By Rick Hood, senior lecturer at the School of Social Work, Kingston University and St George’s, University of London
It may seem obvious that children living in conditions of poverty, deprivation or social exclusion are more likely to need additional social care services. But the link between the two is also sensitive and controversial, particularly given the increasing tendency for local authorities to treat referrals as potential child protection concerns.
As the government’s austerity measures continue to bear down on families struggling in a difficult economic climate, we felt it was a timely point at which to study the effects of deprivation on statutory services for children in need. Our research on national trends in children’s social care, published in the British Journal of Social Work last month, explored whether the type of service provided by local authorities varied according to deprivation.
We combined all the national datasets for children’s social care from 2009-14 and analysed them each year for correlations between performance indicators and Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) scores for local authorities. Only correlations that were statistically significant over a number of years are reported here.
The results confirmed that local authorities in more deprived areas experienced higher levels of demand for children’s social care services.
In other words, they received more referrals per 10,000 population than local authorities in more affluent areas. They also carried out more assessments and interventions; the rates of children in need and child protection plans were higher in more deprived areas, as were rates of child protection investigations, case conferences and care proceedings.
At this point the question arises as to whether different local authorities, who experience higher or lower volumes of demand depending on deprivation in their communities, carry out their work in different ways? According to our research, the answer appears to be yes.
Higher-demand local authorities tended to screen out more referrals and divert more cases to non-statutory services. Such local authorities did more initial assessments, but not more core assessments, which were more comprehensive and took longer to complete. They had a greater tendency to step down statutory children in need plans quickly and were less likely to work longer term with families.
High-demand local authorities also experienced higher rates of re-referrals, which represent work coming back into the system within 12 months of case closure. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these local authorities also tended to have higher caseloads and higher rates of agency workers.
The findings also revealed differences in how resources were allocated. As might be expected, spending on children’s safety was higher in more deprived areas. More surprising was that high levels of referrals were associated not with higher safeguarding expenditure but with greater overall spending on social care services, which includes family support and children’s centres.
This suggests that local authorities with high volumes of demand were dealing with more of that demand through non-statutory services. In contrast, more affluent areas, with less pressure on referral and assessment, might have spent less on safeguarding but statutory services actually met more of the demand.
‘Inverse intervention law’
These findings have three key implications. First, because deprived local authorities are more reliant on non-statutory services to manage high volumes of demand, ongoing cuts to those services will not only reduce the capacity of local authorities to deal with their existing work but will also lead to an escalation in child protection referrals as cases start to re-enter the system at a higher level of need.
Second, because statutory services in more affluent areas are able to take on more of the overall demand, children living in those areas are more likely to be subject to child protection interventions. Colleagues at Coventry University have called this the ‘inverse intervention law’, which means that families will experience more intrusive and stigmatising social care services if they happen to live in an affluent area – even if overall demand is lower.
Finally, the findings point to inefficiencies in our current ‘filter and funnel’ approach to matching resources to need. For practitioners, too much time and effort is consumed in navigating thresholds and boundaries between different parts of the system. For managers the incentive is to control workflows (e.g. by closing cases and referring on), rather than meeting need at the point of entry.
Gearing services to control demand tends to make demand (and therefore cost) go up as work comes back into the system. For children and families, many of them coping individually with the effects of deprivation and poverty, the result is a service that investigates and assesses but rarely addresses their problem.