Why those most needing child protection might be least likely to get it

A new research project aims to help social work understand the relationship between poverty, deprivation and child protection

Picture credit: Gary Brigden
Picture credit: Gary Brigden

By Professor Kate Morris, Dr Will Mason, Professor Paul Bywaters, Professor Brid Featherstone, Professor Brigid Daniels, Dr Nughmana Mirza

How do we understand social work decisions in the context of inequality and poverty? We already know families face a profoundly unequal chance of experiencing care and protection interventions.

This is not a postcode lottery. For children, their social, economic and material circumstances are directly connected to the likelihood of social workers deciding they should be cared for, or be the subject of protection planning.

Put simply, being poor increases the chance of state intervention in your life. Yet there are extra dimensions to this too. Analysis of data also suggests that being poor in affluent local authorities increases the chances of intervention further – less deprived local authorities intervene more readily in children’s lives than more deprived neighbouring authorities.

The impact of deprivation

We have called this the inverse intervention law. It’s based on work on health inequalities – where the inverse care law means those who most need health are least likely to receive it. The inverse intervention law says that families experiencing similar levels of deprivation are more likely to experience care and protection if they live in less deprived local authorities.

This is a pattern rather than a specific piece of practice. It tells us this is not simply a matter of individual social workers needing to think differently about the impact of children’s social material and economic circumstances.

Looking at individual practice is hugely important, but for too long social work has avoided difficult discussions about the relationship between poverty, deprivation and child protection.Too many of the current policies that shape the approach to care and protection of children in this country do not recognise the centrality of inequality.

Beyond individual decision-making

If we are going to better understand outcomes for children, and their families, we need to develop a robust understanding of this complex area and pay attention to the patterns that go beyond individual decision-making.

We hope a unique research project we’re involved with will make a significant contribution to remedying the current knowledge gap. The study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, is going to explore the interlocking variables that lie behind the inverse intervention law.

We want to explore several critical questions. Can we establish a difference in how deprivation is understood and experienced between higher and lower intervening authorities? Does this have a relationship with decisions to intervene and local thresholds?

How do social workers talk about and perceive poverty and deprivation? Is there a common pattern across high or low intervening areas? Are more affluent authorities reaching children in need of care and protection that deprived authorities cannot help? Or are families living in poverty more visible and marginalised in affluent authorities?

Seeking answers

In seeking answers, we’ll be spending time with social work teams and the communities they serve in order to understand and unpick the factors involved. We’re conducting two waves of fieldwork and, by the end, will be able to compare a sample of local authorities and Scottish and English practices and responses.

We are also looking to test new methodologies and make better use of existing data. This has already helped us to arrive at detailed descriptions of who is being intervened with, when and why.

Our project will not be able to answer every question. But it will examine the relationship between child welfare intervention rates and inequality. This will be crucial in helping efforts to ensure our care and protection approaches consider the effects of poverty and, in doing so, deliver the best outcomes for children and families.

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