One in five children referred to social care before age of five

Climate of suspicion results in surge in referrals to children’s social care

More than 20 per cent of children were referred to children’s social care before their fifth birthday in the financial year 2009-10, according to research carried out for the British Journal of Social Work.

Based on a Freedom of Information request with data from 75 per cent of all English children’s services departments covering over half a million children, the research carried out by the University of Lancashire and published by Oxford University Press, found that 22.5 per cent of children born in the 2009–10 financial year were referred to children’s social care before their fifth birthday.

The most common reasons for children to be in need that social workers recorded were ‘abuse and neglect’  with7.78 per cent of children born in 2009–10, rather than physical or sexual abuse. National statistics on children of all ages show large increases of child protection plans due to neglect and emotional abuse in the last five years. In 2015 more than three quarters of all child protection plans were for these two reasons. In contrast, plans following sexual abuse had changed little and those from physical abuse had fallen slightly.

Lead researcher and Associate Director of UCLan’s Centre for Children and Young People’s Participation, Professor Andy Bilson, said: “I was shocked to find that at least 11% of this half a million children came under suspicion of abuse or neglect before they were five. The tragic deaths of children like Ayeeshia Smith, and desperation not to be the one who misses the early signs next time, have led to a climate of suspicion with increasing numbers of children in care and adopted, and child protection investigations spiralling.”

The report found:

  • 5 per cent of children born in the 2009–10 financial year were referred to children’s social care before their fifth birthday.
  • Three-quarters of those were at some point assessed.
  • Almost two-thirds found to be in need and a quarter formally investigated.
  • One in every nine children born in 2009–10 was suspected by social workers of being abused.

Increasing stress on families

During much of the five-year period covered by the FoI request, the safeguarding policy attempted to reduce statutory assessments and investigations through provision of Early Help and the Common Assessment Framework. However, the national statistics show that, instead of a reduction, there was a rapid increase in investigations.

Child protection investigations increased by 79.4 per cent between 2009–10 and 2014–15 whilst the numbers of referrals to local authority children’s services  rose by 5.3 per cent and children in need rose by 6.8 per cent and so changed very little in comparison.

Despite the increasing focus on Early Help, there was a rise from 89,300 to 160,200 investigations a year. A higher proportion of referred children - 14.8 per cent in 2009/10 increasing to 25.2 per cent in 2014/15 - and children in need - from 23.6 per cent to 39.7 per cent - were investigated. There was an increase in children placed on a child protection plan, 40.4 per cent over the six-year period, however, the much larger increase in investigations meant that the number of children who came under suspicion and were investigated but were not found to be significantly harmed more than doubled from 45,000 to 98,000.

“This increasing trend, in which over 60 per cent of investigations do not find that children are suffering or likely to suffer significant harm, is increasing the stress on and causing harm to a growing number of families and simultaneously reducing the likelihood that these children receive help,” said the report.

Toxic mix

Bilson explains that children’s services are under considerable pressure to investigate more mainly because of government, media and public responses to child deaths and an Ofsted inspection regime that is covering its back. The Early Help policy was introduced to try to ensure children receive support from all agencies to prevent abuse and neglect but the government has reduced funding for early intervention by 55% since 2010.

Bilson describes a “toxic mix” in which schools, health staff and police are all trying to defend themselves by passing on even the smallest concern to children’s services leading to an 80% increase in child protection investigations over the last five years. As a result, social workers are swamped by the “growing tide of investigative work” which leaves them with little time to help families work through problems which may have led to a referral.

“An increasing proportion of investigations do not find children to be significantly harmed. These inconclusive investigations have more than doubled from 45,000 to 98,000 in the last five years leading to many more families being unnecessarily put through the trauma of an accusation that they are harming their child. By 2014-15 less than two in every five child protection investigations found significant harm leading to a child protection plan. There is little or no evidence that this growing culture of high levels of suspicion of abuse provides better protection for children and some evidence that unfounded investigations are in themselves harmful,” said Bilson.

In addition, where significant harm is not found, parents tend to reject voluntary support following an investigation suggesting that unfounded investigations have the effect of alienating parents, placing additional stress on them and simultaneously reducing the likelihood that vulnerable children will receive the help they need.

The report also highlights that the 22.5 per cent of all children referred to social care is likely to be concentrated in the areas of greatest deprivation, where children are 11 times more likely to be on a child protection plan or in care compared to those living in the least deprived areas. These children in the most deprived areas live where poverty, instability of housing, crime, poor health and many other stressors are commonplace. In these communities, parents experience higher-than-average levels of suspicion and investigation.

Spiralling net-widening climate of fear

The paper calls for a new framework for social work that provides a tighter focus for investigations and instead works on alleviating deprivation and developing family and community strengths to provide better lives for children. “Children need to be protected but there is little evidence to suggest that this is achieved by the current scale of statutory involvement which brings ever higher levels of suspicion, shame and fear on a considerable proportion of families in the most deprived areas where this activity is concentrated,” concluded Bilson.

Andy Pithouse, Professor of Social Research from the School of Social Sciences at the University of Cardiff, commented: “This exceptional landmark study puts into sharp relief the extraordinary scale of child protection referrals and investigations in England and the worrying absence of family support services for the very many children and parents whose circumstances do not warrant intervention but who nonetheless have significant needs.

“This picture of social work in a spiralling net-widening climate of fear, suspicion and all too often unfounded concerns over child harm, is unlikely to be confined to England. It demands a response by governments across the UK to ensure that children and families get early, caring, durable support they can trust.”

Co-chair of the Association of Professors of Social Work and Professor of Social Work at the University of Huddersfield Brid Featherstone said: “This research obliges urgent debate about whether we need to re-think how the system responds to families experiencing difficulties. Are we too often reacting with an investigation when what may be needed is help?”

The link between children living in deprived areas being more likely to be on a child protection plan will be investigated in a further paper.

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