Does the child protection system intervene too much or too little? This is the wrong question

The state's approach to working with families needs to switch from keeping relatively few children alive to helping them and many others lead happier lives, say Carey Oppenheim and Jordan Rehill

Yellow question mark amid pile of black ones
Image: rcfotostock

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

11 Responses to Does the child protection system intervene too much or too little? This is the wrong question

  1. Carol Peacock April 7, 2021 at 2:17 am #

    Children will continue to die from abuse in this country because all too often Children’s Services target the wrong people ie vulnerable young women already known to them. Low income families with problems dragged through the Family Court system.

    So many children in care and Children’s Services are under some kind of illusion they are saving all these children from a future risk of harm but are all these children in need of saving from their birth mothers/families?

    I think it is time to have a different body, maybe Children’s and Adults services combined but with a different approach entirely and more resources to support all children and their families.

    • Tricia Smith April 23, 2021 at 10:31 pm #

      I completely agree with you. I work in adult services and joint worked with CSC and very little weight was given to capacity and respecting the human rights and privacy of the adult. They live up to the notion that their main goal was to remove the children. No emphasis on relationship building with the adult, in order to develop trust for a better working relationship.
      Poverty and vulnerability makes some parents an easy target.

  2. Kimberley April 7, 2021 at 2:11 pm #

    As the partner of someone who was sent away to a private boarding school aged 6 who carries huge and dysfunctional emotions towards his parents, I wonder why no social worker ever crossess the threshold of parents who abandon their children to the bosom of public schools. I suppose neglect, non-existant parenting and abrogating emotional warmth and love to others is only a problem if you are working class or non-white. Great article, thank you.

    • Candice April 9, 2021 at 2:29 pm #

      Hi Kimberly, whilst I wouldnt comment on your partners situation, you do raise a really valid point regarding public schools. I did a safeguarding training with a very experienced private school teacher who was the safeguarding lead. He told me that in 20 years he had never needed to make a referral. I was astonished, but I feel that there was a general feeling that abuse doesn’t happen in “those kinds of family”. There is also a complex power dynamic with the fact that parents are paying for their children to attend. Also potentially the behaviours from children are perhaps less seen in boarding school due to long periods of being away from their unsafe environments. Its certainly an area where we have less involvement, although I would caveat that with the fact that social workers do need a referral to know a child needs help.

      • Peter Unwin April 27, 2021 at 9:11 am #

        You raise an interesting question re referrals from private schools.
        The core reason such referrals are not made is fear of ‘reputational damage’.

  3. Alison Kirk April 9, 2021 at 4:00 pm #

    I agree with you Carol. Children are rightly encouraged to speak to ‘trusted’ adults about any worries/difficulties they have at home. Then begins the process of investigation that all too frequently culminates in children’s removal from their parents care. In my experience, children want change within the family, not fragmenting from the family. I find it incredible that a child’s future can be subject to what is effectively a postcode lottery.

  4. Elaine April 10, 2021 at 12:31 pm #

    You can go to any LA and find an equal weighting of children on caseloads that are being impacted by all the factors being referred to in this article. Each factor on its own has the potential to impair and restrict parenting capacity. Thus leading to the risk of children experiencing some form of harm. Any combination of these factors within a family increases risk. It needs to be remembered that social work is not an exact science. One size does not fit all!!! Social work is a response to need and risk. The profession also works with probabilities as well as facts.

  5. Charlie P May 3, 2021 at 8:53 am #

    I definitely agree that joint up working between adults and children’s services is needed. I’m pleased the article highlighted the issue of the primary root for parents support is all to often through children’s services, as this is a source of deep frustration for me.

    It’s difficult though, as it’s also a privilege that parents trust their children’s social worker enough to agree to referrals of support from them, and speaks to a fundamental tenant of our profession…relationship building.

    While it shouldn’t be the case that parents initial main source of support is through their children’s social worker, if we can provide a positive experience of our support by signposting parents to the right support for themselves, this will go a long way to breaking down awful long ingrained beliefs that “the social are here to take our kids away” and actually build some much needed epistemic trust back in the system.

  6. Emma Gant May 3, 2021 at 9:07 am #

    We all know we need lower caseloads so we can do what we are trained for and actually support families instead of putting further pressure on them when they are already struggling. Read Brid Featherstone’s book ‘Protecting children, a social model’. The system needs to change


  1. Does the child protection system intervene too much or too little? This is the wrong question – Safeguarding News - April 22, 2021

    […] An article drawing on research into how the child protection should respond to child maltreatment Source […]

  2. Does the child protection system intervene too much or too little? This is the wrong question - - Safeguarding News - May 3, 2021

    […] source […]