Special report: Care applications reach record high

Cafcass received the highest ever number of care applications in February as figures reached a record high of 1,225 applications.

Local authorities made 1,040 care applications in January and the figure rose by a huge 27 per cent to 1,225 in February, the statistics recorded by the Children and Family Court Advisory Service show.

Prior to February, the highest number of care applications were made in July 2015 when there were 1,120 care applications made to courts. Yet the applications in February were almost 10 per cent higher than the previous record high.

So far in 2015-16, there has been a record number of care applications over the year. With March statistics still to be recorded for the year’s total, there has already been 11,513 care applications compared with 11,157 in 2014-2015.

Cafcass has received in excess of 1,000 new care applications per month

The total number of care applications in 2011-2012 were 10,225 and this rose to 11,110 in 2012-2013. This figure fell to 10,620 in 2013-2014 before rising again to 11,157 in 2014-15.

The Cafcass report states: “Between April 2015 and February 2016, Cafcass received 11,513 new care applications. This figure is 14% 1,425 applications higher than the same period last year and 19% higher when compared to the same period in 2013-14 financial year.

“The 1,225 new care applications received in February 2016 is the highest number of applications received by Cafcass in any individual month. On average Cafcass has received in excess of 1,000 new care applications per month during the current financial year,” the report added.

A local authority can apply to a court to take a child into care when the authority believes a child is being neglected and not having their basic needs met such as being given enough to eat or drink and being clean or when the authority suspects the child is being abused physically, sexually or emotionally.

61% are in care due to abuse or neglect

The statistics are backed up by a Department for Education report published late last year which confirmed that the number of children in care rose from 68,800 in March 2014 to 69,540 in March 2015.

The DfE report said that there were 69,540 looked after children on 31 March 2015, a 1 per cent increase from 31 March 2014 and a six per cent rise from 31 March 2011.

“This rise is not just a reflection of a rise in the child population: in 2015, 60 children per 10,000 of the population were looked after, an increase from 2011 when 58 children per 10,000 of the population were looked after,” said the report. “The number of looked after children has increased steadily over the past seven years and it is now higher than at any point since 1985

“Whilst the reasons why children start to be looked after have remained relatively stable since 2011, the percentage starting to be looked after due to family dysfunction has increased slightly (16% of children in 2015 compared with 14% in 2011). The majority of looked after children – 61% in 2015 - are looked after by the state due to abuse or neglect,” it added.

An NSPCC spokesperson said: “Since 2002 the number of children in the protection system has shot up by an astonishing 80%.  A trend that has been reflected by the fact that there were 61,709 contacts to our helpline from adults concerned about a child’s welfare in 2014/15 – 21% more than the previous year.

“For some children being taken into care is the best way to protect them after they have suffered abuse or neglect but we also need early tailored support for families who are struggling. Sadly for every child on a protection plan, another eight have suffered abuse and remain outside the view of local authorities,” added the spokesperson.

Social work practice may be more risk averse

Speaking exclusively to Children First, Noel Arnold, Director of Legal Practice at Coram Children's Legal Centre, said it was impossible to say with absolute certainty why the number of care applications peaked in February.

“There has been no change in law over the last few months although local authorities may have started to review cases where children are already looked after by virtue of section 20 agreements. The Court of Appeal case of Re N (Children), warned of the misuse of section 20 agreements and so some local authorities may have decided to make applications to the Family Court in respect of some of those section 20 cases following any internal review,” said Arnold. “There are a number of possible drivers for the increased figures: one possible driver could be that more families are struggling to cope practically and financially as a result of social deprivation, which may have led to child protection concerns.”

“It may be that care applications have risen as a result of possibly more risk averse social work practice. While social workers are working with children and families to keep children safe, they may feel that their concerns are increasing such that they end up carrying a higher degree of risk than they are willing to carry. Once an application to the court is made, in a sense the risk is being shared sitting on the shoulders of Children’s services as well as the court,” he said, adding that even if one or two local authorities suddenly took a more risk averse approach this could contribute to a spike in the numbers of care applications.

Better identification

Anthony Douglas, chief executive of Cafcass, told Children First that the main reasons for the long term rise are:

  • more referrals to local authorities of children in need and at risk (a certain percentage of which always go through to care proceedings).
  • Better identification of need and better reviewing.
  • The impact of the focus of the Public Law Outline (PLO) and measures in the 2014 Children and Families Act, to reduce drift and delay in cases and put a sharper focus on decision making and outcomes (which has led to fewer reunifications of children into homes where the level of abuse and neglect was fundamentally unchanged).
  • New types of case in growing numbers such as child sexual exploitation referrals.

Serious concern

However local authority children’s services leaders have warned that the pressure on authorities needs to be better understood, particularly given the current financial restraints.

Dave Hill, Vice President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said: “Up and down the country, each and every day, local authorities are actively working to protect vulnerable children and young people from harm.

“These figures show an increase in the numbers of care applications being made for children and young people with the highest level of need, this is something we are committed to doing when necessary even in the most challenging circumstances, with more children in need of help and support and less and less resources to do so.

“To date there has been some protection around core services at the expense of vital early intervention and prevention services such as youth work and children’s centres but now in many places core services are at risk.

“This is a matter of serious concern for Directors of Children’s Services and the sector as a whole and government must recognise that demand for children’s services must be better understood and adequately funded so that children, young people and their families can lead happy and successful lives,” added Hill.

Social workers work under high pressure

However, Douglas warned that Cafcass was seeing some creative approaches, such as in Leeds City Council which has reduced their number of care applications partly through establishing city-wide family group conferencing teams, who work with parents at risk of losing their children. In their first six months of operation, out of 241 children, 91 remained within their extended families without court involvement.

“Many other individual councils are reducing their numbers with strong early help or pre-proceedings programmes,” said Douglas.

He stressed that social workers operate in a high-pressure environment but outlined how Cafcass was aiming to help with that pressure. “In Cafcass, we’re operating at several levels to help our staff respond to the load – at a local level we’re part of many pre-proceedings pilots and schemes aiming to work with families to safely divert away from care, or to make proceedings as effective as possible where they are necessary.

Arnold said that it is impossible to tell whether or not the trend will continue when March figures are published. “If something has happened to cause that spike, it is not necessarily an indication that it will continue. What usually happens is following a spike, things tend to calm down and we see more of a stabilisation.”

However, Douglas warned that the rising statistics of care applications were likely to continue: “More recently we are seeing the impact of local authorities reviewing their section 20 cases, and converting some into applications for care proceedings. We have also seen increases in unaccompanied children entering the country who are then accommodated by local authorities – most on a voluntary basis but some in care,” he said.

The NSPCC spokesperson concluded: “Being taken into care can be just one part of a difficult journey for abused children. Despite the psychological and emotional impact of their horrendous experiences many abused children struggle to access therapy that can help them move forward. The NSPCC recently launched a campaign, IT’s Time, to call for improved services that meet the specific needs of this vulnerable group.”



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