Munby is right – the care system is facing a crisis. Here’s why…

Ray Jones gives his take on the factors behind the rise in care cases that is placing the courts, and councils, under strain

Royal Courts of Justice
Photo: Gary Brigden

by Ray Jones

Sir James Munby, the president of the family courts, has issued a warning about what he terms a “clear and imminent crisis” facing the system.

He is right. There is an increase month-by-month and year-on-year in the number of care proceedings initiated in the courts by local authorities to have children removed from families. This has stretched to breaking point the capacity of the courts and is overwhelming local authority children’s services and the Children and Families Courts Advisory Service (CAFCASS).

It also has the consequence of more children being compulsorily taken into care against the wishes of their parents – the care population has increased from 60,000 to over 70,000 in the past seven years.

The Baby P effect

Munby is not only right to raise the alarm about the crisis in courts and in care. He is also right to trace its roots back to the vicious media vilification of social workers and their managers in November 2008 when Peter Connelly’s (‘Baby P’s) mother, her boyfriend and his brother were each convicted of causing or allowing Peter’s death.

Munby has noted the 14% rise in care applications to courts in 2015-2016 compared to the previous year. This is a big increase. What is often not reported is the cumulative increase – of 131% – which has occurred since 2007-2008, the year before the ‘Baby P’ media story started to impact in November 2008. It is no wonder courts and children’s services are being overwhelmed.

Munby asks what has been driving this increase since 2007-2008 and calls for more research. Here is my view based on recent research, my work with six local authorities between 2010 and 2015 on child protection and discussions I’ve held with social workers, police officers, health professionals, teachers and others around the country.

The dramatic increase in child protection activity in England between 2008-2009 and 2014-2015 (the 2015-2016 figures have not yet been published) includes a 79% increase in child protection investigations, a 63% increase in initial child protection case conferences, and a 70% increase in the number of children with child protection plans (an increase from 29,200 to 49,700).

Push and pull factors

The factors generating these increases might be separated into pull and push factors. Pull factors are those where there is a likely increase in child protection activity because of more families getting into difficulty and more awareness of abuse and neglect. Push factors are where others are impacting on decisions taken within the children’s social services and care systems.

More families are getting into difficulty because of increasing poverty and stress as a consequence of welfare and housing benefits cuts since 2010. As these families struggle to survive deprivation moving to destitution the help and advice they may have received from Sure Start, children’s centres and youth services has been cut.

Cuts to help for families

Stressed, struggling and stranded, caring well for children gets harder. This is likely to be reflected in the child protection statistics. Almost 80% of child protection plans are because of concerns about neglect or emotional abuse, with only 9% of plans because of concerns about physical abuse and 5% because of sexual abuse. Child protection activity is also greater in poorer areas.

So more families in difficulty and cuts to help for children and families are two pull factors leading to an increase in child protection activity. The third pull factor is greater awareness of some types of abuse and its incidence and impact. This includes relatively recent research on the damaging impact of continuing chronic neglect on infants and on older children, the identification and action over the past five years to address networked sexual exploitation, and the increasing concern about the incidence and impact of domestic violence.

My view is that the pull factor which is most significant is the cut in help to families. It means that struggling families often only now get any response when they have crossed a threshold where their difficulties are seen to be leading to significant concerns about the welfare and safety of children. The response they then get is to be assessed and monitored through child protection procedures.

Media narratives

But I believe these ‘pull’ factors still have less impact than the ‘push factors’ – the effect of the actions of others on the children’s social services and care systems.

One of my reasons for making this judgement is that in November 2008, when the ‘Baby P’ media story started, there was an immediate increase in the number of care applications to courts being made by local authorities.

This was a very fast step change. And just as the ‘Baby P’ story has never stopped being referred to by the media, there has not been any settling down in the number of care applications to courts, which have continued to increase.

So the first push factor is the impact of the media, and especially a tabloid press which continues to tell its vindictive version of the ‘Baby P’ story and also looks to target social workers and their managers for vilification when there is awful abuse of children.

For example, this happened following Hamza Khan’s death in Bradford in 2009, in Coventry after the death of Daniel Pelka in 2012, in Derbyshire after the death of Ayeesha Jane Smith in 2014, and in Rotherham, Oxfordshire and elsewhere following the identification of the sexual abuse and exploitation of young people.

All who work to promote the welfare and safety of children are aware that they too could become a focus of media hostility. This promotes defensive practice and the drive to remove more children from families.

