Thresholds for accepting child protection referrals ‘too high’

An analysis of serious case reviews in 2009-11 suggests overall child protection practices have improved, but highlights concerns about a minority of cases that were not investigated by social workers.

Around 85 children die in England every year as a result of abuse or neglect, a study has found, amid concerns that thresholds for accepting referrals to children’s social care are being set too high.

Researchers at the University of East Anglia and University of Warwick, who carried out the analysis of serious case reviews (SCRs) from 2009-11, said it was “worrying” that in 14% of cases a referral had been made but not accepted.

Looking back at the extent and severity of the problems in those cases, the researchers concluded that thresholds were sometimes being set too high, particularly when neglect was the primary concern.

They noted previously expressed concerns that health and other professionals are reluctant at times to refer cases to children’s social care because social workers “may be slow to act or offer too little support in relation to referrals”.

The report also suggested that rising thresholds could be responsible for a drop in the number of SCRs concerning children already known to children’s social care.

In 2009-11, only 42% of children were getting services from children’s social care at the time of the child’s death or the incident which prompted the SCR; a fifth (21%) of children had never been known to social workers and the remaining cases were closed or had not been accepted at the point of referral.

It was therefore recommended that staff in universal services – particularly education – take on a greater share of the responsibility for protecting children.

On a more positive note, the study found that the number of children with a child protection plan already in place at the time they died dropped from 16% in 2007-9 to 10% in 2009-11, even though the overall number of child protection plans is rising – suggesting a possible sign of improvement in the system.

In addition, the proportion of SCRs concerning babies dropped from 46% in 2007-9 to 36% in 2009-11.

The total number of violent and maltreatment-related deaths of children under 17 was estimated to be 85 per year. Of these, 50-55 were directly caused by violence, abuse or neglect. In a further 30-35 cases, maltreatment was considered a contributory factor, though not the primary cause of death; for example accidents, sudden unexpected deaths in infancy and suicide.

This is the first year the analysts have been able to estimate the number of deaths per year.

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