By Rick Hood, Sarah Gorin and Allie Goldacre
Government statistics show that over the past fifteen years local authorities in England are doing more and more child protection work.
Contrary to most people’s assumption, this is not primarily due to an increase in referrals. While referral rates can vary considerably from one year to the next, they have not risen substantially over the longer term.
Referrals to children’s social care in 2016-17 were only 7% higher than in 2001-02. Over the same period, rates of child protection investigations more than doubled from 31 to 65 per 10,000 children. Rates of child protection plans increased by 87% and rates of care orders increased by 37%.
Although it is hard to establish whether and how thresholds for intervention have changed over this period, it seems that children who are referred into the system are now much more likely to be made subject to a child protection plan than fifteen years ago.
These changes disproportionately affect families living in deprived areas. A child from a deprived neighbourhood is much more likely to be in care, or subject to a child protection plan, than a child from an affluent neighbourhood.
The usual reason given for this is that in deprived areas, more children are likely to need safeguarding. While child abuse and neglect are rare among poor families, physical abuse and neglect are particularly more common in poorer families than more affluent ones.
However, recent research has shown that this is not the whole story and that that inequalities in provision exist that are linked not only to deprivation but to other factors shaping the way services are delivered.
Welfare inequalities matter because they suggest a child’s chances of being subject to a protection plan, or being taken into care, is higher or lower simply by virtue of living in one place rather than another. This is obviously unfair. While the causes are unclear, they are most likely to be linked to the way the system works, rather than being the result of human error or bad practice.
The problem is that we do not know enough about what goes on in the child protection system. Deprivation is not the only factor influencing service provision. Other factors are important, such as expenditure, caseloads, workforce characteristics, Ofsted inspections, and changes in legislation. When there is a crisis in confidence in the system, as after the ‘Baby P’ scandal of 2008, it also affects what referrals are made and what are done with them.
These factors are known as ‘system conditions’, because they shape how the system works in particular areas. at particular times. A new Nuffield-funded study carried out by Kingston University and St Georges, University of London, aims to explore these system conditions and find out how they might contribute to welfare inequalities. The study will draw together national data returns for children’s social care in all English local authorities and contextual data such as Ofsted ratings, deprivation rates, ethnicity and workforce data.
Researchers will also work closely with six local authorities to track the pathways of all children who have been referred over a three-year period. The analysis will show how the system treats children with different characteristics, including age, ethnicity, primary need at assessment, and neighbourhood deprivation. To understand the data better, the researchers will be speaking with social workers, managers and administrators about the factors affecting provision of services in each area.
The findings should provide a better understanding of children’s pathways through the system and the factors that may be contributing to welfare inequalities, to inform the design of services in the future. The study will run until April 2020 and regular updates including results and publications will be made available on the project webpage throughout this period.
For more information about the research, and to join our stakeholder mailing list, please visit our project webpage.
The research is being led by Rick Hood, and combines a quantitative strand led by Allie Goldacre and a qualitative strand led by Sarah Gorin. The research team also includes Professor Paul Bywaters of the University of Huddersfield, whose work on child welfare inequalities is mentioned above.