More children referred to children’s services in the initial six months of the Covid-19 pandemic were not previously known to social care services, analysis by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services has stated.
Families who were just about coping pre-pandemic and would not normally come to the attention of social care were then presenting to children’s services in need of significant help, the ADCS said.
“More children were presenting at a later stage, once issues were complex and entrenched, and then immediately becoming subjects of child protection plans or proceedings,” the analysis said.
The ADCS has published the full report of its latest iteration of Safeguarding Pressures research. The report draws together survey responses from 129 of all local authorities in England, covering 89% of England’s children and young people population, providing an insight into the safeguarding related pressures facing children’s services across the country.
Based on local authority responses, there were an estimated 2.5 million initial contacts in 2019/20, an increase of 5% in the last two years. It is difficult to conclude how many children this represents, as some children will have been the subject of multiple contacts during the year. However, it can be summised that this is an average of 6,910 contacts a day received by children’s services ‘front door’ arrangements.
The ADCS reports that there were 642,980 referrals to children’s social care in 2019/20, an increase of 19% since 2008. There were an estimated 284,400 referrals to children’s social care in the six months up to 30 September 2020.
Police continue to be the biggest source of contacts and referrals, with the number (and proportion of the total) from health and education increasing incrementally over the years. Primary health services and A&E departments are the two biggest components of health referrals – with referrals from A&E alone outstripping those from school nurses, health visitors and GPs combined.
The majority of respondents report a reduction in referrals in the first quarter (April to June) and slowly increasing. There were reports of a surge in referrals from October onwards for some authorities, whilst others saw referrals return to their normal levels. Since March 2020, there were fewer referrals from schools, which are traditionally one of the highest sources of referrals, due to school closures, and an increase in those from the public and self-referrals.
There were 665,660 assessments in England in 2019/20, an increase of 5.5% in the last two years. At 31st March 2020, there were 389,260 children in need. There were 201,000 Section 47 enquiries undertaken in England in 2019/20, which represented an increase of 1% in the last two years and reflects a levelling off of the significant increase of previous years. The number of Section 47 enquiries extrapolated to all England between April to September 2020 is 90,700.
Fewer children leaving care
In 2019-20, 66,970 children became subjects of child protection plans in England, reflecting that the year-on-year increase in the number of children becoming subjects of child protection plans has plateaued.
The number of children subjects of child protection plans at 30th September 2020 is 53,800. There were 4% more children subjects of child protection plans at 30th September 2020 compared to the same period the previous year.
Local authorities reported an increase in children becoming subjects of child protection plans during the first six months of the Covid-19 pandemic, more children remained subjects of plans and fewer children were stepped down from plans due to potential heightened risk, and absence of other support services.
Policy relating to children looked after and care leavers has been subject of more reviews and legislative change than other aspects of children’s social care.
“Numbers of children looked after continue to rise suggesting that the factors and determinants which lead to children becoming looked after, remain unresolved,” said the report.
The number of children looked after at 31st March 2020 is increasing, despite a reduction in the number of children who are starting to be looked after. This suggests that the increase in the number of children looked after is not due to more children becoming looked after, but fewer children leaving care.
There were 80,080 children looked after at 31st March 2020 and the number of children looked after at 30th September 2020 extrapolated to all England is 81,900 - an increase of 34% in 12 years and up 6% since 2018/19.
There was a 4% increase in children who were subjects of child protection plans at 30th September 2020 compared to the same period last year.
Adults experiencing domestic abuse, mental health difficulties or substance misuse, are the most common reasons why children come to the attention of early help and/or children’s social care services.
Complexity of need
The report warns that £824 million is required just for children’s services to ‘stay still’ while nearly half of the respondents to the survey reported a reduction in funding ranging between 15% and 30%. Funding for the Troubled Families Programme continues to prop up the delivery of early help services in children’s services, it adds.
Local authority budget cuts and reductions in funding for other public agencies over the past decade have prevented children’s services and their partners from providing targeted, early intervention with families to prevent them from reaching crisis point. In 2019 it was estimated that children’s social care alone was facing a
£3.1 billion funding gap by March 2025.
The real impact of Covid-19 on safeguarding children is only now starting to become apparent with predicted increases in referrals and complexity of need.
The report concludes that some local authorities are supporting children and families against a backdrop of significant increases in referrals to children’s social care, children coming into care and a rising number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. This is coupled with financial pressures mounting on local authorities, such as lost income to local areas over the past year, or the increasing costs of private placements for children in care.
Jenny Coles, ADCS President, said: “A year of disruption is impacting on children’s physical, mental and emotional health and wellbeing as well as their education. Some children and young people will have found the last few months traumatic, stressful or even scary and we are already starting to see a new cohort of families in distress that we have not worked with before requiring our help and support. However, the true effect of the pandemic on children, families and children’s services is not yet known and will be felt for many years to come. For many, this will have exacerbated pre-existing challenges such as poverty, hunger, parental ill health and domestic abuse. National recovery plans must extend beyond mitigating lost learning. There can be no delay in levelling up the social, health, education and geographical inequalities made more visible by the pandemic. Children’s life chances and all of our futures depend on it.”
“The seventh Safeguarding Pressures report adds to the growing evidence base showing the mounting challenges children and families are facing and the difficulties local authorities have in meeting the levels of need in our communities against the backdrop of a 50% real terms fall in local government funding over the last decade. It also shows that the herculean efforts of our workforce to adapt and support children and families during the pandemic. The government must provide the sector with a sustainable, equitable and long-term financial settlement that enables children to thrive, not just survive in the wake of the pandemic by supporting them early. We are all committed to making this a country that works for all children, we urgently need the backing of government to make this happen,” she concluded.
Safeguarding Pressures Phase 7 report, executive summary and children’s services timelines can be found here.