Last week the President of the Family Courts, Sir James Munby, issued a dire warning about the continuing rise in care applications which show no sign of slowing any time soon. He described a system at crisis point with “everyone working as hard as they can” but worryingly claimed there was no clear strategy in place for meeting the ever increasing need.
Sir James did suggest that there were likely to be three possible causes for the increase in care applications – which have doubled in the past ten years – the first being that there was now more abuse and neglect than there was ten years ago; the second that local authorities were becoming more adept at spotting possible abuse and thirdly that local authorities had lowered their thresholds for intervention.
Although no research has yet been undertaken to identify the most likely causes the probability is that all three of the above have played some part, although I am less convinced by the suggestion that local authorities have lowered thresholds to any significant degree. The reasons are likely to be rather more complicated and involve a myriad of factors dating right back to the Peter Connelly case (Baby P) in 2008.
A fourth reason not mentioned by the President could well relate to the high profile child abuse scandals over the past five years covered extensively by the mainstream media – and epitomised by the fallout from the Jimmy Savile scandal – which have served to heighten public awareness of child abuse in general.
In addition, the chaotic nature of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) which was set up in 2014 and which is now on its fourth chairperson, has also served to keep the issue of child protection in the forefront of people’s minds.
Given that members of the general public work in public services such as education, health and the police – the three main routes from which child protection referrals come to local authorities’ attention – it stands to reason that social care services are being asked to investigate ever increasing numbers of potential safeguarding concerns, a number of which inevitably end up in care proceedings. Indeed, this is evidenced by the fact that the number of children subject to child protection plans has seen a 70% increase between 2009 and 2015 (from 29,200 to 49,700).
A further complicating factor is the fallout from the Baby P case which saw a dramatic increase in care applications back in 2009-10 largely, it was suggested, as a result of risk aversion on the part of social workers who had been roundly condemned for failures in that particular case and which cost Sharon Shoesmith, the Director of Children’s Services at Haringey, her job. The fallout from other high profile child deaths covered extensively by the media such as Daniel Pelka (2012) and Ayesha Jane Smith (2014) will hardly have served to encourage social workers or their managers to take more risks.
Perhaps of more interest in the President’s recent statement was his suggestion that family courts could be encouraged to assist in the process of tackling the causes of care cases. He cited the success of the Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) and Pause project which supports women at risk of repeat removals of children. He claimed programmes such as these were “the only hope” of bringing the system back under control.
Whilst this is a laudable aim, the reality is that the increase in the number of care cases is set against a backdrop of huge cuts to local authority budgets. It should be remembered that services like FDAC have benefitted from significant funding from central government – in 2015 the scheme received £2.5 million from the Children’s Social Care Innovation programme – while local authority children’s services across the UK have been forced to make swingeing cuts.
Preventative services such as bespoke parenting programmes for young and vulnerable parents are few and far between. Rarely are these parents given the right support in the community prior to proceedings being commenced. Once under the jurisdiction of the court, they have only a 26-week window to address parenting concerns – less once assessments have been completed – so the chances are they will fail.
The best opportunities for these parents are therefore to be had before the courts get involved. When social workers and other professionals like health visitors can work to change damaging parental behaviours over time. Often it is a moment of crisis that the best change can be effected in parents and it is these windows of opportunity that need to be taken.
However, in a climate of diminishing resources local authorities will struggle to provide the type of preventative programmes that parents and vulnerable children so badly need. Although Sir James Mumby rightly recognises the need for more services like FDAC they need to be focused towards prevention. This means delivered prior to a care application being made. To this end local authorities must either find ways to deliver such interventions in a difficult economic climate or the numbers of cases going through the family courts will continue to rise.