More than 60,000 children a year re-referred to social care after missing out on early help, research finds

Charity says ‘missed opportunities’ for early help are ‘morally and economically nonsensical’ after finding a quarter of children denied preventive support following a closed assessment were re-referred

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A “morally and economically nonsensical” failure to fund early help means about 64,000 children a year are being re-referred to social care within 12 months of a closed assessment.

That was the warning from Action for Children, after research it carried out found a quarter of children who did not receive early help following a closed child-in-need assessment were referred back to local authorities within 12 months, from 2015-16 to 2019-20.

In a report published yesterday, the charity said these represented “missed opportunities” to provide early help and prevent children’s needs from escalating, which came on the back of significant cuts to preventive services over the past decade.

Its research, based on freedom of information requests to English councils, found the number of children receiving targeted early help – provision directed at a family to tackle a specific problem – rose from around 358,000 (3.1% of all children) in 2015-16 to 517,000 (4.3%) in 2019-20.

However, spending per child on targeted early help fell by 21% in real terms across England over that time. Also, as of 2019-20, for every two children receiving targeted early help, there were three who were deemed to be in need during the year and were receiving “more costly and intensive social care services”.

The charity said that, in order to function as a truly preventive service, there should be more children receiving early help than in the rest of the social care system.

‘Morally and economically nonsensical’

Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, said: “We should not be waiting for children to be in harm’s way before we help them.

“Despite the evidence that early help services reduce harm to our children and save money on more costly crisis intervention, the last decade has seen significant budget cuts to these services.

“The funding and the incentives in the system are working in the wrong way. The lack of early help leaves children vulnerable, and means we are only intervening when it’s too late. This leads to more children going into costly care later down the road. This is morally and economically nonsensical. There is nothing more costly than a missed opportunity.”

The charity found most local authorities in England provided early help services to between 2% and 6% of children in 2019-20, though support ranged from one in six children to less than one in 150 between areas.

The charity said the variation in provision between councils was “not clearly linked to differences in the underlying need for services”.

Early help duty needed

Action for Children called on the government to introduce a legal duty to require local authorities to ensure there was sufficient early help provision to meet the needs of local children and families.

The charity said the government should also require all councils to report on how much early help they provided, and what services families received.

And it urged the government to restore funding for early intervention services to 2010-11 per child levels, by increasing resources by £1.93bn above 2019-20 levels.

Action for Children shared its report before publication with the children’s social care review, which is due to publish its recommendations to government in late spring. The review has similarly decried a shift in local government spending away from non-statutory early help services to statutory interventions.

In response to the charity’s report, a care review spokesperson said there was “a need for a fundamental shift” in the way children’s services help families to support children.

“This report highlights themes that have also been highlighted in the independent review and there is a need for a fundamental shift in the way we get alongside families to support children,” they added.

“This is an area where clear recommendations will be made when the review publishes.”

Councils making ‘exceptionally difficult decisions’

The Local Government Association (LGA) said councils recognised the importance of early help services but “soaring demand” meant they had to make “exceptionally difficult decisions about where to focus their spending”.

“Future costs in children’s social care are set to increase by an estimated £600m each year until 2024-25, with more than eight in 10 councils already in the unsustainable position of having to overspend their budgets,” said Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the LGA’s children and young people board

“Councils want to be able to provide the very best support for children, which is why we are urging government to work with councils on a child-centred, cross-government pandemic recovery plan which offers the very best future for children and families.”

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) also said councils struggled to fund early help services despite recognising its importance, and that greater support from central government was needed for them to do this.

‘Not enough funding’

“There is no doubt that the earlier we work with children and families to help them overcome the issues they face, the less impact these challenges will have on their lives but also on society as a whole,” said Matt Dunkley, chair of ADCS’s resources and sustainability policy committee.

“The problem is there is currently not enough funding in the system to enable this approach in all local authorities.”

Dunkley said reduced funding alongside increased need had led to councils making “tough decisions about scaling back services”.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, he said, children’s services were “dangerously close” to becoming an emergency service but now children and families were presenting local authorities with a “greater complexity of need”.

“All local authorities recognise the benefits of early help and intervention, we want to support families earlier to improve their outcomes and prevent them from reaching crisis point, but we need more financial support from government to do so,” he said.

“For the Treasury, long term, equitable national investment in early help for all local authorities is not only a smart and efficient economic policy, but also the right thing to do.”


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One Response to More than 60,000 children a year re-referred to social care after missing out on early help, research finds

  1. dk March 2, 2022 at 12:24 pm #

    Another way of looking at this data is that three quarters of those assessments either weren’t necessary in the first place or led to the right outcome for children. Which I’d say is a pretty good success rate for a task that involves far more chance and guess work than anyone in the profession or sector would want to admit.

    Obviously we can have a better funded and more effective early help offer, and there will be children it does not adequately support.