Children Act 20 years on: Is the defintion of children in need too restrictive?

Despite the good intentions on supporting children defined as ‘in need’, many practitioners are finding the bar set too high.


Although section 17 of the Children Act 1989 compels local authorities to provide ­services for children classed as “in need”, many professionals say support is offered only in the most desperate situations when families are at high levels of risk and intervention is expensive.

Jane Tunstill, visiting professor at the social care workforce research unit at King’s College London, says even in 1989 there were concerns that the definition of a child in need was focused too narrowly on acute services.

“We heard a few suggestions that they add ‘or likely to be in need’ to the wording, which would have opened it up a bit,” says Tunstill, who was involved in lobbying over the content of the Act. “All of us could see that the definition as is was vulnerable to interpretation.

“There was a basic tension then, which has stayed intact, between risk and need. It’s frustrating to see that not enough early intervention is easily accessed. We need to resolve the tension between proactive provision of services and reactive movement. What we’re left with now is a higher threshold for services.”

Jon Brown, operational director of children’s services at Action for Children, says the current situation goes against the original intention of the Act.

“A preventive approach was definitely included in the Act. However, it’s been a rocky road since the Act came into force.”

Forty white papers

Brown says governments have issued more than 400 policies on children’s ­services, including 40 white papers, over the past 21 years, and the rate is now increasing. But too much of this legislation was created without a thought to the long term, he says.

“There’s been this focus on the quick fix and cases like Victoria Climbié and baby Peter have exacerbated this way of thinking. What we need is to work towards a balance between prevention and acute services.”

The high threshold that must be reached before children can access services has proved a problem, particularly among ­councils facing funding pressures.

Family Rights Group

Cathy Ashley, chief executive of the Family Rights Group, believes this is a major contributor to the emphasis on acute services.

“It is hard for a family to demonstrate that a child is in need,” she says. “It’s hard to assess – the thresholds are set very high, particularly in areas with high levels of social deprivation.

“The way the legislation is formed is broad but in practice it is narrow because the thresholds are so high.

“There has to be a very demonstrable need factor which means children have to be virtually on the edge of child protection to be considered ‘in need’ by some local authorities.”

This article is published in the 29 October issue of Community Care magazine under the heading “It’s hard to prove need”

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Sir Roger Singleton on why the Children Act 1989 came about

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Children’s Act, 20 years on: Fathers’ rights under review

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