The blame culture

The second push factor is the denigrating stance taken by politicians who, tucking in behind media stories, also seek to pile blame on social workers. The most obvious recent illustration is the government’s plan to introduce a criminal offence with the possibility of imprisonment for social workers and others who are seen retrospectively not to have acted adequately to prevent the serious neglect and abuse of children.

The third, and maybe most significant, push factor is Ofsted. Having shown a willingness to quickly reverse previous positive judgements about councils when a media story damning children’s services erupts, as Ofsted did with Haringey in 2008 and Rotherham in 2012, the inspectorate has become increasingly risk averse and prone to rate more services as ‘inadequate’.

This has contributed, in my view, to the growth in the use of child protection procedures and the thrust to more care proceedings.

So what is driving the crisis Munby has warned of? For me, it is likely to be a combination of pull and push factors, with government cuts and the press and political castigation of those who work to assist families and to protect children being particularly significant.

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13 Responses to Munby is right – the care system is facing a crisis. Here’s why…

  1. Christopher Patch September 26, 2016 at 2:27 pm #

    Difficult to get any sense of coherence in this article replete with lazy thinking masquerading behind statistics.

    E.g. ‘the identification and action over the past five years to address networked sexual exploitation’ is listed as one of three dominant factors responsible for the increase, and yet from 2006 – 2015, according to the Telegraph, cases involving sexual abuse of children scarcely rose at all, from 2,300 to 2,340.
    Ray Jones cites that there has been a 5% rise in referrals to CP as a result of child something is awry with someone’s figures – but neither seems to make sexual exploitation a justification for the staggering increase.

    Whereas by far the largest growth area, 278 per cent, has been in cases where it was alleged that parents were exposing their children to emotional abuse or to future risk of emotional abuse.

    Emotional abuse: that most amorphous of the risk categories, and the most difficult to evidence precisely. These figures might lead one to think that social workers are putting in reports to the courts which though lacking in real physical evidence are not adequately examined.

    This is not directly mentioned by Ray Jones, who prefers to blame the media and Ofsted for shaming social workers and naming Local Authorities inadequate, and to blame cuts to frontline services.

    Yup, as usual – it’s everyone else’s fault…. Community Care remains reliably teflon.

    • Glenys Turner September 27, 2016 at 3:49 pm #

      Wow…What is your profession?..are you a social worker? sometimes it IS everyone elses fault!!!!

    • Anne September 27, 2016 at 8:19 pm #

      Christopher, you appear to vilify anyone who tries to examine and explain why there is such an increase, whether you like it or not Ofsted and the media are culpable, covering their backs and protecting the government, whilst doing nothing to support those who do their level best to protect children and support families.

    • LongtimeSW September 28, 2016 at 2:49 pm #

      Christopher – Whether you, society, courts or politicians like it or not, the child is the one with the least power in all of this – it is all well and good to talk about ‘the system’ ‘alleging’ children are exposed to emotional abuse – are you saying it does not happen at the hands of parent’s? Are you saying that children should remain within an emotionally, physically or sexually abusive family while the difficulties are addressed?

      IF you are a social worker with any experience of Court Proceedings involving children and families you will (or should) know that evidence is tested before decisions are made.

      If you are not a social worker then your views (which you are perfectly entitled to) carry little weight with those of us that deal with these situations daily.

      No system is perfect – we do the best we can with what we have at our disposal with good intent.

    • Wayne Standish September 30, 2016 at 9:02 pm #

      Christopher I find it hard to see how this can be characterised as ‘lazy thinking’ given the quite clear evidence produced by Jones.

      To claim Jones hides behind statistics, only to use stats yourself regarding sexually abuse, and completely misunderstand that often children who are vulnerable to CSE will not be made subject to plans under the category of sexual abuse but of neglect or emotional abuse – so Jones’ point is clearly relevant.

      To focus on this however does ignore the main point of his article, that social policy has increasingly left vulnerable families without support, and they often now only come to the attention of services when a threshold has been met that demands prompt action.

      He also quite rightly points out that the dominant discourse surrounding children’s social care services effectively encourages risk averse practice.

      Nice use of the words ‘replete’ and ‘teflon’ though – almost had me convinced.

  2. Anita September 26, 2016 at 10:40 pm #

    I find this article illuminating and can relate personally to the taking of a child by social services because of risk to emotional abuse. Or because a parent makes bad choices in partners.
    What is worse is that the Social worker & Manager talk as if they are doing a favour with comments
    “Well your starting to get things right, you’re still young and could meet a partner that is better and
    have more children”
    Why would anyone want to be made to feel as if they are being done a favour by having a child taken away and they can be replaced!!!!!

