The number of annual child protection enquiries has hit a new high but the proportion of those finding abuse or neglect has continued to fall, official figures show.
Directors warned that the 3.5% hike in the number of section 47 enquiries, from 2021-22 to 2022-23, reflected the erosion of preventive services on the back of “a decade of austerity”.
At the same time, an academic specialising in the overemphasis of safeguarding risks said that the increasing number of section 47s that did not result in a child protection plan was causing “irreparable damage” to children and families.
The trends were laid bare in the Department for Education’s annual children in need census, published last week, which also revealed that social workers’ assessment caseloads hit a record high in 2022-23, as did the average amount of time they took.
DfE children in need census 2023: key figures
- Council children’s services received 640,430 social care referrals in 2022-23, down 1.5% (9,840) on 2021-22.
- Of these, 143,770 were a re-referral within 12 months of a previous one, up 3.1% (4,270) on 2021-22.
- 7.1% of referrals resulted in no further action, down from 7.6% in 2021-22.
- A further 29.9% resulted in an assessment that found the child was not in need, up from 28.8% in 2021-22.
- Councils carried out 655,540 assessments in 2022-23, up 1.6% (10,470) on 2021-22.
- The average duration of assessments was 33 days, up from 32 days in 2021-22 and 28 days in 2015-16.
- The most common concerns identified following assessment were parental mental health (161,250 cases) and domestic abuse (160,140).
- There were 403,630 cases for which a child was found to be in need in 2022-23, down 2.3% (9,690) on 2021-22.
- 403,090 children were in need as of 31 March, 2023, down 0.3% (1,220) on a year earlier.
- Councils carried out 225,400 child protection enquiries in 2022-23, up 3.5% (7,600) on 2021-22.
- Of these, 74,380 (33%) resulted in an initial child protection conferences (ICPC), compared with 73,790 (33.9%) in 2021-22 and 59,280 (46.6%) in 2012-13.
- 63,870 child protection plans (CPP) were started in 2022-23 (28.3% of enquiries), down from 64,390 (29.6%) in 2021-22 and 52,680 (41.4%) in 2012-13.
- 50,780 children were on a CPP at 31 March, 2023, down 0.3% (140) on a year previously.
- 25,050 (49.3%) CPPs had neglect, 19,000 (37.4%) emotional abuse, 3,630 (7.1%) physical abuse and 1,890 (3.7%) sexual abuse, as the initial category of abuse in 2022-23.
- The number for which physical abuse was the initial category has fallen by 12.9% since 2018-19, with a 15.2% drop in those for sexual abuse over this time.
While last year’s census showed increases in children’s social care caseloads across the board, in the wake of the pandemic, this year’s figures showed a mixed picture, with decreases in the numbers of referrals and children found to be in need.
Section 47 case numbers continue to rise
However, the number of section 47 enquiries rose significantly in 2022-23 on top of a 10% hike the previous year, and there were almost 100,000 more investigations during the year than a decade ago (2012-13).
But the proportion of enquiries resulting in an initial child protection conference (ICPC) – meaning abuse or neglect were substantiated – plummeted from 46.6% in 2012-13 to 33.9% in 2021-22, and fell again over the past year, to 33%.
There was a similar fall in the proportion of section 47s resulting in a child protection plan, which is drawn up following an ICPC (see box above).
These trends were criticised by the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, which described them as indicative of a system that was overly investigative and insufficiently supportive of families.
Some investigations ‘causing irreparable damage to children’
Dr Andy Bilson, emeritus professor of social work at the University of Central Lancashire, said they showed that “the targeting of investigations has dramatically worsened”.
Bilson, whose specialises in research into the overemphasis of risk in the child protection system, said: “This year alone more than 130,000 children and their families were put through an investigation being accused of significantly harming their children which did not lead to a child protection plan,” he said.
“Such investigations cause irreparable damage to children and their families.”
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services attributed the trends to an erosion of preventive services, driven by government spending cuts to councils in the 2010s and resulting in authorities encountering children when their needs had grown more complex.
‘Lack of preventive services driving section 47 numbers’
“This has undoubtedly impacted on our ability to meet need sooner within our communities, resulting in a significant rise in the number of section 47 enquiries over the same period when these children could potentially have been supported earlier were the resources available,” said Helen Lincoln, chair of the ADCS’s families, communities and young people policy committee.
She said this had been exacerbated by the pandemic and the fact that more families were experiencing hardship or crisis than previously.
“We need government to address the root causes of these issues and commit to a long-term plan for children, along with a funding settlement that commits more than the bare minimum and prioritises those most in need of support.”
The association’s calls for increased funding were echoed by the Local Government Association and NSPCC.
Children’s services across country ‘under-resourced’
“This new data shows a decline in the number of child protection plans being actioned in England despite an increase in assessments taking place,” said the NSPCC’s associate head of policy & public affairs, Joanna Barrett.
“Children’s services across the country are under-resourced and under-funded and this is more pronounced in areas of higher need, where assessments may be even less likely to lead to a child receiving support due to the lack of resources.”
“The government must offer consistent funding and resource across the country when they action their upcoming plans to implement more family support services. This will help ensure that all children receive the care they need at the right time.”
For the LGA, children and young people board chair Louise Gittins said the government needed to find more funding to help councils meet “this continually high demand” in next month’s autumn statement, which will set out ministers’ latest taxation and spending plans.
“Councils continue to innovate in order to reduce costs, but further funding is required in order to meet demand,” she added.
Family support and child protection reforms
The figures come with the government testing a new approach to family support and child protection in three areas through its families first for children pathfinders, an approach proposed by the care review in its final report last year.
This involves the merger of targeted early help and children in need provision into a new family help service, designed to improve support for families and make it less stigmatising. As part of this, non-social workers would be permitted to hold child in need cases, a move that has sparked concerns about increased risk from the British Association of Social Workers and Ofsted.
At the same time, specialist child protection lead practitioners would take responsibility for section 47 enquiries, in order to enhance the quality of investigations.
The three pathfinder authorities, and nine others also due to test the system, will each receive a share of £37m to put it into effect.
But both the LGA and NSPCC stressed the importance of funding being rolled out to all 153 authorities, in order to effectively improve family support.
Concerns over drop in findings of sexual abuse
The census also revealed ongoing falls in the number of child protection plans for which the initial category of abuse was either physical or sexual abuse.
In the light of a 15% drop in the number of plans for which sexual abuse was the initial category since 2019, the Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse (CSA Centre) voiced concerns about high numbers of victims going unnoticed and unsupported.
“We estimate that each year half a million children in England and Wales will experience some form of sexual abuse, clearly there remains a huge gap between the numbers of children being sexually abused and the identification of abuse recorded by children’s services,” said the CSA Centre’s assistant director, policy, Lisa McCrindle.
Last year’s final report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) identified systemic under-identification of CSA, leading it to recommend practitioners face a duty to report cases.
The government has vowed to bring in so-called mandatory reporting, though IICSA chair Alexis Jay has criticised ministers for not accepting its recommendations in full.
McCrindle said that one year on from the IICSA report, government, councils and other agencies needed to prioritise the issue.
“The children’s workforce must be equipped with the knowledge, skills and confidence on identifying and responding to concerns of child sexual abuse in all its forms,” she added. “Beyond this, we echo IICSA’s recommendation for a commitment to a regular prevalence survey exploring the true scale of child sexual abuse to inform better prevention and response.”