The number of child protection enquiries reached record levels in 2021-22, as referrals to children’s social care surged in the wake of the removal of Covid restrictions.
Social workers carried out 10% more enquiries (217,800) under section 47 of the Children Act 1989 than in 2020-21, the first rise after three years of falling numbers and the highest total ever recorded.
The Department for Education’s annual children in need statistics also showed year-on-year increases in the number of children in need at the end of the year (up 4.1%) and assessments during 2021-22 (up 3.1%), on the back of a surge in referrals, which rose by 8.8% on 2020-21, to 650,270.
Referrals had fallen by 7% from 2019-20 to 2020-21 on the back of a drop of a third in concerns submitted by schools, in apparent consequence of coronavirus-linked closures. However, notifications from schools rose by 59%, from 81,180 to 129,090, in 2021-22, in the wake of the removal of restrictions.
Increasing case numbers in 2021-22
- Referrals to children’s social care: 650,270 (up 8.8% on 2020-21)
- Children’s social care assessments: 645,070 (up 3.1%)
- Children in need at 31 March 2022: 404,310 (up 4.1% on 31 March 2021)
- Child protection enquiries: 217,800 (up 9.6%)
- Child protection plans started: 64,390 (up 0.9%)
- Child protection plans at 31 March 2022: 50,920 (up 1.8%)
Turnaround after years of falling case numbers
The figures mark a turnaround after three years of falling case numbers, which both predated the pandemic and were accelerated by the drop in referrals caused by lockdown restrictions.
However, while the number of referrals returned to just 1.1% above pre-pandemic levels (2019-20) and assessments were 3.1% down on the year before Covid, the number of children in need as of March 2022 was 3.9% up on March 2020, and the number of child protection enquiries during the year 8.4% higher than 2019-20.
As in the previous two years, the proportion of referrals that resulted in either no further action or in a child not being assessed as being in need was just over a third (36.4%). The median average duration of assessments was 32 days, up from 30 days in 2020-21, but the same as in 2018-19 and 2019-20.
The sharp rise in child protection enquiries follows the final report of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, which warned that the system was “increasingly skewed to crisis intervention” and needed to be rebalanced towards early help and family support.
Care review concerns
The review, led by Josh MacAlister, based this concern on the increasing number of child protection enquiries since 2010 and the growing proportion that did not result in a child protection plan, suggesting more and more families were being investigated without being supported.
The latest figures show this trend persisting. The proportion of section 47 enquiries resulting in an initial child protection conference (ICPC) due to concerns of significant harm being substantiated, fell from 36.5% in 2020-21 to 34% in 2021-22. In 2012-13, the proportion was 47%.
This was reflected in the number of child protection plans, which are drawn up if a child is assessed as suffering, or being likely to suffer, significant harm, following an ICPC. The number of child plans started rose by 0.9% last year, to 64,390, just 30% of the number of section 47s. The number of child protection plans in place as of 31 March 2022 was 50,920, up 1.8% on the year before but 1.1% lower than 2019-20*.
‘More and more families subject to stress and anxiety’
The Family Rights Group said the figures showed that “more and more families are being subject to the stress and anxiety of intrusive child protection investigations without it concluding that a child is at significant risk of harm”.
Chief executive Cathy Ashley added: “The Independent Review on Children’s Social Care rightly concluded that, “improving child protection is not the same as increasing the amount of child protection activity”. The system too often spends time and scarce resources on intrusive investigations that often do not result in a child protection plan, serving only to increase the pressure on families in difficulty at a time when extra support would make a difference.
“The child welfare system urgently needs reform and investment in early help if it is going to deliver for families and children.”
Extra £2bn proposed for family support
The care review’s central recommendation was for the government to invest an extra £2bn over the next five years in a new family help service, merging existing targeted early help and child in need provision.
This would be delivered by multidisciplinary teams, offering families “much higher levels of meaningful support” than is currently available, which the review said would lead to a shift in provision from late to early intervention.
The Department for Education is due to respond to the care review before the end of the year. This will be through an implementation plan also containing its responses to the Competition and Markets Authority’s children’s social care study and the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel’s inquiry into the Star Hobson and Arthur Labinjo-Hughes cases.
However, the government has just appointed its fifth education secretary of 2022, in Gillian Keegan, and is due to appoint its fourth minister with direct responsibility for children’s social care of the year, so it may be that this timetable shifts in response to the ministerial turnover. It is also looking at how it can fill an estimated £40bn-a-year spending black hole, with measures due to be announced in the autumn statement, on 17 November.
‘Deeply concerning’ level of demand
In its response to the statistics, the Local Government Association said it was “deeply concerning” that the number of children in need was higher than was the case pre-pandemic.
Louise Gittins, chair of the LGA’s children and young people board, said: “It is absolutely vital that the autumn statement ensures that children’s services are adequately funded so councils can meet this rising demand and ensure children and their families get the support they need, as soon as they need it.
“The government must stand by its commitment to respond to the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care by the end of this year so that we can get on with the job of reforming the system without further delay. This must be accompanied by truly transformational investment by the Treasury in the services that give all children the best start in life.”
* The story originally implied that 50,920 child protection plans were started during 2021-22. This was the figure for the number in place at the end of the year. The number started during the year was 64,390 and the story has been corrected accordingly.