Crisis-hit child protection system setting thresholds ‘deliberately high’, finds report

Major report from the Centre for Social Justice warns radical wholescale reform is needed to repair England's failing child protection system

Child in playground
Credit: Gary Brigden

England’s child protection system is at crisis point, with some local authorities going to ‘extreme lengths’ to limit access to services, according to a major report.

The report, by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), warns a large group of  “lone children” are being failed by the state as their families battle serious problems that do not reach the threshold for social services to intervene. It argues for the wholesale redesign of England’s child mental health and social care services, devised and managed by a Royal Commission.

Researchers carried out a detailed and independent analysis over a two-year period of the cases of 20 vulnerable children supported by the charity Kids Company. Their analysis and subsequent report, Enough is Enough, identifies multiple failures by councils to assess children’s needs and provide the support and protection they require.

Thresholds set ‘deliberately high’

The 400-page report, which heard from victims of abuse, social workers and other frontline professionals, highlights sobering examples of neglected and abused children and young people who did not receive appropriate support from statutory services.

Some councils have set their child protection thresholds deliberately high to avoid providing children with services, researchers heard, while witnesses told researchers that some authorities go to ‘extreme lengths’ to limit families’ access to social care.

This echoes the finding of Community Care’s own research, which last year found 80% of the 600 social workers surveyed believed child protection thresholds had increased in their local authority over the previous 12 months.

Failures likened to ‘open wound’

“Child protection and mental health failures in England are like an open wound,” said CSJ director Christian Guy. “It’s not good enough that we have to wait until we hear the child neglect horror stories before anything is done.

“Many of the problems uncovered have been building under successive governments and we urgently need a Royal Commission to fully understand the extent of the issues,” Guy said.

Although stretched resources and dwindling budgets are likely to be the primary reason for rising thresholds, the CSJ also claimed there is a lack of skills, competency and urgency in some social work departments that additional money would not solve.

The report is due to expose social work failings, including managers and directors who are disconnected from frontline workers and unaware of essential legal procedure and local authorities that have stuck to a very process-driven model of social work.

‘Cruelty through apathy’

Camila Batmanghelidjh CBE, founder and chief executive of Kids Company, said: “We are familiar with cruelty through active acts of malice, but more insidious and corrosive is cruelty through apathy. It is unforgivable for one of the leading nations of the world not to have prioritised the protection and treatment of its most vulnerable children.”

“We all need to be involved, to be outraged, and to expect change,” she said, adding: “This is not about yet another inquiry that bites dust in a cabinet: it’s a social action initiative driven by permission to admit to the real scale of the problem.”

Official records show there were 378,600 children in need as of 31 March 2013 and 593,500 referrals to social care in the preceding year. But the CSJ argues the true number will be higher because initial contacts with social care are not systematically recorded.

‘Crippling caseloads’

Bridget Robb, chief executive of The British Association of Social Workers, said: “Social workers already know what they should be doing, but crippling caseloads, endless tidal waves of often pointless bureaucracy and lack of staff mean they are not getting enough time to see children.

“The level of intervention within councils is currently at a high threshold, not an early help or early intervention model. Social workers would love to use their skills in direct work with children and families in need of on-going support, but are prevented from doing so.”

The report’s key recommendation is that a Royal Commission should be established in the next Parliament and, reporting by 2017, “radically advise on the wholesale re-design of [children’s] social care and statutory mental health services”.

Annie Hudson, chief executive of The College of Social Work, said: “There must be recognition of undoubted evidence that much excellent and good social work takes place everyday across the country, protecting children from harm and abuse. This report reveals some very concerning examples of children and young people not being supported in the way that they have every right to be.

“But it is based on a small sample and the examples do not indicate  fundamental system failure. Increasing demand coupled with financial cuts mean that some social work organisations are struggling to cope and deliver quality services consistently, but this is by no means always the case.”

Hudson said that it was up to the government to determine whether a Royal Commission is necessary but said the College is concerned that such a move would detract from the implementation of current reforms to social work.

“There is more work to be done, not least in child mental health. However a range of initiatives, including through the work of The College and the government’s new innovation programme, will provide professionals, statutory and voluntary organisations with fresh opportunities to drive real change. Social workers want to see all children in need of social care receive the best start in life that society can provide,” she added.

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One Response to Crisis-hit child protection system setting thresholds ‘deliberately high’, finds report

  1. mark June 25, 2014 at 1:23 pm #

    Just another typical self serving attack on local government and on the state sector.

    If you really wanted to discredit locally provided services what would you do? You would cut the funding very savagely (to fund banker bonuses of course), then you would inspect to see the effects of the cuts and then you would blame the authorities and workers who had borne the brunt of the cuts for the consequences of them.

    At a time when the very richest in society have never done better, what has been happening is that welfare reform (ie cuts in welfare) have radically increased poverty. Then vicious cuts to services have prevented social work from protecting child victims of this poverty.

    We don’t need a Royal Commission. We need a government that cares about poverty, neglect and abuse rather than how much tax they can cut for the bankers who fund the Conservative party.