The tiered, threshold-based approach to safeguarding needs reform to address the inequalities in provision children face, a major study has recommended.
The child welfare systems and inequalities research project found more deprived local authorities were dealing with greater demand, which they were insufficiently funded to deal with.
This led them to screen out more children from support, work with families for less time and spend less per child within the system than less deprived councils.
The study found that these inequalities in provision were fuelled by the way safeguarding services were based around tiers of intervention – early help, multi-agency safeguarding hubs, child in need, child protection, looked-after children – access to which was rationed through thresholds.
This involved a case-by-case approach that meant social problems tended to be seen through individual risk factors, particularly in relation to neglect, which was largely assessed in relation to parental deficits rather than poverty.
To tackle these ‘welfare inequalities’ – which the research team defined as unjust and unavoidable inequalities in families’ chances, experiences and outcomes from child welfare services – the report suggested local authorities take an approach based on tackling clusters of problems rooted in families’ social contexts. The study identified seven such clusters based on certain characteristics of children and families (see box, below).
It said such approaches had been adopted in the way some authorities had worked to address emerging issues such as organised sexual and criminal exploitation, for which mainstream child protection interventions did not provide effective remedies.
Researchers also argued for a “rebalancing” of systems, both in terms of more deprived local authorities receiving funds appropriate to their levels of need, and in relation to a renewed focus on early intervention rather than the recent trend towards high-cost statutory work.
The two-year project looked at national patterns of demand for children’s social care in England, then conducted in-depth analyses of six local authorities based both on child-level data and interviews with social workers.
It uncovered differential rates of interventions across the different areas with, as previous research has consistently found, children in more deprived boroughs more likely to be in receipt of services.
However, children experiencing comparable levels of deprivation were more likely to receive interventions – and for those interventions to be greater – if they lived in affluent local authority areas, which were able to devote more resources per child.
Both these effects, which had been amplified by the impact of austerity on councils, tended to become more pronounced when it came to higher-level interventions by social workers (child protection plans, care proceedings). They were also particularly marked in cases of neglect, which constitutes the largest single category of child protection plans.
The research also concluded that children’s services had become increasingly reliant, as universal services had shrunk, on tiered thresholds as a means of considering and managing demand.
Integrated early help functions, for example, had in some areas effectively become an extra layer in a pyramidal safeguarding system, just below statutory intervention but handling cases of rising complexity, rather than distinctive preventive services.
Responses less focused on individuals
Instead, the study found, demand could be differentiated into ‘clusters’ of presenting issues (see box), in order to better understand causes of discrete safeguarding issues within areas.
The study identified seven distinct demand types at assessment:
- Neglect, with very few other factors recorded;
- Domestic abuse, with very few other factors recorded;
- Physical abuse, with very few other factors recorded;
- Out-of-control/highly vulnerable/sexual abuse – characterised by a range of factors including socially unacceptable behaviour, mental health problems, sexual abuse or exploitation, self-harm or child substance misuse;
- Multiple complex needs 1 – characterised by combinations of domestic abuse, parental mental health, substance misuse or emotional abuse;
- Multiple complex needs 2 – characterised by greater prevalence of the factors in multiple complex needs 1, plus physical abuse, neglect, child mental health or domestic abuse relating to the child;
- Disability and mental health – characterised by children and parents with combinations of disabilities or mental health problems.
The most prevalent category across the six local authorities studied was ‘multiple complex needs 1’, followed by ‘out-of-control’ or ‘domestic violence’. ‘Multiple complex needs 2’ was the least common but had the greatest proportion of cases subject to statutory intervention.
Researchers found that combinations of the so-called ‘toxic trio’ factors of domestic abuse, parental mental health and parental substance misuse in the two complex needs categories did not in themselves predict the likelihood of intervention. Half of cases in the ‘complex needs 1’ category – the lower-need of the two – were assessed as not meeting the child in need threshold.
“The results suggest the combination of ‘toxic trio’ factors was not necessarily seen by practitioners as evidence of significant harm, and that other presenting needs could be just as important,” the study said.
This approach, it argued, could enable a move towards multi-agency “task forces” tackling needs at community level, with the impact of poverty on families being foregrounded when shaping services.
“You might have a county with certain neighbourhoods or towns where lots of poverty is clustered together – or isolated families in affluent areas – [and some] children and on child protection plans and some get taken into care,” Rick Hood, an associate professor at Kingston University who led the study.
“The data will tell you there’s a problem, but it looks different in different communities, so you start thinking about problem clusters, and assemble all the people, the services who have a vested interest in making those problems better.”
Hood said such an approach did not imply circumventing the existing statutory framework, but would mean scaling up responses so they were focused less around individuals and more around strategic collaboration.
He added that the contextual safeguarding approach councils have already taken to county lines drug dealing – which involves extra-familial risks and harm, neutering the effect of escalating child protection interventions – provided a good example of this.
‘Triage, rather than thresholds, to blame’
Responding to the findings of the child welfare inequalities study, Claudia Megele, the chair of the Principal Children and Families Social Worker (PCFSW) Network, said it offered important findings and recommendations.
“I could not agree more with the need for a systemic approach to addressing the root causes of poverty, inequality and deprivation in society and their impact on children and families,” she said.
But, Megele argued, the existence of a threshold system did not necessarily preclude relationship-based practice and early intervention. “The detrimental effects of the threshold system are not inevitable consequences of its existence; they are the result of its application as a triage system,” she said.
“Research and evidence have repeatedly highlighted the value and importance of partnership working and early intervention as well as a proactive and systemic rights-based approach to meeting people’s needs,” Megele added. “This is not only a humane and principle-based approach it is also the most economically viable and sustainable one.”
In light of the expected economic slowdown due to the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on people’s lives, it was “more important than ever” that local authorities have the necessary resources to deliver effective support and safeguarding for children and families during this time, she said.