Relational practice helping keep numbers entering care below long-term average, claim councils

Edge of care work helping keep children with their families, say authorities, as DfE survey shows number of children going into care continues to trail three-year average

Social worker with two young children
Photo: nimito/Adobe Stock

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Relationship-based practice and edge of care services are helping keep the number of children entering care below the long-term average, councils have said.

This was the most common explanation proffered by authorities in submitting data showing that care entry rates have continued to lag well behind the average for 2017-20 since the start of the pandemic.

The latest Department for Education survey on Covid’s effects on children’s social care showed the number of children entering care was 26% lower than the three-year average for the same period in September, 30% lower in October, 17% lower in November and 22% lower in December 2021.

The DfE said the survey underestimated the number of children starting to be looked after because some local authorities reported that there could be a delay in adding start dates to their management information systems.

However, official government statistics showed the number of children entering care from April 2020 to March 2021 down 8% on the previous year, in the wake of year-on-year declines from 2017-2020.

The fall since April 2020 has been associated with risks and harm to children being missed because of pandemic restrictions, though the latest falls reported by councils have come since the lifting of restrictions last summer.

Debate over causes of fewer children entering care

In an appearance at Community Care Live last October, chief social worker for children Isabelle Trowler questioned whether the fall was due to children’s services not recognising harm or of them supporting families differently.

The DfE’s survey report said the most common explanation councils gave for the latest fall in children starting to be looked was action to divert children from entering care.

Authorities quoted also cited the impact of relationship-based social work.

“Any drop in numbers of children coming into care in…is in part due to a new [name] approach which is reinforcing our edge of care work…”

“Our [model of practice] emphasises supporting children to remain with their parents where it is safe to do so. The collaborative and relational approach to our work with children and families promotes trust and a solution focused approach to supporting families to overcome difficulties where possible; this includes children and families receiving intensive support from our edge of care team. This overall approach has broadly maintained the stability of the numbers of children within our care.”

“Our staff are trained in systemic practice, caseloads are more manageable, and staff have opportunity to build relationships with families and work with them to bring about change effectively.”

Investing in keeping families together

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) said many councils were investing in programmes to help families stay together where it is safe to do so.

“By working collaboratively and adopting relational approaches, we have seen many positive examples where children have been able to remain with their family,” said vice president Steve Crocker.

“For example, edge of care teams can work intensively with a family prior to entering care proceedings in order to provide them with the right support to overcome challenges and reduce risk.”

However, the DfE survey report said the number of children looked after in January 2022 was 3% higher than the same time in 2019-20.

Some authorities said their numbers in care were increasing because of court delays in discharging care orders and increases in the number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, points echoed by Crocker.

He said greater national investment in children’s services was needed to help councils to continue to deal with these challenges.

“Despite the barriers and backlogs caused by the pandemic, we continue to work intensively with children and families to enable them to stay together safely,” he said.

“The government must provide the sector with a sustainable, equitable and long-term financial settlement that enables children to thrive, not just survive in the wake of the pandemic.”

The DfE is monitoring trends in children coming into care and said the issue was being considered by the children’s social care review, which is due to report later this year.

Referrals remain below pre-Covid levels

Local authorities received between 6% and 9% fewer referrals to their children’s social care services in October to December 2021, compared to three-year averages for the same periods in 2017-20.

These declines are not as sharp as the those of 20% or more recorded in January and February 2021, when strict Covid measures were in place.

But the continued lower trend indicates that referrals have not yet returned to pre-Covid levels, with reported concerns lagging 10% behind the three-year average over the course of the pandemic.

Some local authorities that responded to the survey predicted an increase in referrals because of the government’s ‘plan B’ measures to reduce the spread of the Omicron variant and the national media coverage of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson’s cases.

One said: “Over the next three months, we are anticipating an increase in referrals due to the new Covid-19 restrictions and the heightened media attention on children’s safeguarding and safety.”

Spike in Covid absences

The latest survey also shows there was a sharp rise this month in the number of local authorities with a high proportion of social workers absent due to Covid-19 illness, reflecting the impact of the Omicron variant.

More than a tenth of local authorities (11%) reported over 10% of their social workers were unable to work due to coronavirus at the start of January 2022.

This is the highest proportion since June 2020 and only lightly below the peak of 13% in May 2020, during the first wave, with no vaccines available.

One local authority responding to the survey said it was meeting twice weekly to review absences in its children’s services and agree contingency plans.

“We are building capacity of casual and agency staff within our children’s homes as a contingency to staff sickness and we are also maintaining some vacancies within the homes to allow flexibilities in staff allocation or indeed placements in an emergency,” it said.


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3 Responses to Relational practice helping keep numbers entering care below long-term average, claim councils

  1. Karen January 28, 2022 at 7:10 pm #

    What a spin. The real reason is due to the pandemic, children not being seen and court hearings delayed.

  2. Sharon January 31, 2022 at 12:52 pm #

    My thoughts exactly!

  3. Marah Gardner February 4, 2022 at 8:04 pm #

    It is distressing to see that some councils measure their success in protecting children by congratulating each other on Twitter about how many kids they have managed to put in care. It is not the same thing as providing good services for children.