Inequalities in the proportions of children from different ethnic groups in the care system must be urgently investigated to ensure services are socially just and fit for purpose and resources are used effectively, academics have said.
A study led by Paul Bywaters, a professor at the University of Huddersfield, found ‘White British’ children are more than 10 times more likely than ‘Asian Indian’ children to be in care. Meanwhile ‘Black Caribbean’ children are 20 times more likely.
The disparity can be partly explained by communities’ vastly different exposures to high levels of deprivation. Three quarters of children from Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Caribbean and African backgrounds live in the most disadvantaged 40% of neighbourhoods, the research found.
But significant inequalities remain even when such factors are not in play, said Bywaters, who added that understanding the reasons why must become a priority for the government.
“Two things strike me – first, the extent of deprivation that many black and ethnic minority groups experience,” Bywaters said. “And second, big disparities between Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian children, and between those from African and Caribbean backgrounds, as well as differences with white children.”
Low rates in care could mean some children in need are being missed by statutory services or, more positively, that some communities are more effective in supporting children’s development than others, the study found. But it warned that far more evidence was needed before conclusions could be drawn.
“We don’t understand well enough what’s going on – there’s no simple recipe for practitioners, but it can’t be right for children and everyone needs to be paying more attention to this, trying to understand so we can do something about it,” Bywaters said.
‘Putting the right resources in’
The research analysed 8,000 children in care across 18 local authority areas, selected to be representative of the country as a whole.
It found children from ‘Asian’ backgrounds were almost three times less likely to be in care than ‘White’ children and almost four times less likely than ‘Black’ children – a pattern that the study noted was sometimes put down to “simplistic” assumptions around the benefits of strong extended families.
But the study also found striking differences between different communities within wide generic labels. For example, children identified as ‘Indian’ were far less likely to have experienced children’s services involvement than those from Pakistani or Bangladeshi backgrounds.
It also found ‘Black African’ children were less likely to be in care than their ‘White British’ counterparts – except in areas of low deprivation, where they were more likely to be.
By contrast, ‘Black Caribbean’ children were more likely to be in care than ‘White British’ children, regardless of the deprivation level of their neighbourhood.
The study also looked at 6,000 children subject to child protection plans and found a broadly similar, though more complicated picture.
Bywaters said it was crucial for children’s services leaders to understand why children from some communities are less likely to enter care than others and what lessons can be learned. “They need to be able to make sure they are putting the right resources into each community to tackle problems they are facing,” he said.
Bywaters added that the disparities could mask issues – such as in an area where high concentrations of particular ethnic groups could influence how a local authority’s spending on care appeared, relative to its level of deprivation.
“The scale of the inequalities has considerable implications for the direction of children’s services and for how scarce funding is spent,” he said. “If the proportion of children in care in all other groups was reduced to that for ‘Asian Indian’ children, spending would be reduced by 90%.”
‘More work is needed’
Responding to the study findings, Stuart Gallimore, the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), said they highlighted both “structural inequalities in our society” and important knowledge gaps “in terms of possible positive learning as well as areas for concern”.
“The research raises interesting questions about accepted recording techniques, an individual’s self identity and accepted practices,” Gallimore added, noting that the study also acknowledged that household and parental data could offer a different view of a child’s context.
“Overall deprivation is the most pervasive factor in involvement with children’s social care, not ethnicity, although some groups seem to be insulated to a degree from the deprivation, perhaps via stronger family or community links,” Gallimore said. “More work is needed to understand the issues raised by this study and the impact for research, policy and practice.”