Children in the UK’s poorest communities are over 10 times more likely to enter the care system than those from the wealthiest areas, a study has found.
The Child Welfare Inequalities Project analysed data on over 35,000 children in the care system as a looked-after child or on a child protection plan.
Roughly one in every 60 children in the most deprived communities was in care compared to one in every 660 in the least deprived. Each 10% increase in deprivation rates saw a 30% rise in a child’s chances of entering care.
The researchers, led by Professor Paul Bywaters at Coventry University, said the most likely explanation is that, relative to demand, more deprived councils have less funding to allocate to children’s services.
The study found ‘high deprivation’ councils in England saw children’s services expenditure per child cut by an average of 21% between 2010 and 2015, compared to 7% in low deprivation authorities. By 2015 high deprivation councils were spending a larger proportion of their budgets on looked-after children and a smaller proportion on preventive and early help services.
Social workers ‘overwhelmed’
In-depth interviews carried out for the research revealed many social workers felt “overwhelmed” by the level of need they were seeing in families, with lack of money, food and housing seen as “significant” factors impacting children’s wellbeing.
However, the study found current processes for assessing and managing cases in social care “rarely” included such issues and actually reinforced practitioners paying “limited attention” to family poverty.
“Practitioners and managers we spoke to seldom talked about family poverty or the consequences of inequality without being prompted,” the report found.
“Most social workers saw their core business as risk assessment, and regarded actions to address poverty (benefits advice, provision of food, rights advocacy) as services others should provide.”
The results suggested the “need for a step change” in the way social work and children’s services engage with the impact of deprivation, the study concluded.
“Supporting families to survive and thrive in this period of extended austerity should be a more central priority for children’s services, as a contribution to preventing fractured and damaging relationships in families and to protecting children from their consequences,” it said.
“This objective should be underpinned by wider economic and social policies. It has to inform education and training and be embedded in processes such as assessment, case review and managerial oversight.”
Inverse intervention law
Bywaters and colleagues also found evidence of what they have labelled the “inverse intervention law”, with analysis suggesting that poorer families living in affluent local authorities were more likely to have children’s services intervene than poorer families in more deprived councils.
The researchers said the most likely explanation was that, relative to demand, more deprived councils have fewer resources to allocate to cases and therefore “have to ration scarce resources more tightly”.
The research found that the looked-after children rates for white children in the most deprived neighbourhoods in England were five times higher than for Asian children and 75% higher than for black children.
“Much more work is needed to explore the reasons behind these very large inequalities in children’s circumstances and patterns of intervention,” the report said.
“It will be important to dig below these broad categories. As yet, we do not know whether children are having better childhoods in some communities than others or if services are failing to reach some groups.”
Responding to the study, Dave Hill, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said rising demand for children’s social care combined with cuts to local authority funding had left services’ ability to intervene early in cases “in real jeopardy”.
“The impact of austerity is now all too visible in our communities, particularly the most deprived, record numbers of children coming into care and their needs are increasingly complex. Poor parental mental health, substance misuse and domestic abuse is sadly becoming more common amongst the families we work with,” he said.
“We would urge the Department for Education to engage with the research team, ADCS and others to better understand the issues and challenges this study raises, as well as the cumulative impact of wider government reforms on our most vulnerable children and families, particularly in light of the ongoing commitment to social mobility.
“With further reductions in local government funding expected in the forthcoming budget and fundamental changes to our financing on the horizon, time is of the essence in tackling this most vital of social issues before it’s too late.”