The cost of not providing sufficient early help services – to children and families, and society more widely – is one that “cannot easily be forgiven or forgotten” by people affected, a review by Croydon Safeguarding Children Board has concluded.
The thematic review into the experiences of 60 children in the borough – many of whom have been criminally or sexually exploited, and involved in serious violence – found half had been known to children’s services by age five.
But, the report said, many children benefited only from short-term, narrowly focused interventions that took “little appreciation of underlying trauma or the plethora of their adverse childhood experiences”.
In their mid-teens a significant proportion of the children were subject to child protection plans or taken into care – at a time in their lives when, the review found, many were experiencing risk and harm from outside the family home. Some subsequently lost their lives or ended up in prison or in secure units.
Practitioners told the review they “did not have a framework in place to address risks in the community”. Children’s lives were also blighted by high turnover of social workers, with whom they had little chance to build rapport, and by over-complicated multi-agency arrangements.
Access to “non-stigmatising, universally accessible services” such as children’s centres, integrated with other support, when children are young and parent most amenable to working with professionals, should be seen as “critical”, the report said.
Croydon council pledged that the review would inform a new “wraparound” approach to preventative early help work in the borough, which between 2012 and 2017 had the fourth-highest percentage of non-domestic knife crime in London. The authority has recently set up a specialist team that works intensively with adolescents, in support of social workers.
‘Violence, trauma and loss’
Croydon’s thematic review was commissioned in the wake of the deaths of three teenagers, well-known to children’s services, in 2017. Two of the deaths are subject to separate serious case reviews, with the third being included in the wider group.
The children included in the investigation were identified by agencies across Croydon as vulnerable adolescents who had suffered “poor outcomes” or were subject to considerable concern.
In all, five had lost their lives prematurely, while others interviewed described “the impact of violence, trauma and loss on them”, the review said, acknowledging that the extent of this was still unknown.
Almost three-quarters (72%) of the children had grown up without their father, the review found, while four in 10 had witnessed domestic abuse.
More than a quarter had experienced homelessness, drug abuse or the absence of their mother.
Many of the findings of the review echoed themes uncovered in a serious case review into the killing of 14-year-old Corey Junior Davis, published by Newham safeguarding children board last year. That investigation found professionals flitted in and out of Corey’s life, failing to develop plans that could adequately respond to his needs as he was criminally exploited by older boys.
In response to referrals made early in the Croydon children’s lives, “service provision was characterised by short-term single agency responses to the presenting needs of the child and, separately, the adults”, the review found.
Primary school teachers, who identified risks facing their pupils that left them “deeply concerned”, were often thwarted by thresholds for involvement with children’s social care or CAMHS, it added. In one such case a boy was subsequently drawn into gang life and died aged 16.
Where referrals were accepted, professionals – who acknowledged problems caused by service cuts and rising thresholds – complained of difficulties developing relationships with families.
Meanwhile some parents, struggling to manage children’s behaviour as they grew older and more influenced by peers, expressed frustration at getting mixed messages from different agencies. Many felt they were perceived as a bad parent, or were treated poorly because they were black, and some believed their child’s behaviour worsened after services intervened.
“Of particular importance in [the six to 16] age range was the need to provide early intervention/preventative services, to provide a whole-family, whole-system approach, and to fully utilise the engagement of family members/kinship,” the review said. Much better partnerships needed to be forged with schools, it added.
The failure to intervene early and effectively had a “devastating impact” on children’s lives, the review found.
More than a third (37%) were sexually exploited in their teens while more than a quarter (27%) were exposed to criminal exploitation, including involvement with county lines networks. Overall 55% were found to have links with gangs.
Children interviewed by the review team cited exclusion from school, into pupil referral units, as crushing their hopes and aspirations and offering “no way back”.
As children became drawn into more dangerous activities and their behaviour worsened, agencies responded reactively, via a combination of criminal justice and child protection interventions, neither of which removed risk from their lives.
“In the most part, agencies worked hard to do what they could with the resources available,” the review said. “But the fast-paced dynamic nature of the emerging issues and the nature and frequency of their exploitation and offending behaviour presented a significant challenge.”
Despite some appreciation of interlocking risks – including from siblings’ offending behaviour and within peer groups – overarching plans were not typically implemented, the review found. This situation was exacerbated by the existence of various forums at which children were discussed, meaning work was duplicated and different people had different parts of the picture.
Among a series of recommendations, the report said the safeguarding board should evaluate Croydon’s early help offer, that the borough explore examples of trauma-informed practice, and that the review findings should inform its implementation of contextual safeguarding.
The contextual safeguarding approach, spearheaded by the University of Bedfordshire’s Carlene Firmin, involves understanding the risks children face in their wider environment and is being piloted in Hackney.
Responding to the review, Croydon’s cabinet member for children, young people and learning Alisa Flemming said it provided a “powerful reminder” of the reality many young people live.
“We must come together as a community support the 55 young people [still living], and to ensure we do all we can to tackle the issues that have been pivotal in their lives, from housing need to mental health, so we keep all our young people safe,” Flemming said.
Hamida Ali, cabinet member for Safer Croydon and communities added: “This is a hugely important piece of work – not just for Croydon because of the invaluable insight it offers us into the experiences and perspectives of some of our most vulnerable young people – but also because of what it offers the nation at large.”