by Ray Jones
Sir James Munby, the president of the family courts, has issued a warning about what he terms a “clear and imminent crisis” facing the system.
He is right. There is an increase month-by-month and year-on-year in the number of care proceedings initiated in the courts by local authorities to have children removed from families. This has stretched to breaking point the capacity of the courts and is overwhelming local authority children’s services and the Children and Families Courts Advisory Service (CAFCASS).
It also has the consequence of more children being compulsorily taken into care against the wishes of their parents – the care population has increased from 60,000 to over 70,000 in the past seven years.
The Baby P effect
Munby is not only right to raise the alarm about the crisis in courts and in care. He is also right to trace its roots back to the vicious media vilification of social workers and their managers in November 2008 when Peter Connelly’s (‘Baby P’s) mother, her boyfriend and his brother were each convicted of causing or allowing Peter’s death.
Munby has noted the 14% rise in care applications to courts in 2015-2016 compared to the previous year. This is a big increase. What is often not reported is the cumulative increase – of 131% – which has occurred since 2007-2008, the year before the ‘Baby P’ media story started to impact in November 2008. It is no wonder courts and children’s services are being overwhelmed.
Munby asks what has been driving this increase since 2007-2008 and calls for more research. Here is my view based on recent research, my work with six local authorities between 2010 and 2015 on child protection and discussions I’ve held with social workers, police officers, health professionals, teachers and others around the country.
The dramatic increase in child protection activity in England between 2008-2009 and 2014-2015 (the 2015-2016 figures have not yet been published) includes a 79% increase in child protection investigations, a 63% increase in initial child protection case conferences, and a 70% increase in the number of children with child protection plans (an increase from 29,200 to 49,700).
Push and pull factors
The factors generating these increases might be separated into pull and push factors. Pull factors are those where there is a likely increase in child protection activity because of more families getting into difficulty and more awareness of abuse and neglect. Push factors are where others are impacting on decisions taken within the children’s social services and care systems.
More families are getting into difficulty because of increasing poverty and stress as a consequence of welfare and housing benefits cuts since 2010. As these families struggle to survive deprivation moving to destitution the help and advice they may have received from Sure Start, children’s centres and youth services has been cut.
Cuts to help for families
Stressed, struggling and stranded, caring well for children gets harder. This is likely to be reflected in the child protection statistics. Almost 80% of child protection plans are because of concerns about neglect or emotional abuse, with only 9% of plans because of concerns about physical abuse and 5% because of sexual abuse. Child protection activity is also greater in poorer areas.
So more families in difficulty and cuts to help for children and families are two pull factors leading to an increase in child protection activity. The third pull factor is greater awareness of some types of abuse and its incidence and impact. This includes relatively recent research on the damaging impact of continuing chronic neglect on infants and on older children, the identification and action over the past five years to address networked sexual exploitation, and the increasing concern about the incidence and impact of domestic violence.
My view is that the pull factor which is most significant is the cut in help to families. It means that struggling families often only now get any response when they have crossed a threshold where their difficulties are seen to be leading to significant concerns about the welfare and safety of children. The response they then get is to be assessed and monitored through child protection procedures.
But I believe these ‘pull’ factors still have less impact than the ‘push factors’ – the effect of the actions of others on the children’s social services and care systems.
One of my reasons for making this judgement is that in November 2008, when the ‘Baby P’ media story started, there was an immediate increase in the number of care applications to courts being made by local authorities.
This was a very fast step change. And just as the ‘Baby P’ story has never stopped being referred to by the media, there has not been any settling down in the number of care applications to courts, which have continued to increase.
So the first push factor is the impact of the media, and especially a tabloid press which continues to tell its vindictive version of the ‘Baby P’ story and also looks to target social workers and their managers for vilification when there is awful abuse of children.
For example, this happened following Hamza Khan’s death in Bradford in 2009, in Coventry after the death of Daniel Pelka in 2012, in Derbyshire after the death of Ayeesha Jane Smith in 2014, and in Rotherham, Oxfordshire and elsewhere following the identification of the sexual abuse and exploitation of young people.
All who work to promote the welfare and safety of children are aware that they too could become a focus of media hostility. This promotes defensive practice and the drive to remove more children from families.
The blame culture
The second push factor is the denigrating stance taken by politicians who, tucking in behind media stories, also seek to pile blame on social workers. The most obvious recent illustration is the government’s plan to introduce a criminal offence with the possibility of imprisonment for social workers and others who are seen retrospectively not to have acted adequately to prevent the serious neglect and abuse of children.
The third, and maybe most significant, push factor is Ofsted. Having shown a willingness to quickly reverse previous positive judgements about councils when a media story damning children’s services erupts, as Ofsted did with Haringey in 2008 and Rotherham in 2012, the inspectorate has become increasingly risk averse and prone to rate more services as ‘inadequate’.
This has contributed, in my view, to the growth in the use of child protection procedures and the thrust to more care proceedings.
So what is driving the crisis Munby has warned of? For me, it is likely to be a combination of pull and push factors, with government cuts and the press and political castigation of those who work to assist families and to protect children being particularly significant.