    I always believed that Social Services wanted to return children to both parents or the Mother if the relationship ended not aim to give them away so they can cut all ties with the childs extended family
    e.g Blood Relations, Grandparent, Siblings
    by getting an SGO done for someone who will control contact so they are able to remove the child from their books.

  3. Dave September 27, 2016 at 7:40 am #

    I think that much of what Ray Jones says is right – the media and political hype over baby P has left social workers feeling more exposed and has made them and their practice more risk averse – and perhaps ditto the courts (to a lesser extent, certainly in terms of the media hype).

    However, I agree also with Christopher that it remains their practice and social workers need to own up to it. Going home at night worried that you have made the right decision for a child is bad enough (I know from experience), but worse when compounded by the thought that you could end up at the centre of a media frenzy.

    Responsible politicians, councils and social work bodies need to be thinking more about how they can encourage positive, risk-taking practice. A first step might be finding something different to call it – the media generally do not understand the concept of ‘risk’ and to often confuse it with ‘thoughtless’, ‘lazy’ and’ naïve’.

  4. Gerald September 27, 2016 at 11:08 am #

    Whatever the rights and wrongs, now Social workers are living in the modern world of the Media where all the years of good work carried out by thousands of dedicated people is reduced by sensationalized reporting to this base level solely to sell newspapers,the Care Home Sector has been subjected to this rubbish for years, don’t worry we have survived in spite of them.

  5. Peter Durrant September 27, 2016 at 11:39 am #

    Does no one these days even talk about prevention? As a long retired social/community worker still involved with the third sector, which also lacks a sense of working together, cooperation and failure to explore why and how children and other abuse occurs, there seems little hope for social work. Although on the community social work front,(if this this neglected concept still exists and it hopefully still does in Scotland) grass-roots upwards working, a commitment to enabling and facilitating change, knowledge of of the importance of peer relationships, pro-active networking, the conscious transfer of power and being prepared to work with, and not for, vulnerable people on the receiving end of services then there might still be some fragments of a debate around. At least Ray Jones mentions the disgrace of housing and welfare benefits, as a causal factor, which have been on the decline since 2010 and before. But if we look more closely at the potential of family group conferences, post-credit union/community banking, Asset Based Community Development, radical brokerage, broader social enterprise models and http://www.bromley-by-bow.healthcentre models etc.,etc..we might re-discover that community social work theory and practice has have something to offer.

    • Ruth Dalzell October 2, 2016 at 9:06 am #

      I tend to agree Peter but fear those days of community based social work well and truly over. The job of a front line social worker now , heavily regulated and prescribed, bears little relation to the profession I entered in the late 1970’s.It wasn’t all good then either but much more room to form partnerships with families, summon practical assistance , be creative with support for children and young people. It was possible to believe rightly or wrongly that you could make a difference.

  6. Susanne September 27, 2016 at 6:55 pm #

    Another factor is the lack of support for mothers (in particular) after a child has been removed. Many have multiple problems to deal with – mental health issues, borderline learning difficulties, alcohol or substance misuse, dysfunctional relationships with partners and their own families. Lacking help to cope, they frequently get pregnant again, sometimes consciously trying to replace the baby they have lost – in a repeating cycle which sees six, seven, eight or more babies removed from them at birth. Part of the cause of this may be the fracture between childrens services and adults services, and the splintering of adults services into specialisms, all short of resources and trying to push the problem onto someone else to cope with, and few having the ability to work with people whose difficulties cross the boundaries between services.

  7. Anne September 27, 2016 at 8:54 pm #

    Pete, have you really any idea the measures that social workers take to try and prevent abuse, the scrutiny of practice by PS’s, PM’s, SM’s and Ofsted is absolutely oppressive/a necessary evil, unless you have worked on the front line then you have no idea that children’s social work services work on good will alone, they are paid for 37 hours but work more than double that, this takes it’s toll on their health, relationships and the welfare of their own children. In nursing patients die, but nurses and doctors don’t get blamed and crucified by the media, people get murdered, mugged and burgled but the police are not crucified either. Community social work is all well and good for communities that are not already destroyed, there are not many left.

  8. Ep September 28, 2016 at 5:23 pm #

    I am aware of at least one case where the evidence was not tested before the final judgement and another where no weight was given to the support offered by grandparents and other family members.