“When you’re speaking to other professionals they’ll say ‘You accepted a case just like this two years ago, what has happened? Why aren’t you pushing this through?’”
Naomi, a social worker, is sharing her experiences of talking to schools and police about the level of need children must have to get taken on as child protection cases.
She and another social worker, Carly, both feel that the bar for children getting help has risen in the past year. For Naomi, the situation is an “obvious repercussion of funding cuts”. For Carly, it is impacting children suffering neglect the most.
“With neglect the thresholds aren’t really that clear,” she says. “It has to be really extreme before it is seen as a child protection issue, because of issues around money basically.”
Child protection thresholds rising
The pair aren’t alone in their perceptions of child protection. A Community Care survey of more than 1,000 social workers has found that 71% of practitioners believed the threshold for child protection had risen in the past 12 months. Of those who felt the threshold for abuse had risen, 74% believed it had risen for neglect, while 39% felt it had risen for cases involving sexual abuse and exploitation.
Practitioners responding to the survey raised concerns about managers wanting to “process cases speedily”, experienced social workers leaving the profession and that services for child protection have been removed in favour of early intervention.
This is not the first time a Community Care survey has identified concerns about rising thresholds. In 2013, 80% of social workers said thresholds had risen in the past year.
Directors of children’s services are less convinced. In a safeguarding pressures report by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) in 2014, 56% of directors of children’s services did not feel that thresholds had changed in the past two years.
Alison O’Sullivan, president of the ADCS, says: “I think if we’d got thresholds in general terms in the wrong place I think you might have seen a big fall in the number of child protection plans, and we’re not seeing that.”
She says the findings from social workers are a perception, and that is influenced by the context of significantly increasing requests for help.
However, a previous version of the ADCS’safeguarding pressures report published in 2012 found that 71% of directors did not feel thresholds had changed, showing that, over time, more directors are starting to feel that the thresholds for children’s social care are changing.
Inconsistent understanding of thresholds
In order to further understand the differences between frontline and managers views, Community Care conducted an analysis of all of the Ofsted inspections carried out under the single inspection framework up to August 31 this year.
The analysis of 59 Ofsted inspections found confusion around thresholds in 26, or 44% of, local authorities. Often, the understanding of thresholds in partner agencies, and within children’s services, was not consistent.
In Bexley, referrals to social workers by partner agencies were found to not have good information as “other agencies do not always understand the thresholds to receive social work help”. Similarly, in Birmingham there was a “widespread lack of understanding about thresholds in and between children’s social care services and their partners”.
A similar problem was found in Cumbria where, “partner agencies’ understanding of thresholds for children’s social care are inconsistent, and there are too many inappropriate contacts to the safeguarding hub,” according to the Ofsted report.
Hillingdon council was told how managers of social work teams “need to apply a consistent understanding of thresholds for services, so that children and families get the right help at the right team and that their cases are not closed too early”.
In two authorities, Ofsted said thresholds had been set too high.
In a report on Somerset council, published in January, Ofsted said: “Thresholds to social work services are set too high, referrals are not accepted or are quickly closed despite risk remaining, and there is a lack of preventative services across the partnership to support vulnerable families.”
The regulator’s report on Sandwell council, also published in January, showed that an audit of cases found 20-25% of threshold decisions required a “higher level of response”. Sandwell has since undertaken a review of the processes and guidance that the MASH managers and carried out extra partnership training on threshold understanding, according to the council’s cabinet member for children’s services, Simon Hackett.
However, in North Yorkshire, Ofsted remarked that “all agencies have a thorough understanding of thresholds when accessing early help or more specialist services”.
Similarly, in East Sussex, Ofsted found: “Thresholds for services for children and families are known and understood across the partnership. This means that children are better protected and the risk to them identified early and managed through effective partnership arrangements.”
The different understanding of thresholds varies, from multi-agency partners like the police and schools, to the manager a social worker may have on that particular day.
“A team manager might have a very different understanding for a threshold to another, so are going to let in more cases that the other one wouldn’t,” Naomi says.
A reason for this is that thresholds are based on professional analysis and judgement.
Thresholds are “not a science”, according to David Jones, chair of the association of Local Safeguarding Children Board chairs.
“This is a matter of skilled judgement and that judgement is inevitably influenced by the prevailing climate, resources available and what people perceive. We know that pressures on families are increasing, we know schools are finding it more difficult to support children, we know police are under huge pressure. It’s not a surprise that all of this will come through in the debate around thresholds,” he says.
Higher risk cases
While thresholds will always be a matter of professional judgement charities say they are seeing much higher risk cases come into their services now than they were previously.
“Five years ago, we might see a young person where there were issues about school attendance, perhaps some issues relating to anti-social behaviour, or a troubled young person is perhaps experiencing bullying at school. Now we are seeing young people who have pretty complex mental health presentations, they’ve often been or they are starting to become victimised within a child sexual exploitation situation,” Deanna Neilson, head of safeguarding at Action for Children, says.
Unless issues such as poverty and resources are addressed, says Jones, uncertainty about the right threshold for when a child needs protecting will continue. But there is the problem of where the children who no longer meet the threshold go.
Naomi says: “We used to have a set of lower level preventative work, and while they were in the minority, we would do that work. But now I’m finding that when social workers are referring for those cases, because the commissioned voluntary sector within the local authority tend to only do the medium/high risk, there’s just nowhere for them to go.”