By Carey Oppenheim and Jordan Rehill
The rising number of young children in care and on protection plans has been the subject of much debate.
Research led by Professor Karen Broadhurst shows that the proportion of babies under one year old subject to care proceedings in England increased from 51 to 81 per 10,000 children between 2008 and 2016. For babies under one week old, the rate more than doubled (from 15 to 35 per 10,000 children).
At the same time, we know that, despite these increases, the state is still failing to protect all children from harm. Data from the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel reveals that, in 2019, 46% of children who died or were seriously harmed following suspected or known abuse or neglect had not received contact or support from children’s services.
Is there a right level of intervention?
As a result, there is much debate, but no consensus, about whether too many or too few children are subject to state intervention.
But in trying to identify how public services can better support families and prevent harm, is this even the right question to be asking? The research, which we explore in our evidence review, Protecting young children at risk of abuse and neglect, suggests not.
Firstly, the lack of adequate data makes this an impossible question to answer. Reports on officially registered cases are only the tip of the iceberg; we have no way of knowing the true level of maltreatment in the wider population.
The inevitable result of inadequate data, and variations in social work practice and intervention thresholds, is that two children can have similar levels of need, but one will be in care and the other will not.”
Conversely, two children in care who appear to be similar from the data can actually have very different lives and needs.
The Children’s Commissioner for England estimates that there are over half a million children under five (17%) living in a household with domestic abuse, parental mental health problems or parental substance misuse – the so-called ‘toxic trio’.
But while such estimates can be a useful measure of potential vulnerability for young children, they do not provide the level of granularity needed to understand the true prevalence of maltreatment.
They are also indicative of one of the fundamental challenges faced by those working in children’s services – that the route to addressing parental need for support is too often through a child welfare intervention rather than investment in targeted support for adults.
It is unsustainable to continue without a single consistent measure of maltreatment in the child population, not just for population prevalence but also to inform prevention and responses. The ONS has recently launched a consultation exploring the feasibility of a survey measuring child abuse in the UK, which would help address this knowledge gap.
The role of poverty
Secondly, variation and inequalities in the child welfare system mean it is probable that the state is intervening both too little and too much. The chance of receiving a child welfare intervention is not experienced equally by all families.
Poverty is a driving factor in this inequality – research led by Professor Paul Bywaters shows that children living in the poorest neighbourhoods are at least ten times more likely to be in care or on child protection plans than children in the richest neighbourhoods, and this relationship is stronger for children under five.
There are also inequalities between ethnic groups in the proportions of children being looked after in England, and although researchers including Paul Bywaters and Calum Webb have shed much-needed light on this subject, it remains shamefully unexplored from a policy perspective.
Instead of debating the optimum level of state intervention, we suggest focusing on whether different state agencies are intervening in the right way to prevent harm and promote positive outcomes.
We know that interventions at the right time in early childhood can protect children and support their families to help them thrive, particularly when offered as a holistic, ongoing package of support across different children’s and adults’ services.
Shift from early to late intervention
Yet over time, we have seen a shift away from provision of early support to help families who are struggling, towards later interventions that are more likely to separate families and which are more expensive to provide. Figures from the National Audit Office show that spending on preventive services to support families who are under pressure in England fell from £3.8bn billion in 2010 to £2.1bn in 2018, while spending on statutory and acute services, such as provision for children in care, has largely been protected.
In an ideal system, universal and targeted support services – health, social care, early education, childcare, and interventions such as the Troubled Families (now the Supporting Families) progamme – would be integrated, as would the data that underpins them.
In reality, however, the siloed approach to service provision, with insufficient collaboration between adults’ and children’s services, means that these services are treated as independent bodies, and, as a result, many families continue to fall through the gaps.
From keeping a few alive to making many more happy
We also need to think more about the context in which these services operate. Focus on the ‘toxic trio’, which is embedded in assessment processes, national data collection and the family justice system can detract from thinking about other risk factors, the most obvious ones being poverty, poor or insecure housing and debt, which are not similarly embedded in the child welfare and protection systems.
Ultimately, we cannot solve all the problems faced by young children through children’s social care services – social work and family justice are only one part of the solution.
Alleviating the financial pressure on families and addressing housing needs would make an important difference in enabling children to thrive, as would a more collaborative approach across public services and agencies that can provide the sustained support that both parents and children need.
Greater consideration of how public agencies collaborate with families, kin, and the wider community would also be of value.
There are many children who do not currently meet the thresholds for intervention who would also benefit from such an approach, which would help shift focus from keeping a small cohort of children alive, towards helping them, and many more besides, to be happy, do well in life and make a successful transition to adulthood.
This subject is one we will return to in subsequent reviews from our Changing face of early childhood series.
Carey Oppenheim is early childhood lead, and Jordan Rehill, researcher, at the Nuffield Foundation