Social workers have told a major review, into causes behind the record numbers of children entering care, of the frustrations they feel working within an “overstretched and overwhelmed” system.
The Care Crisis Review, published this week, took input from more than 2,000 participants across England and Wales, including frontline workers, senior sector figures, children and families involved with social services and academics.
It uncovered a “strong sense of concern that a culture of blame, shame and fear has permeated the system, affecting those working in it as well as the children and families reliant upon it”.
A series of recommendations made by the review emphasised the need to develop more inclusive and supportive practice across all areas of children’s social care, including a less adversarial approach to court proceedings.
It backed calls by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) and the Local Government Association (LGA) for the government to make up the projected £2 billion shortfall faced by children’s social care services.
The review, which said the impact of welfare reforms and austerity on families must be urgently evaluated, added that an extra ring-fenced fund should be created to enable children’s services to enact practice changes.
Maris Stratulis, England manager at the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), said the report underlined the need to “listen to the voices that count”.
“One of the core messages of the report is that there needs to be more focus on relationship-based practice – children, families, practitioners and research are all telling us that needs to happen,” Stratulis said.
The Care Crisis Review arrived a day after Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) analysis for the children’s commissioner’s office revealed almost half of England’s £8.6 billion children’s services budget goes on children in the care system. Budgets for non-statutory preventative services plummeted between 2009 and 2016, the IFS research found, with spending on Sure Start centres and other early intervention services dropping by 60% in real terms, at risk of “storing up problems for the future”.
Comments in 2016 by Sir James Munby, president of the family division of the high court of England and Wales, about the “seemingly relentless rise in the number of new care cases”, formed the Care Crisis Review’s starting point. In 2017, the number of care order applications reached record levels while the number of looked-after children, around 73,000, was at its highest since the passing of the Children Act 1989.
The review, carried out over seven months by the Family Rights Group charity and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, pointed to “complex overlapping factors” influencing the numbers of children entering care.
While levels of child poverty have risen in tandem with austerity measures and welfare reforms, it noted important geographical differences, with Wales having continued to invest in early help as England has cut back.
The report drew renewed attention to the lottery faced by children, who are more likely to end up on a child protection plan if they live in deprived areas or come from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. But it cautioned that “local authorities that are ‘statistical neighbours’, sharing similar economic and demographic pressures, can have marked differences in their rates of children coming into care”.
The review identified a series of common frustrations on the part of social workers and the families they worked with.
Echoing the findings of other recent studies, practitioners pointed to the pressure of caseloads impeding their ability to build relationships, and a lack of support to work effectively in partnership with families. Social workers also said they felt “overwhelmed by the wider issues facing families”, and complained of the system being too risk-averse, partly driven by negative media coverage.
Families meanwhile highlighted the lack of early help on offer to them, saying they sometimes felt “done to” rather than “worked with” and described kinship networks as an “untapped resource”. At times they “experienced social work interventions as unpleasant and unhelpful”, the review said.
Both families and professionals wanted approaches that “started from people’s strengths… were respectful and empathetic… asked people what they wanted… listened to concerns and saw the family as a whole… were relationship-based… expected clarity and transparency from professionals and family members and had clear systems for holding each other to account,” it added.
The review heard particular concerns about how court proceedings were conducted. “Too often parents feel alienated, confused and attacked in court and this can lead to disengagement with the process and fuel hostility towards support services,” it said. “Contributors from all parts of the system, from parents to legal and social care leaders, spoke with passion and force about the devastating impact on parents of the fear that proceedings will end in their losing their children, sometimes forever.”
Where parents had lost children, the review added, a “very clear message” was that inadequate support at a time of “bereavement and grief” was likely to increase their likelihood of facing state intervention in future.
More inclusive practice
The Care Crisis Review set out 20 recommendations for change, including:
- Reinforcing the importance of and legal basis for partnership and co-production with families as part of social work training
- Ensuring all families were offered family group conferences before any child entered the care system
- Strengthening statutory family and friends guidance, and improving access to advice and advocacy
- Taking a more flexible approach to the 26-week timescale for care proceedings
- Learning lessons from the “less adversarial and antagonistic” Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) and adopting this as a model for proceedings
- Involving families more in service design and development
- Commissioning a review into links between child poverty and increasing use of children’s statutory services
Nigel Richardson, the former director of children’s services at Leeds council, who chaired the review, said the report showed that the way forward had to be about “working with complexity to offer hope”.
Richardson added: “[It’s about] offering an inclusive approach to decision-making, so families are helped to better understand the concerns about a child’s welfare and to coordinate and propose a safe response to those concerns from within their own, usually extensive, family and friends network. It’s about moving away from an over-reliance on the language of assessment and intervention and more towards understanding and helping.”
Need for empowerment
BASW’s Stratulis said: “Social workers and partners need to be empowered to be wider system and practice leaders, but they need the time and support to think and practice differently.
“There needs to be a move from protective intervention practice to meaningful relationship-based social work at a national, regional and local level,” Stratulis added. “We need to learn from good practice in other nations and from an international perspective and involve children, families and practitioners at the heart of this culture change.”
Stuart Gallimore, ADCS president, said the sector’s focus must be less on the numbers of children in care and more on “whether we have the right children in care, and how we can support children and families to stay together safely”. Doing so was “no easy task in the current financial climate”, Gallimore said.
He added: “The report helpfully supports our call for government to plug the funding gap in children’s services, and echoes our call for an impact assessment which considers how government policy effects children and young people. We need to embed long-term change into the system, aimed at preventing the need for children to come into care in the first place, which can only come from a sustainable approach to offering help and support earlier.”
Richard Watts, chair of the LGA’s children and young people board, said the Care Crisis Review was a “timely contribution to the debate around how best to meet the needs of children and families before they reach crisis point”.
“The care children and young people receive can be a positive life-changing experience and set them on the path of a thriving and prosperous future,” Watts added. “The government urgently needs to commit to fully funding these services so councils can manage the rising demand for help, while also providing the additional resources they need to support families before problems escalate to the point where a child might need to come into care.”