Social workers are feeling pressured to downgrade child protection cases in the face of a surge in referrals, according to a Community Care survey of more than 1,000 frontline professionals.
The poll of 1,093 children’s social workers in England revealed that 43% of practitioners said they had been ‘pressured’ to reclassify child protection cases as ‘child in need’ cases in the past year.
‘Child in need’ is a less serious category of case that requires less intensive support.
While 21% of social workers said that the pressure to downgrade cases was an attempt to allocate cases more appropriately, more than three-quarters (76%) felt the moves were an attempt to reduce the number of child protection cases.
Official figures show that the number of child protection cases is at a five-year-high. The number of children on child protection plans rose 24% between 2009-10 and 2013-14, the most recent year on record. The sharpest annual increase was between 2012-13 and 2013-14, when the number of plans jumped from 43,100 to 48,100 – an increase of 12%.
The number of referrals has also risen overall between the years ending 2011 and 2014. There were 657,800 referrals to children’s social care in 2013-14, a 7% increase on the number received in 2010-11, and a 11% rise on 2012-13.
A shortage of child protection social workers to handle rising referrals was cited as a reason for downgrading cases by almost two-thirds (65%) of respondents. Pressure on councils to save money was cited as a factor by 44%.
Social workers felt that neglect was the most common form of abuse they would have to reclassify. The question on types of abuse reclassified was answered by 461 social workers.
Type of abuse
Social workers who felt pressured to reclassify one of these cases
Ninety social workers provided detailed examples of the type of cases they had seen downgraded, including examples where they felt unable to get children suffering neglect and abuse the type of help they needed.
This included one social worker who said the strain on her team had left children facing long waiting lists and staff feeling under pressure to reclassify cases.
“Often cases that were initially referred as child protection have been downgraded to child in need, although nothing at all has changed within the family circumstances,” she said.
Another practitioner said she had come under pressure to downgrade a case where a two-year-old was “suffering neglect”.
“There were clear signs due to the chaotic lifestyle of parents, lack of food and lack of prioritising of child’s needs. There were clear child protection concerns on allocation but it was worked under ‘child in need’ until a social work vacancy was filled.”
A senior social worker said she’d been asked to find child protection cases that could be closed and allocated to the ‘child in need’ team when her team were short-staffed.
“As soon as the cases went child in need they were transferred to a newly qualified social worker so I could hold the more complex cases. Most of the child in need cases were too complex and soon escalated again,” she said.
Another social worker said: “The government has asked the local authority to make efficiency savings of millions of pounds, hence child protection cases are being downgraded to child in need cases.”
One practitioner said they’d seen a case involving a sibling group of three “with clear child protection concerns” held as child in need “in spite of several agencies identifying risks”.
“After six months and because of the mother’s poor engagement the case was removed from child in need to team around the child. All agencies remain engaged, risks remain and the local authority continues to rebut referrals for this family.”
Two respondents pointed to Ofsted inspections changing management behaviour around case allocation.
“Ofsted concluded that our child protection cases were too high for [the] population of our local authority. We only held one initial child protection conference in the next month after they visited, down from 20 conferences the month before,” one wrote.
However, a child protection social worker in a management role said there were occasions where it was important to challenge social workers over how cases are classified.
“There will be times I’ll ask, ‘why is this case child protection’? It can be a difficult issue to broach but we have lots of cases that shouldn’t be,” the manager said.
“I think it reflects some social workers not having enough confidence in managing risk. If my social workers can tell me what difference a child protection plan is going to make to that child that’s one thing. But in a lot of cases it feels like we put too much emphasis on child protection plans, rather than asking ‘what will make a real difference to the child’?”
Community Care’s survey also revealed that more than a third of respondents (36%) had felt pressure to return looked-after children to their birth families. While 7% said this was done to ‘better support families’, almost three-quarters said it was driven by a desire to save money.
