By Rick Hood, senior lecturer at the School of Social Work, Kingston University and St George’s, University of London
In November 2008, a particularly acute crisis engulfed the UK’s child protection system, after media coverage of the death of Peter Connelly (Baby P) descended into a campaign of vilification against social workers and local authority children’s services.
This crisis is generally considered to have caused a spike in child protection referrals, as well as a more interventionist approach to case management, which has since been held responsible for a surge in care applications. But the statistics show there is more going on than a post-crisis ‘bulge’ of referrals moving through the system.
While referral rates dropped slightly in 2011 and 2012, the rate of child protection interventions has continued to rise inexorably, outpacing the more recent growth in referrals by a considerable margin. Our research on national trends in children’s social care, published in the British Journal of Social Work last month, shows that councils’ use of child protection interventions increased almost every year from 2001 to 2014.
What’s more, the trend has accelerated over the last five years. From 2009 to 2014, rates (per 10,000 population) of child protection investigations went up by 65%, child protection conferences increased by 45%, child protection plans by 38%, and care proceedings by 56%. It is a trend that shows no sign of abating.
‘What’s behind this rapid and sustained increase?’
It could be that the incidence of abuse and neglect in the population has gone up over the same period, perhaps driven by economic factors including unemployment and government austerity measures. Although such statistics are difficult to verify, surveys have consistently suggested that the prevalence of child abuse is much higher than the numbers of children who are involved with statutory services.
It is therefore hard to know whether the rise in workload is due to a rise in overall rates of abuse, or due to increased vigilance and reporting by other agencies and the public. An alternative explanation is that thresholds for reporting or acting on concerns may have gone down, which then has the effect of drawing more families into the child protection system. This has been known to happen in the wake of public scandals, which erode confidence in services’ ability to manage child protection concerns and encourage a defensive ‘take no risks’ attitude to dealing with those concerns.
These crises in confidence – exemplified by the Baby P case and also provoked by hostile media coverage such as the recent Dispatches programme about Birmingham – have an impact on thresholds and decision-making and can exacerbate longer-term trends in how services are provided.
‘Paying the price’
It is therefore hard to avoid the conclusion that a system ostensibly designed to reserve child protection interventions for high-risk cases has increasingly been using those interventions to manage demand for children’s social care.
It is a difficult and complex task to distinguish between children who are at risk of abuse or neglect, and children who are not being abused but need extra provision that is not universally available to families – one that reflects social and political attitudes as well as legal and professional judgements. Yet the boundary carries enormous implications for those subjected to the intrusion and stigma of being investigated for child abuse. If local authorities continue to treat the need for social care services as signalling a potential child protection concern, children and families will pay the price.