Children’s social care services focus increasingly on poorer households the more they intervene in family life, according to a new report which calls for fewer child protection cases and action to tackle poverty.
The social gradient in English child welfare services, a study by Kingston University academics and Ofsted analysts, said that children from the poorest neighbourhoods in England were almost fourteen times more likely to be referred to social care services than those from the richest areas.
However, it said this ‘social gradient’ increased at each subsequent level of intervention by children’s social care. Researchers found that a 10% increase in an area’s deprivation was associated with a 62% increase in a child’s chances of being referred to children’s services, a 64% increase in the rate of child in need plans, a 69% rise in child protection investigation rates and an 80% increase in the rates of child protection plans.
Given the change from consent-based work with families towards increased surveillance at the child protection threshold, researchers said that “the point at which the state decides that family life needs policing is also the point at which it decides more than ever to concentrate its attention on poorer families”.
It said this also meant that the shift in the balance of children’s social care provision from early to late intervention over the past decade was “exacerbating inequalities and encouraging a disproportionate focus on poorer families”.
From 2009-10 to 2019-20, while referrals rose by 7% and the number of children in need by 4%, child protection enquiries rose by 129%, child protection plans by 32% and the number of children in care by 24%. By 2019-20, the share of children’s social care spending on non-statutory provision had fallen to 35% from 23% in 2012-13.
The report said the inequalities it identified had been driven by the rising identification of neglect, which accounted for 50.5% of child protection plans in 2020, up from 40% in 2013, a rise which researchers said coincided with increasing poverty and inequality. The report found that the social gradient was steeper for neglect than for any other category of child protection plan, with rates rising by 98% for every 10% increase in area deprivation.
“The identification and substantiation of neglect is therefore closely bound up with the systematic focus on children from poor backgrounds within the child protection system,” said the report. “This phenomenon is evident across all LAs but becomes particularly visible in affluent, rural areas.”
Overall, services in more affluent local authorities were more disproportionately focused on poorer neighbourhoods than services in more deprived councils. This was reflected in an ‘inverse intervention law’ by which when similarly deprived neighbourhoods were compared across councils, rates of intervention and rereferrals were higher in more affluent local authorities.
The law was also evident in relation to repeat referrals and the length of time children spent in the system. Children from more deprived neighbourhoods tended to have longer periods of involvement with statutory services and higher rates of re-referrals and repeat child protection plans. However, rates of all of these were higher in more affluent authorities, when similarly deprived neighbourhoods were compared.
System ‘not working’
Rick Hood, one of the report’s authors, said this finding showed that the system was not working.
“You could argue that because [more affluent authorities] have more money, and because there are fewer children living in poverty in those areas, they can concentrate on them and identify them,” said Hood, professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London.
“But the rates of rereferrals and repeat child protection plans is actually higher in those areas. So, it’s not working.”
He said it was wrong to accept the report’s main finding of higher rates of intervention in poorer neighbourhoods as “a fact of life”.
“We take it absolutely for granted that children should be having more problems or experiencing more treatment if they live in poorer areas. Of course, we should not accept that. That in itself is social injustice staring us in the face,” he said.
Need to tackle poverty
The report proposed a shift from targeted interventions with high-risk cases towards a “public health approach” aimed at ameliorating poverty, social exclusion, precarious housing, inadequate support networks and lack of community assets, all of which drove demand for child welfare services, it said..
It also recommended restricting child protection interventions to cases where damage to children was “evident and serious”.
The conclusions echo those of the government-commissioned children’s social care review which, in its recent ‘case for change’, said that the system was too focused on investigating families and insufficiently on supporting them. The review, led by Josh MacAlister, which has been tasked with coming up with recommendations to reform the system, also said children’s social care needed to take greater account of deprivation as a causal factor in child abuse and neglect, and do more to tackle poverty.
In response to the latest report, a Department for Education spokesperson said: “The independent review of children’s social care is wide-ranging and seeks to improve the lives of children and families who are supported by social care services.
“Key to this process will be identifying where the social care system can do more to transform outcomes for children and the work Josh MacAlister has undertaken so far in his role as chair will help feed into this important review.”
The research, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, was based on analysing data from the children in need census, completed annually by local authorities for the DfE, linked to data from other government datasets to identify deprivation and activity levels in small areas. It follows up on a two-year project to identify the links between system conditions and welfare inequalities in children’s social care and the Child Welfare Inequalities Project, a four-year study to identify the interaction between poverty and inequality and children’s social care practices.