move from a system that marginalises vulnerable children to one which helps them,” she added.

The report brings together a range of information held by various government departments, agencies and others to reveal the scale of child vulnerability in England.

The 2.1 million children growing up in families with complex needs includes:

  • 890,000 children whose parents have severe mental health problems
  • 825,000 children are living in homes with domestic violence
  • 470,000 children have parents with substance misuse problems
  • 100,000 children are living in a family with a “toxic trio” (mental health problems, domestic violence and alcohol and/or substance abuse)
  • 470,000 children live in material deprivation
  • 170,000 children are carers for their parents or siblings

Furthermore, the report finds that of the 2.1 million children in families with complex needs 310,000 children are classified as ‘children in need’, 410,000 are in families that are being, or have previously been, supported by the Troubled Families programme and 30,000 are the registered with their council as a young carer.

However, the report warns that there are considerable overlaps between these groups as many of the children in so-called Troubled Families are also children in need themselves. Once these overlaps are taken into account, the total number of number of children who are actually known to receive some kind of support comes to only 570,000. This leaves behind another 1.6 million children for whom it is unknown if they are actually getting any sort of formal or structured support – despite their potentially serious family circumstances.

Anne Longfield added: “Supporting vulnerable children should be the biggest social justice challenge of our time. Every day we see the huge pressures on the family courts, schools and the care systems of failing to take long-term action. The cost to the state is ultimately greater than it should be, and the cost to those vulnerable children missing out on support can last a lifetime.

“We get the society we choose – and at the moment we are choosing to gamble with the futures of hundreds of thousands of children,” she added.

Cllr Roy Perry, Vice Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: “This is just the latest in a series of stark warnings about the huge number of children and families in need of help and support, and highlights the immense challenge facing councils and their partners as they try to address growing levels of need with rapidly diminishing resources.

“We want the government to heed these increasingly urgent warnings and accept the critical need for properly funded children's services, which face a funding gap of £3 billion by 2025 just to keep services running at current levels.

“We have long warned of the rising demand councils face, with an average of more than 270 children taken into care or placed on a child protection plan every single day to keep them safe from harm.

“This is becoming unsustainable, with many areas struggling to cope. This report provides further evidence that children's services are being pushed to the brink, and desperately need new resources if they are to provide the essential support that our children and young people rely on and deserve,” he added.

Referring to the 825,000 children are living in homes with domestic violence and 100,000 children are living in a family with a “toxic trio”, Barnardo’s Chief Executive, JavedKhan said: “These shocking figures bring home the impact of domestic abuse on children.

“We know from our specialist services that they are victims and not just witnesses, even if abuse and violence isn’t aimed directly at them.

“Growing up in families where there is domestic abuse or violence can have a serious emotional impact, causing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which can stay with children for life.

“Research in our services shows many children who have been sexually exploited, or who show harmful sexual behaviour live in households where there is abuse or violence. They are also more likely to be in abusive relationships themselves later in life.

“The government needs to put children at the centre of its strategy in its Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill and ensure they receive specialist support early to overcome trauma and go on to lead happy, healthy lives,” he concluded.

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