An estimated 64,000 children a year are missing out on early help services and then being re-referred to children’s social care within 12 months, a report by Action for Children warns.
There were at least 320,000 missed opportunities to provide early help services to children who were then re-referred to social care within 12 months, between 2015/16 and 2019/20 which equates to an estimated 64,000 children a year, an FOI request by the charity found.
Imran Hussain, Director of Policy and Campaigns at Action for Children, said: “We should not be waiting for children to be in harm’s way before we help them. Despite the evidence that early help services reduce harm to our children and save money on more costly crisis intervention, the last decade has seen significant budget cuts to these services.”
When children are referred to social services for an assessment, and they do not meet the threshold for social care support, social workers have the option to close the assessment and make a ‘step down’ referral to early help.
Action for Children estimates there were 1.26 million occasions where a closed assessment did not lead to an early help referral. In one quarter of these cases, the child in question was re-referred to social care within 12 months, suggesting there were 320,000 missed opportunities to offer early help in this period.
The charity believes this means chances are being missed to protect children, reduce numbers of children going into care and help the pressures on overstretched and underfunded social services.
Government guidance highlights the importance of early help for children, but this is the first time that national data on the number of children getting early help has been collected.
The report shows there is significant regional variation and reported early help provision for 2019-20 ranges from around 1 in 6 children (15.7%) in Rotherham, to less than 1 in 150 (0.6%) in South Gloucestershire.
Nine out of 10 councils in England have reduced spending on early intervention services for children between April 2015 and April 2020.
Local authorities’ early intervention spending covers early help and a range of other preventative services, such as children’s centres, family support, and youth work.
Yet authorities such as Medway, Northamptonshire and Sunderland have seen their spending on early intervention fall by more than 70% since 2015.
Now, there are more than 10,000 more children in care than there were in 2013, and local authorities spend over 80% of their children’s services budgets on later intervention and crisis management. This is in spite of evidence suggesting that early help services can reduce the number of children going into care and save local authorities money by cutting the need for costly late intervention.
Action for Children proposes a new metric: the ‘prevention ratio’. This means that for every two children that receive targeted early help support, there are up to three children receiving more costly social care interventions. An effective social care system would see the majority of families that need support interacting with children’s services through the preventative services of early help, which is designed specifically to manage needs before they escalate.
Imran Hussain, Director of Policy and Campaigns at Action for Children, said: “The funding and the incentives in the system are working in the wrong way. The lack of early help leaves children vulnerable, and means we are only intervening when it’s too late. This leads to more children going into costly care later down the road. This is morally and economically nonsensical. There is nothing more costly than a missed opportunity.
“The ongoing children’s social care review by Josh MacAlister has rightly highlighted the importance of early help. We are urging the government to increase funding for early intervention and support councils to provide these services by introducing a legal duty to provide early help,” he concluded.
Action for Children is urging the government to improve early help services through:
Matt Dunkley, Chair of the ADCS Resources and Sustainability Policy Committee, said: “This report outlines the difficult financial position local authorities are in and the value of early help services. There is no doubt that the earlier we work with children and families to help them overcome the issues they face, the less impact these challenges will have on their lives but also on society as a whole. The problem is there is currently not enough funding in the system to enable this approach in all local authorities. For years, ADCS and others in the sector have called for long-term funding in early help and preventative services. The investment in Family Hubs is a positive step, and will build upon some of the important work that local authorities are already doing, but there is clearly a long way to go. Reduced funding for local authorities alongside increased need for our help and support has led to tough decisions about scaling back services.
“Services most at risk include those that tackle the root causes of the problems children and families face before they escalate. Before the pandemic, children’s services were dangerously close to becoming a ‘blue light service’ but we are now seeing greater complexity of need being presented by children and families. As the cost of living increases, more people will be pushed into poverty and more children and families will need our support. All local authorities recognise the benefits of early help and intervention, we want to support families earlier to improve their outcomes and prevent them from reaching crisis point, but we need more financial support from government to do so. For the Treasury, long term, equitable national investment in early help for all local authorities is not only a smart and efficient economic policy, but also the right thing to do. Children and families cannot, and should not, wait any longer, their life chances depend on it,” he concluded.
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