Recession: Time to build on early intervention and prevention

As budgets tighten and demand for services rises, local authorities that build on early intervention and prevention will come out of the recession stronger, writes Molly Garboden

Despite children’s social care being such a high-profile area, it is unlikely to escape the heavy fist of the recession. However, opinions vary on which parts will be hit hardest.

Although Fostering Network chief executive Robert Tapsfield does not expect frontline services to suffer directly, he believes that something will have to give as demand rises and resources are limited.

“If you need to place a child in foster care, you need to place them – there’s no cutting back on that,” he says. “So the impact in our area is likely to be in training and support for foster carers. The danger is that improving quality will no longer be a priority for services.”

Debbie Jones, chair of the resources and sustainability committee for the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) agrees. Although safeguarding is unlikely to be cut, she expects the overall restriction of resources to cause problems in other areas.

“At the moment we’re seeing the fall-out from Baby P, so safeguarding remains a number one priority,” she says. “But I don’t think you can say that will protect everything – whenever you prioritise one area, there’s a knock-on effect and other things in children’s services will suffer.”

Early intervention and prevention models will be one, according to the National Children’s Bureau (NCB).

Hardest hit

Despite their potential to save money in the long run, the NCB’s deputy chief executive, Barbara Hearn, says family group conferences, play and crime prevention will be hardest hit.

The Children’s Fund – worth £960m over eight years – was intended to be used to mainstream early intervention and prevention models, but Hearn says councils will have to prioritise crisis intervention to cover themselves legally.

But councils should be aware of the dangers of short-term thinking, she adds. “When families are facing financial hardship they look to the state to help them. The tensions in the family will increase, as may domestic violence and family breakdown. All of this is bad for children and young people and may mean a greater demand on social care services. Where there is strong early intervention and prevention provision the escalation of problems can be dampened, but where these have been cut, the demand on services will increase.”

The key to protecting services from budget cuts is to ensure everything has a strong evidence base, says ADCS president Kim Bromley-Derry. At its annual conference this year, he told directors they would need to become “hard-nosed, not warm-hearted” about the interventions they funded.

Source of tension

But although Jon Rouse, chief executive of Croydon Council in London, agrees in part, he says such a move can also be the source of tension for services.

“We have to ask ourselves how we balance the evidence base against the insights of service users,” he says. “The reality of a situation might go against what established evidence from the clinical community is saying. You need to consider individual cases rather than try to make judgements from on high.”

However, as he points out, such an approach is likely to be more expensive initially although, like the best prevention models, it would cut costs in the long run.

This, it would seem, is the key question. Can councils hold their nerve during budget cuts and rising demand to keep working towards a system based on early intervention and prevention? If they can, it will help them survive not only this recession but those that are sure to come in the future.

THE COUNCILS: Lateral thinking is key to survival, says Wigan

Wigan children’s services have so far avoided feeling the effects of the dip but only because of pre-emptive action, says the council’s cabinet champion for children and young people, Susan Loudon.

“At the beginning of this economic crisis, when people were still calling it the credit crunch, we formed a team to address these issues,” she says. “So we’ve been looking at the problem for a while and have been able to prepare.”

She emphasises that thinking laterally is the only way for local authorities to save money. Wigan, for instance, has ensured that families are told about the benefits and services available to them. The council has used its children’s centres and schools to post information from the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

The council has also encouraged families to take advantage of free school lunches.

“We’ve introduced a system where students buy lunches in advance in the office, so that when it is time to queue up, nobody pays with cash,” Loudon says.

“This means that no one knows who’s receiving the free lunches, and that removes a huge stigma.

“We heard that lots of families were not receiving this benefit because the children were too embarrassed in front of their friends, and that hurts families in need, and responsibility then falls on to the council.

“You need to make sure that the community is doing everything it possibly can to help itself – that’s the best way to take pressure off the local authority.”

PROVIDERS: Recession will ‘lead to inappropriate placements’

Providers of children’s homes, and fostering and adoption services are some of the first to feel the squeeze of the recession after London Councils announced it would be pushing for a 2% cut in providers’ fees.

According to Richard Greenwell, managing director of Hillcrest children’s homes, such a move could result in an increase in inappropriate placements.

“For instance, children who need a spell in residential care are placed in foster care, or cheaper children’s homes are used instead of quality ones,” he says.

“Local authorities do these things to save money in the short term. As a consequence, there are higher levels of placement breakdown and more failed children.”

The cut in fees could force Hillcrest to impose a pay freeze, leading to a loss of staff. Greenwell points out the company is already committed to increasing the pay of teachers by up to 6% or more.

He says that economic hardship will mean councils are likely to take more children into care, further straining their budgets.

The solution could lie in outsourcing. “There is an opportunity to save funds by councils outsourcing provision to a selected list of quality providers and achieving economies of scale through placing volumes through this select list,” Greenwell says.

“Standards are increasing all the time – local authorities have gone on the record as wanting to use services rated by Ofsted as outstanding but don’t seem recognise that they still need to be paid for.”

This article is published in the 3 December 2009 edition of Community Care under the headline “Who can hold their nerve?”

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