“This is a constant battle,” said one social worker. “A 17-year-old who had been failed by the system in his young years was still denied the opportunity of foster care and left in his alcoholic mother’s house alone – the property was not suitable and had no heating or other amenities.”
A second respondent said: “Even in cases where the risk is high we are being advised to go to court and argue for lesser orders, which do not afford adequate protection to children.”
The survey found that 61% of social workers felt uncomfortable about the level of risk they had on their caseloads. Of these, 45% felt ‘quite uncomfortable’, while 16% felt ‘very uncomfortable’.
Practitioners also voiced concerns over funding for services. Nine out of 10 social workers felt budget cuts had put children at risk, while 72% felt they did not have enough resources to protect vulnerable children.
‘Either it is or it isn’t a child protection case’
In response to the findings, Nushra Mansuri, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers, said that child protection plans should not be downgraded if referrals had been made appropriately.
“Either it is or isn’t a child protection case. We’re educating social workers to be able to be confident to make a professional judgement, and if there are other agendas or hidden agendas that impinge upon that then that completely distorts what practitioners should be doing day in and day out,” she said.
This concern was shared by Deanna Neilson, head of safeguarding at Action for Children, who said that a social worker feeling pressure to downgrade cases “doesn’t sit very comfortably” with her idea of child protection.
“I believe if frontline practitioners are well supported that they often have unique insights into the daily life of children, they have observed the child at home and at school, they know the parents, they know the family, so that kind of frontline judgement has to be respected, but it does have to be challenged,” she said.
However, the concern about reclassifying cases can be a reflection of the “conversations that take place every day between social workers and their supervisors about how to evaluate the level of risk,” according to Alison O’Sullivan, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services.
O’Sullivan said she was “puzzled” by the suggestion social workers have felt pressured to reclassify risks.
She said it is the nature of complex systems to have to categorise things in certain ways, such as child in need or child protection plan, but there will always be a professional debate around what is right, “and that’s a good thing”.
“It’s important that workers and their supervisors really get a good understanding and make the right decisions. Some workers will feel that they might be more comfortable with a formal child protection plan in place, that isn’t their individual decision that is a decision of the child protection case conference,” she said.
David Jones, chair of the independent association of LSCB chairs, agreed that the classification isn’t the most important thing for families: “In a sense, the grading doesn’t matter as much as what is being provided to support the family, so in a way a case can be graded as child protection but if there aren’t social workers or skilled social workers available to deliver the service, that’s a pretty meaningless categorisation.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said good social workers should review cases regularly to assess the level of risk posed to children and make appropriate decisions about classification based on that risk, guidance also makes it clear that children who have suffered or at risk of significant harm are on a child protection plan.
“It remains the responsibility of councils to manage the caseload of social workers so they are able to get on with the most important job at hand – improving the lives of some of our most vulnerable children and families,” the spokesperson said.
They added that the government has provided £100m of funding through the innovation programme, and continues to invest over £100m a year to help local authorities recruit more social workers and keep their experienced staff.
How child in need and child protection plans differ
A child in need plan is voluntary for families and gives children failing to thrive extra services, beyond what every child receives, to help them develop safely. A child in need plan operates under section 17 of The Children Act 1989 and doesn’t have statutory framework for the timescales of the intervention. It has a lower threshold for accessing services than a child protection plan.
A child protection plan operates under section 47 of The Children Act 1989, and happens when a child is regarded to be suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm. Child protection procedures have clear frameworks set out in statutory guidance. There will be an initial child protection conference where professionals make a joint decision as to whether the child meets the section 47 threshold. There are core group meetings to discuss the child’s progress and ongoing safety every four weeks and then there will be a review child protection conference held within a set time. This is not a voluntary service for families, it is acted upon by the local authority and the support is often intensive.
At any point in either process the local authority may decide they think the child is no longer safe living with their parents/carers and may ask the court to grant an order for the child to be removed from their care.