‘Child protection interventions are on the rise – and the trend shows no sign of slowing’

Our research suggests child protection interventions are increasingly being used to manage the demand for social care, writes Rick Hood

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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.


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2 Responses to ‘Child protection interventions are on the rise – and the trend shows no sign of slowing’

  1. loiner June 3, 2016 at 11:26 pm #

    its time to have separate parts of children’s services…….one purely for child protection linked to child protection laws………….the other for supporting families who need help rather than lumping all children’s services together

  2. Tom J June 6, 2016 at 2:58 pm #

    If I were in need of help as a parent; I would turn to my parents to help out.

    The challenge is that many people do not have supportive parents/networks to assist them in meeting their children’s needs when the ‘chips are down’.

    This group of people subsequently turn or are forced towards state and voluntary support whether that be health visitors, children centre workers, social workers, home start workers and so on.

    BUT the problem of being supported by this group is the following:
    – Child protection discourse; professionals are encouraged to view parents with a high amount of suspicion and to be fearful of blame if they miss something.

    – Very few offer creative practical support which can sometimes help e.g. when my mum says ‘I can see your struggling, i’ll do X so you can focus on Y’. Particularly outsourced children centres are obsessed with their contract. I have worked with Barnardos Children Centres where the answer can be ‘but that’s not in our contract’ when asked to do something that would benefit the child and family.

    – All have a ‘you must not become dependent on us’ approach. But in many ways I am dependent on my parents! Am I wrong to do so? I regularly hear things like ‘you cant be supported by us for longer than 12 months’. But why? I’m supported by my parents until they can no longer help.

    – All have neo liberal ‘smart planning’ where everything can be measured and sorted in a timely fashion. But some parents have issues (e.g. mental health) that cannot be sorted in a twelve week timeframe. In fact there are some parents out there who will need help for years- but this does not mean that their child should be in care.

    – Often ‘intensive support’ from services is anything but e.g. once weekly visits may not be enough.

    Hence, of course if supportive family exist we should promote their involvement e.g. through family group conferences, but when there is no supportive family members- there needs to be an alternative as at present this group are getting sucked into the child protection arena.