Are the cuts in local support services leading to more disabled children going into care? Ben Cook looks at the evidence
With funding for disabled children’s services set to be slashed by up to 15% in the coming year, the future for many children with disabilities looks bleak. Some families are close to breaking point as a result of the stresses and strains brought on by caring for a disabled child; now they may be forced to place them in care.
Although data on disabled children being placed in care as a result of cuts is scarce, there is anecdotal evidence that some parents are having to resort to this extreme course of action.
Contact a Family, a charity for families with disabled children, says it has not gathered evidence of disabled children going into care as a result of cuts because it may take time for the effect of the cuts to “filter down” to the frontline. However, the charity highlights the case of Riven Vincent, the mother of a severely disabled six-year-old girl, as evidence of the effect of cuts on disabled children and their families. Vincent posted a message on the online forum Mumsnet in January saying that she could not cope because her local authority, South Gloucestershire, had refused to provide her with extra respite support to help with her daughter’s care.
Srabani Sen, chief executive of Contact a Family, says it is in no one’s interest for disabled children to be placed in care.
“It has a devastating impact on families and isn’t what parents or children want,” she says. “It’s also very costly for local authorities at a time when budgets are squeezed – evidence shows that investing in disabled children’s services that are responsive to families’ needs reduces the need for higher- cost crisis interventions.”
Sen argues that parent forums in England have shown the value of working in partnership with local authorities to ensure the best services for families with disabled children at a reduced cost. But she adds that when things do go wrong, parents have a right to challenge local authority decisions that are unlawful. This fate has befallen Lancashire, and Blackburn with Darwen councils, which are facing High Court challenges from four families after withdrawing funding for disabled children’s short-break services.
How extensive are cuts to services for disabled children expected to be? Campaign group Every Disabled Child Matters (EDCM) has anecdotal evidence that some councils plan to cut funding for disabled children’s services by up to 15% over the next year. Consequently, EDCM has raised concerns that councils will be unable to fulfil their new duty – which came into force in April this year – to notify disabled children’s carers of short-break services in their area and the criteria on which their eligibility will be assessed.
Meanwhile, charity Family Action has warned that disabled children could lose up to £1,366 a year under the proposed universal credit compared with the support they receive now through the disability element of child tax credit. The charity says that each disabled child would lose up to £26 a week.
Laura Courtney, campaigns manager at EDCM, says it is “way too early” to produce data showing whether cuts are forcing families to put disabled children into care, though she adds there is evidence of individual instances where this is occurring.
“Some people are no longer able to access short breaks and are putting their children in care,” she says. “This is usually when the family reaches breaking point.”
The pressure of having to care for a disabled child can be immense. According to EDCM, many parents cannot face the continuous pressures placed upon their families and relationships are damaged or broken. When a disabled child is placed in care, the child feels isolated, and as children are often placed out of their home borough, they are unable to spend time with their families.
Meanwhile, Courtney is worried about councils’ obligation to publish a short-breaks statement for carers by 1 October this year. This must include: details of the range of short-break services provided, any criteria against which eligibility services will be assessed and how the range of services is designed to meet the needs of carers in their area. “The concern is that local authorities will make cuts and withdraw services without demonstrating that they’re meeting the need elsewhere,” Courtney says.
A spokeswoman for the National Autistic Society (NAS) says the charity is hearing cases where residential services are being offered as a first option by local authorities as opposed to care in the home. “The most obvious example of this was a call we received from a social worker who worked with the family of a five-year-old with autism who was being placed into 52-week residential care,” she says. “The council said this was easier for the local authority to organise than short breaks and respite care for the family.”
The NAS spokesperson also cites the case of the father of a 14-year-old boy with autism who has been completely abandoned by his council because of high thresholds.
“The son had been getting into trouble with the police and refusing to attend education,” she says. “The father felt unable to cope but social services said the family didn’t meet their criteria for support. The father has said he would welcome any support, including residential care for his son, but social services are refusing to act and he is currently receiving no help at all.”
Neil Coyle, director of policy at Disability Alliance, says that the greater obligation being placed on people to go to work – in tandem with less support for carers – is making many families with disabled children anxious.
“There is concern that more families will seek residential care for a disabled family member,” he says. “There is also anxiety about greater periods of psychiatric inpatient treatment and hospitalisation.”
Cuts in respite care for down’s Syndrome children
Every Disabled Child Matters asked its supporters for evidence of cuts to local services. Here, a woman whose son has Down’s syndrome, describes what was lost when the Aiming High for Disabled Children programme came to an end in March this year.
“The programme provided this borough with many services supporting people with disabilities and their carers. It provided respite for families and independence for children with disabilities by enabling them to be cared for away from their families or carers. It gave me time to spend with my other children and time for myself.
“This service gave carers a chance to regenerate and take on the caring role again and again. Had this service not been available, many families would have broken down and this would have caused a lot more demand on help and funding from the government and councils.
“My son looked forward to spending time with the service and engaging with other youngsters who had disabilities, he felt he was part of a team and that there were others out there just like him. Often the family unit suffers greatly, including siblings being mentally affected, which in the long run affects their learning at school and transition in to employment.
“The service provided help, support, encouragement and information to families like mine.
“There will always be children with disabilities who need care and respite, they will not just disappear and we will revert back to times where people who are disabled will be put into long-term care or residential homes, not included in society but excluded and institutionalised. This will cost far more than keeping the family unit together by providing some respite facilities.”
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