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Study links child poverty to entry in care system

Rising rates of child poverty are resulting in more children entering the care system, according to a new study.

The research, carried out by academics from Liverpool and Huddersfield universities, found that between 2015 and 2020, a 1% increase in child poverty rates was associated with an additional 5 children entering care per 100,000 in the same year.

The researchers estimate that, over the study period, 8.1% of care entries were linked to rising child poverty, equivalent to 10,356 additional children going into care.

“This study offers evidence that rising child poverty rates are contributing to an increase in children entering care. Children’s exposure to poverty creates and compounds adversity, driving poor health and social outcomes in later life. National anti-poverty policies are key to tackling adverse trends in care entry in England,” said the study, which was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) School for Public Health Research.

There has been a steep rise in the rate looked after children in England, from 53 per 10,000 in 2008, to 67 per 10,000 in 2020 – representing a rise of 26%.

The longitudinal ecological study of 147 local authorities between 2015 and 2020 linked data from the Department for Work and Pensions and HM Revenue & Customs on the proportion of children under 16 living in families with income less than 60% median income, with Department for Education data on rates of children under 16 entering care. The research, currently being peer reviewed, estimated the contribution of changing child poverty rates to changing care entry rates within areas.

As well as finding that child poverty was a key risk factor for care entry, the analysis shows that the rise in rates of care entry was greater in poorer areas, increasing inequalities.

“Between 2015 and 2020, across England, after controlling for employment rates, local authorities that saw a greater rise in child poverty experienced greater increases in the rate of children entering care, the most drastic State intervention into the lives of children and families. These same local authorities also experienced greater increases in rates of children becoming subject to a child protection plan and beginning an episode of need,” said the report.

Policies in the UK restricting the eligibility and generosity of welfare benefits may have contributed to rising rates of costly and acute out-of-home care interventions, deepening place-based inequalities in health and wellbeing. The consequences for local authority finances extend beyond children’s social care to restrict funding for other health promoting place-based public services.

The research also backs evidence in the US and finds that In England, shocks to families’ household income affects children’s experiences of adversity and their outcomes of interactions with child protection systems.

This study suggests that local authorities should embed poverty-informed policies in children’s services and beyond. But national welfare policies are ultimately key to shifting population-level exposure to child poverty, an important socioeconomic determinant of care entry.

National efforts to reverse adverse trends in care entry, interrupt spiralling and reduce inequalities, should prioritise poverty alleviation. Policymakers should set ambitious, achievable child poverty targets. Increasing the generosity of welfare support to families with children would likely have a rapid and lasting impact. In the UK, restoring the £20 universal credit uplift, extending the same uplift to those on legacy benefits, and reversing cuts to welfare benefits, including the two-child limit and lowered benefit cap, would lift millions of children out of poverty.

These policy proposals, the research states, would dovetail with the UK government’s own ‘levelling-up’ post-pandemic recovery agenda, disproportionately benefitting the most deprived communities. Meanwhile, increasing funding to local authorities would support a shift away from reactive, acute intervention, towards preventive support.

The report says that while the analysis presents a grim picture, child poverty is a modifiable risk factor for care entry, highly amenable to policy intervention – where there is political will.

ADCS President Charlotte Ramsden said: “One in three children in England are living in poverty today, their experiences can often be overlooked and their voices go unheard. It means cold homes, overcrowding, hunger and stress which can lead to family breakdown. It means charities stepping in to fill the gaps left by the state and schools feeding pupils and their families over the summer. This is simply unacceptable. ADCS continues to call on government to implement a child poverty reduction strategy.”

“This latest study on the relationship between child poverty and involvement with children’s social care further highlights the detrimental and lasting impacts of poverty on children’s lives. Clearly, national government can and must do more to tackle this growing issue which will only have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Poverty is not inevitable. If the government is committed to ‘levelling up’ then it must invest in strategies that reduce child poverty, not just because it makes smart economic sense but because it is simply the right thing to do,” she added.

Child poverty and children entering care: a natural experiment using longitudinal area level data in England, 2015-2020

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