Care Crisis Review: overstretched and overwhelmed

The Care Crisis Review has unearthed “a palpable sense of unease” about how lack of resources, poverty and deprivation are making it harder for families and the children’s social care system to cope.

The seven-month sector led a review of the system included contributions from many stakeholders after Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division, stated in 2016: “We are facing a crisis and, truth be told, we have no very clear strategy for meeting the crisis. What is to be done?”

The review was a bid to identify and agree what is known about the factors contributing to the rise in proceedings and the rise in the number of children in care and confirmed the sense of crisis that is now felt by many young people, families and those working within the system.

“Many professionals described the frustration they feel at working in a sector that is overstretched and overwhelmed and in which, too often, children and families do not get the direct help they need early enough to prevent difficulties escalating,” said the review. “Many contributors to the Review also expressed a strong sense of concern that a culture of blame, shame and fear has permeated the system, affecting those working in it as well as the children and families reliant upon it. It was suggested that this had led to an environment that is increasingly mistrusting and risk-averse and prompts individuals to seek refuge in procedural responses.”

The Review found that there are many overlapping factors contributing to the rise in care proceedings and the number of children in care. This complex picture means that there is no single solution.

It identified that beneath the national average statistics are marked regional and local variations in rates of care order applications and children in care. Local authorities that are ‘statistical neighbours’, sharing similar economic and demographic pressures, can have marked differences in their rates of children coming into care. The reasons for these variations are not fully understood but they suggest that how the various factors intersect at a local level has a significant impact on demand for care.

Differences in the likelihood of some children becoming looked after are strongly linked to areas’ levels of deprivation. Poverty is associated with children coming into care and while levels of child poverty had been falling, they are rising again in both England and Wales and are strongly linked to welfare reforms.

Austerity means that local authority spending is not keeping pace with the steadily rising demand for children’s services. In England, cuts to early help and family support services (such as Sure Start) affect the ability to intervene early, despite evidence that, over time, early intervention services, properly targeted and of sufficient intensity, can reduce the risk of escalation to more serious problems.

Furthermore, children, young people and families in some local authorities say they are not getting the early offers of help they want to stop problems escalating. They value partnership working but feel ‘done to’ rather than ‘worked with’ and at times, experience social work interventions as unpleasant and unhelpful. In addition, they often have wider families that remain an ‘untapped resource’.

Practitioners in some local authorities say they are not supported to apply the principles, rights and duties underpinning the Children Act 1989 – working in partnership with families. They feel frustrated they have little time to establish relationships with children, young people and families because of high caseloads.

They feel overwhelmed by the wider issues facing families and are working in a system that is focused on risk and are ‘risk averse’.

The review outlines that the profile of children in care cases has remained fairly constant over the last decade in relation to the numbers of children involved in each case, the gender of children in proceedings, and the proportion of children returning to court. The exception is the age profile, with children generally getting older. The rise in the proportion of children aged 10 and over in care proceedings is believed to be linked to a number of factors: section 20/76 (voluntary care) cases coming before the court, children who are vulnerable or at risk from child sexual exploitation or other issues such as gang violence and ‘radicalisation’.

Many contributors expressed a strong sense of unease about a culture of blame, shame and fear affecting those working within the child welfare and family justice system, as well as children and families who are reliant upon it, often fuelled by media reports or interventions by politicians. Contributions to the Review highlighted that this was resulting in a growing sense of mistrust between those working at all levels, and between families and professionals.

“This complex picture means that there is no single solution,” said the review, although it acknowledged plenty of common agreement about the way forward.

There was consensus that relationship building has been and is at the heart of good practice. The challenge is how to create the conditions within children’s social care and family justice that allow good relationships to flourish everywhere, within and between agencies, within families, and between families and practitioners.

The Review concluded that there is currently “a significant untapped resource” that exists for some children in and on the edge of care, namely, their wider family and community. Greater focus on exploring and supporting this resource could safely avert more children needing to come into care or could help them thrive in the care system. The Review proposes options for change that are primarily focused on addressing these challenges.

The Review sets out 20 options for change which includes immediate steps that could be taken to move away from an undue focus on processes and performance indicators, to one where practitioners are able to stay focused on securing the right outcomes for each child. Other options for change emphasise the importance of shared visions and ethos across agencies, with leaders giving a consistent message, including modelling the way they want others to act.

  • They promote approaches, including family group conferences, in which families are supported to understand professionals’ concerns and to draw upon their own strengths and networks to make safe plans for their child, safely averting the need for some to enter the care system.
  • They highlight the ways in which statutory guidance, such as Working Together to Safeguard Children, can be changed in order to promote relationship-based practice.
  • It sets out opportunities for revitalising Family Justice Boards, and in Wales the Family Justice Network and other mechanisms, so that all can become places where challenges are discussed and solutions developed.
  • It includes proposals for the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education to examine the impact of benefit rules and policies, and the projected effect of planned benefit reforms, on the numbers of children entering or remaining in care.
  • It calls on the Ministry of Justice to undertake an impact assessment of the present lack of accessible, early, free, independent advice and information for parents and wider family members on the number of children subject to care proceedings or entering or remaining in the care system, and the net cost to the public purse.
  • The Review proposes that the National Family Justice Board revises the approach to measuring timescales, including the 26-week one for care proceedings.
  • The Review supports the call from the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) and the Local Government Association (LGA) for Government to make up the £2 billion shortfall in children’s social care.

“The Review has achieved its aim of developing a greater understanding across the sector about the factors contributing to the crisis and of involving a wide range of those involved in the system in identifying and developing options for change,” said the review.

“The next stage is much more important. For all of us to own the problem, reflect on messages from the Review, and consider the commitments we can make to safely tackle the crisis and improve the experiences of children, families and practitioners,” it concludes.

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