Vulnerable children at risk through postcode lottery of care

Four in five children’s directors say support varies from area to area

Published on 11th July 2018

The children’s social care system varies ‘wildly’ from one area to another with children’s safety being jeopardised, a report has warned.

The All Party Parliamentary Group for Children has carried out an inquiry which found that vulnerable children face a postcode lottery in levels of support.

Tim Loughton MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children and former Children’s Minister, said: “Children and families around the country with the same urgent needs are getting significantly different levels of help, and in some case, no support at all.

“This is true for families who struggle to cope on low income, living in poor housing which puts their children’s health in jeopardy. It’s true for children who are harming themselves yet are kept waiting for treatment because they aren’t at immediate risk of suicide. These people need help now, regardless of where they live.

“In some places, the pressure on children’s services is so acute it is leaving social workers feeling that the only tool available to them to keep a child safe is to remove them from their family. As a result, families may look at these skilled and caring professionals with mistrust. But this is wrong. It is the woeful underfunding by government of a proper breadth of social care interventions that is to blame,” he added.

The inquiry found that more than four out of five directors of children’s services surveyed by the inquiry described a postcode lottery of support, where children facing similar problems get different levels of help early on depending on where they live, with almost two thirds saying this even applied to cases where the child was at significant risk.

Further, children had to reach crisis before children’s services would step in. Of the 1,700 social workers surveyed, 70 per cent said the threshold for helping ‘children in need’ had risen in the last three years, with half saying the point at which a child protection plan was triggered had gone up.

Funding constraints are affecting day-to-day decisions about whether to intervene to support a child. Budget pressures particularly undermined decisions about how to help a child early on, through family support, teenage pregnancy interventions, respite breaks for the families of disabled children, youth clubs and children’s centres. There were also accounts that pressures on resources are influencing decisions about whether to take action to safeguard children at risk of harm.

Professionals described a system where decisions do not seem transparent and are hard to understand. There were incidences where children and families already receiving support were deemed to no longer reach the threshold for help because their local authority was shifting its priorities to more acute cases, or they had moved to an area which didn’t help families at their level of need.

Anna Feuchtwang, director of the National Children’s Bureau, said: “It makes no moral sense that families are left to face crisis and children are put at risk of serious harm because services are chronically underfunded.

“What’s more, it makes no financial sense. The evidence from social workers, academics and service leaders is overwhelming: early help services reduce the need for crisis support later on. It is a farce that social workers and service leaders have to put cases to one side because they haven’t got the resources to intervene – knowing full well that many of those same cases will be back with a vengeance later, at much greater personal cost to our children and families and at much greater expense to our services. This is storing up trouble and it cannot go on.”

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children is urging the government to address the gap in funding for children’s social care services and put in place a sustainable long-term funding settlement for early help and preventative services. It also calls for government to consult on how to introduce a legal duty on local authorities to provide early help to children, young people and their families, providing a statutory ‘safety net’ for these services.

The government should also expand its review of children in need to gather evidence on thresholds for accessing ‘children in need’ support under s.17 and what underlies variation in the proportion of children designated ‘in need’ across the country.

Cllr Roy Perry, Vice Chairman of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board said: “We are pleased that MPs and peers have backed our long-standing call for government to address the funding gap facing children’s services, which will reach £3 billion by 2025.

“This report is yet further evidence that children's services are being pushed to the brink, and of the critical need for councils to be given the resources to provide the essential support that our children and young people rely on and deserve.

“The fact some children now have to reach crisis point before they get support is a sad and shocking indictment of how inadequately funded children’s services are.

“Councils are currently seeing more than 270 children taken into care or placed on a child protection plan every single day to keep them safe from harm. These numbers are becoming unsustainable, with many areas now struggling to cope.

“It is vital the government heeds these warnings and fully funds children’s services so councils can support families before problems escalate to the point where a child might need to come into care,” he concluded.

‘Storing up trouble: A postcode lottery of children’s social care’



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