ADCS survey: Why care orders for vulnerable children are falling

Last week's survey of referrals by the Association of Directors of Children's Services showed the extent to which child protection is under pressure. It...

Last week’s survey of referrals by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services showed the extent to which child protection is under pressure. It revealed a 21% rise in safeguarding social work activities, a 22% increase in child protection plans and a 25% rise in the number of initial contacts.

Many of these statistics were not unexpected – the statistic that stands out most is the only one showing a fall, with the number of full care orders (FCOs) falling by 8% between the end of 2007 and the end of 2009.

But an examination of the reasons for this drop highlights the pressure children’s services are under.

Survey respondents blamed it on delays in appointing children’s guardians and the increased use of specialist and independent assessments by courts. Full care orders are taking well over a year to complete, compared with Lord Laming’s recommendation of 45 weeks, according to the respondents.

Elaine Dibben, foster care consultant at the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF), says: “As well as seeing this significant increase of children coming into care, we’ve got this situation where plans for those children are being held up in court proceedings. We’ve found it frustrating because plans around fostering and adoption placements can’t be moved forward.”

Anthony Douglas, chief executive of family courts body Cafcass, agrees that backlogs are impacting on the figures but points out there are other factors as well.

These include the “new and growing group” of children staying in their homes or with relatives during court proceedings.

“Any services and safeguarding will remain in place, but because it is judged that no further action needs to be taken, these children don’t have any orders at all,” he says.

Delays are also down to the complexity of modern families and the rising levels of long-term neglect, says Douglas: “We’re dealing with families with multiple fathers, with other relatives becoming involved, with family members living abroad – family structures are more complex than ever before and that makes decision-making for social workers all the more challenging.”

Douglas blames new research and media reaction to high-profile failures for causing social workers to doubt their own judgments and “second guess” their professional instincts.

This complex array of factors affecting full care orders are pushing up child protection referral rates and they tell a story of unsustainable pressure which is set to dominate children’s social care over the next few years.

It seems strange, then, that none of the main political parties have made any mention of how they intend to deal with the problem during the election campaign, although there have been plenty of promises around early intervention.

This, says Enver Solomon, assistant director for policy and research at Barnardo’s, is because the parties have adopted a “wait and see” attitude.

“Safeguarding children is never an election issue unless it’s on the back of a crisis,” he says. “But people are waiting to see if care applications and referrals continue to increase or if they will start dropping back to normal levels this year. Because if the numbers continue to rise, as they have been, there needs to be additional resourcing and it’s not something they want to have to deal with.”

Ina recent interview with Community Care, shadow children’s minister Tim Loughton was clear that he felt the current rise in referrals was temporary.

Directors are not convinced. While the ADCS acknowledges that the “Baby P effect” is a factor, it also cites the impact of the recession on families and the fact the system is working better to identify those in need through multi-agency working and more public awareness.

It intends to continue monitoring the situation nationally as well as the financial impact of the referrals on council budgets, aware that it is only through the presentation of cold, hard facts that politicians will be forced to face up to unpalatable realities.

One hundred councils were surveyed by the ADCS.

Key figures

Most safeguarding social work activities: up by an average 21%

Children suffering from or at risk of significant harm: up by an average 20%

Children subject to child protestion plan: up by an average 33%

Children’s services staff levels: up by an average 10%

Issue of full care orders: down by an average 8%

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