by Brigid Featherstone (The Open University), Anna Gupta (Royal Hollway, University of London), Kate Morris (The University of Nottingham), Jo Warner (University of Kent), Sue White (University of Birmingham)
According to a recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 39% of people in households with children now live below the Minimum Income Standard. The figure has risen by over a third since 2008/09.
Families with children are now at greater risk than any other group of having an inadequate income and the number of homeless families living in bed and breakfast accommodation has risen by 300% over the last five years as a direct result of austerity.
Humiliation, shame, fear, distrust, instability, insecurity, isolation, loneliness and feelings of being trapped and powerless are widespread features of the social and emotional landscapes of individuals and their families in a world of benefit sanctions, zero hours contracts and precarious housing.
Small wonder that relations between family members, including those between parents and their children, can become increasingly fraught in such circumstances.
Child protection need rising
Meanwhile, figures published last week in CYP Now, using official statistics and new figures obtained under an FOI, show the number of children being looked after by the state rose by 8% under the coalition government. The number of children placed on child protection plans rose by 33% while the number of Section 47 inquiries rose by a staggering 42%.
The links between poverty and a child’s chances of becoming subject to child protection processes or being looked after are undeniable according to the international and national research.
A child in the most deprived decile of neighbourhoods nationally has an 11 times greater chance of being on a child protection plan and 12 times greater chance of being a looked after child than a child living in the most affluent decile.
‘Wholly inappropriate’ use of child protection
We hear regularly about the impact of reduced services and benefit cuts on the capacity of families to cope and to care.
We hear of cash strapped local authorities who do not have the services to support families within communities.
We are, therefore, increasingly concerned that the child protection system is being used in a wholly inappropriate way to deal with the consequences of austerity and of policies that are depriving children and their families of food, housing and basic support services.
The effects of austerity are exacerbated by the continued existence of a risk-averse climate despite increasingly heroic efforts by local authorities to develop more strengths based approaches.
‘Long on blame, short on help’
Thus, families are experiencing practices that are long on blame and short on help in too many instances as a recent conference organised by the Transparency Project, involving lawyers, other professionals and family members, discussed.
The policy commitment to adoption, reaffirmed in recent days, is extremely worrying in a context where many birth families are unable to access what is needed in terms of material, emotional and social supports to care safely.
This is leading to increased concern across the sector and, indeed, more widely.
Pause for thought
Individual court rulings have drawn attention to judicial comments where social workers have been asked to think again about the importance of relational bonds and children’s identities and to desist from social engineering, and the UK has been specifically criticized this year by the Council of Europe for its removal of children from women who have been subject to domestic abuse, or who are suffering from depression (Report 1 Committee on Social Affairs, Health and Sustainable Development, 2015).
Such women are particularly vulnerable in the current climate where services for domestic abuse are very stretched.
The evidence is mounting that we need to pause and make vital links between wider economic and social policies and the harms that children and their families experience. The child protection system must not be a system for dealing with the symptoms of increased impoverishment.