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‘Postcode lottery’ of social care threatens children’s safety

Children often have to be at ‘significant risk’ before getting help, finds report

Caroline White

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

A “postcode lottery” of social care provision is putting vulnerable children’s safety at risk, with cash constraints dictating what help can be given, finds a report* published by the All Parliamentary Group for Children (APPGC) today on behalf of the National Children’s Bureau.

Children often have to be at “significant risk” before they get help, it says.

More than four in five directors of Children’s Services surveyed for the inquiry that informed the report described a “postcode lottery” of support, where children facing similar problems get very different levels of help early on, depending on where they live. Almost two thirds of respondents said this even applied to cases where the child was at “significant risk”.

Concerns about variations between services were supported by the inquiry’s analysis of “threshold documents”, which set out how local areas must respond to children’s needs.

Some of these documents differed notably from each other in the response they prescribed, including help for children who self-harm, those in families subjected to domestic violence, and those who need support with housing problems.

Social workers highlighted that when services did step in, it was increasingly only when children and families had reached crisis point. Of the 1700 social workers surveyed for the inquiry, 70 per cent said the threshold for helping “children in need” – a legal term applied to children who require extra support but are not at risk of serious harm – had risen in the last three years, with half saying the point at which a child protection plan was triggered had gone up.

Evidence given to the inquiry suggested that funding constraints are affecting day-to-day decisions about whether to intervene to support a child. Budget pressures not only undermined decisions about how to help a child early on, but also influenced whether to take action to safeguard children at risk of harm.

Professionals described a system where decisions don’t seem transparent and are hard to understand. The inquiry heard of incidences where children and families already receiving support were deemed to no longer reach the threshold for help because their local authority had shifted its priorities to more acute cases, or they had moved to an area which didn’t help families at their level of need.

Tim Loughton, chair of the APPGC and former children’s minister, said: “Children and families around the country with the same urgent needs are getting significantly different levels of help, and in some case, no support at all.

“In some places, the pressure on children’s services is so acute it is leaving social workers feeling that the only tool available to them to keep a child safe is to remove them from their family. As a result, families may look at these skilled and caring professionals with mistrust. But this is wrong. It is the woeful underfunding by government of a proper breadth of social care interventions that is to blame.”

Anna Feuchtwang, director of the National Children’s Bureau, said: “It makes no moral sense that families are left to face crisis and children are put at risk of serious harm because services are chronically underfunded.

“What’s more, it makes no financial sense. The evidence from social workers, academics and service leaders is overwhelming: early help services reduce the need for crisis support later on…This is storing up trouble and it cannot go on.”

The APPGC is now calling on the government to address the funding gap for children’s social care services as a matter of urgency and put in place a sustainable long-term funding settlement for early help and preventative services.

The government should consult on how to introduce a legal duty on local authorities to provide early help to children, young people and their families, providing a statutory “safety net” for these services, it says.

And it recommends that the government expand its review of children in need to gather evidence on thresholds for accessing “children in need” support and what underlies variation in the proportion of children designated “in need” across the country.

Dr Alison Steele, Child Protection officer for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said that it was “completely unacceptable that a child’s postcode determines the level of support they receive and how soon they receive it.”

She added: “We feel that the National Children’s Bureau are correct and lack of resources are influencing decisions about whether to offer support to vulnerable children.”

Poverty was often at the root of the problem, she said. “A reduction in public health budgets has reduced support for families living in poverty and is preventing them from receiving important help. Without investment in early help and preventative services, we are going to see more children entering the child protection system and a dismal situation could turn into a dire one.”

*Storing Up Trouble: A postcode lottery of children’s social care> A report prepared by the All Parliamentary Group for Children, July 2018.

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