Study finds high rate of repeat referrals in children’s services

Government-commissioned research found more than half of children referred to social services were re-referred within five years

Photo: Nadezhda1906/Fotolia

More than 50% of children referred to children’s services in the 2010-11 financial year were re-referred by the end of 2014-15, a new study commissioned by the Department for Education has shown.

The research report, authored by Manchester University’s Dr Patricio Troncoso, is based on a study of 498,867 children referred in 2010-11, within 145 local authorities. It goes on to conduct more detailed modelling based on a subset of 90,209 children within 144 local authorities.

By 2015-16, the end of the research period, 54.5% of the 366,196 children still eligible by age had been re-referred at least once.

“Re-referrals can be costly to local authorities, but more importantly, they can be stressful and harmful to the children themselves, as well as to their parents or guardians,” the report said.

“Potentially, multiple referrals can be detrimental to children’s development, as they may imply prolonged periods of unmet needs and recurrent episodes of abuse, neglect, maltreatment, etc.”

The study found that in authorities where social workers had more than 10 child in need cases on their hands, the probability of children being re-referred rose sharply as overall referral rates increased.

“This illustrates how re-referral might be related to the capacity of local authorities to handle cases at first referral,” the report said. “Simply put, if local authorities lack capacity to deal with referral cases, as they might be short-staffed, more children would return for a repeated referral, as their needs might have not been assessed or addressed adequately.”

The paper acknowledged that this finding was “not conclusive” and that other factors such as those picked up in Ofsted reports were also likely to play a part.

Among a series of other findings, the report noted:

  • More than 40,000 were re-referred in at least three of the six years of the study.
  • Children who had been stepped down as needing no further action in their first referral (starting episode of need) are 1.34 times as likely to be re-referred as children who had not been stepped down as needing no further action.
  • Children with disabilities were notably more likely to return to the children’s services system than their non-disabled peers. Up to the age of 13, the study found that children with disabilities had around a 60% likelihood of re-referral, as opposed to less than 50% for all other children. But the report also noted that “when the primary [referral] need of a child is disability, they are markedly less likely to be re-referred, as they will probably continue different pathways to care for their
  • Over the five years of the study period, about half of children were re-referred for the same primary need as their initial referral, while half were re-referred for different primary needs. The most common primary needs were abuse and neglect, family dysfunction and family in acute distress.
  • 10% of children who were at some point taken into care subsequently had a separate second period.

The report acknowledged a number of potential limitations to its findings; for example that it had only focused on one cohort of children, that thresholds may be applied differently within different local authorities and that it had not considered instances of children being re-referred multiple times within any given financial year.

It suggested a number of avenues for follow-up work, such as analysing the time periods between children’s episodes of need and re-referral, and investigating links between deprivation and ethnicity and the likelihood of re-referral.

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5 Responses to Study finds high rate of repeat referrals in children’s services

  1. Katie Politico July 25, 2017 at 11:42 am #

    How many times does it need to be stated that caseloads need to be significantly reduced?? However, given the government’s intent to drive local authorities into the ground caseloads will continue to increase. I therefore lay the blame for inadequate assessments and the consequent suffering of children squarely at the door of central government. As with every other public service the government is eyeing the potential for profit through outsourcing to the private sector at which point the situation will worsen. I therefore say again that social workers need to hold the government to account.

  2. Manzar iqbal July 25, 2017 at 11:43 am #

    We should not be blaming local authority for the failure of the Tory government to invest in our children and young people services.The blame simply lies with the Conservative government for the year on year cuts to the budgets of local authorities.

    The cuts in public sector spending has and is putting the children and young people in our communities in harm, abuse,neglect and sexual exploitation.

    Manzar Iqbal BA (HONS),DMS,MBA
    Youth Officer
    Pendle Labour Party


  3. rob July 25, 2017 at 3:40 pm #

    Well thats not surprising! Social workers only get the time to do half a job when it comes to working with and supporting families due to time and lack of resources.

  4. Rosaline July 27, 2017 at 2:33 pm #

    I am a qualified social worker, completing an effective assessment relies on striking up a relationship based on trust. As a social worker I strive my best to understand the needs of the child, parental circumstances, consider impact and capacity to change. This is my skill, my expertise, areas I work had to develop and retain. So, the idea that the government is to be blamed for the poor quality of social work practice, leaves me confused. I accept that working conditions are not where they should be in some instances. However we have a responsibility to maintain continuous professional development and demonstrate through modelling, how we use our skills.

    Doctors, nurses, teachers, police do not blame cuts for poor responses, they identify it as a contributing factor, reminding of professional responsibilities, ability to whistle blow and take out grievances, when we are worried about poor working conditions, which impact on performance. Yet, these mechanisms are rarely used, that is not the responsibility of the government.

    Let us be committed to learning how to develop skills to build relationships within a short interaction, analyse information and strive to make decisions in the best interest of the child. This way will improve our assessments and reduce re-referral rates, oh and maybe we need to stop being over optimistic.

  5. Tom J July 31, 2017 at 4:00 pm #

    I chuckled once at a core group meeting after realising that all agencies had the mantra of ‘signpost to other services then close’.

    We were all in the room and all wanted to signpost the case away from one another. This is because we are all encouraged to adopt business like efficiencies.

    Unfortunately, humans are complex and multi layered (sort education and another problem arises). Moreover they tend to not slot nicely into tidy twelve week plans at which point the case can be signposted or stepped down.

    A social worker who suggests a three year child in need plan is not welcome as this is not ‘efficient’ to business plans.