Children’s social work caseloads growing increasingly complex, research finds

    Study finds growth over past decade in share of cases involving multiple factors, including where children face risks inside and outside the home and domestic abuse is combined with other concerns

    Graph showing increased complexity
    Image: Hepta/Adobe Stock

    Children’s social workers’ caseloads have grown increasingly complex over the past decade, alongside a sharp rise in concerns relating to child mental health, an analysis of official data has found.

    From 2014-21, the steepest rise in demand concerned child mental health as a single factor, with the number of such cases annually more than doubling from 2014 to 2021.

    But there was disproportionate growth in cases involving multiple risk factors, including cases where:

    • Children faced risks both inside and outside the home, or simply risks outside the home.
    • Domestic abuse was combined with other factors, particularly emotional abuse and parental mental health (‘complex domestic abuse/risks at home’).
    • There were concerns relating to family members other than the child or parent (‘concerns about another person’), which tended to co-exist with other risks, including domestic abuse.
    • There were complexities related to parental mental health, which often involved domestic abuse and substance misuse.

    Complex cases linked to child protection plans and re-referrals

    Of 12 categories of children’s social care demand identified by researchers, risks in and outside the home, complex domestic abuse/risks at home and concerns about another person had the highest proportions of child in need episodes lasting more than 12 months.

    They were also the categories most likely to result in children being put on a child protection plan following assessment.

    In addition, re-referral rates to children’s social care cases were highest for risks in and outside the home and concerns about another person, which were also the categories most likely to result in a repeat child protection plan.

    The children facing the worst outcomes

    The Studying the outcomes of children’s social care provision for different types of demand paper also found that children with ‘risks in and outside the home’ or simply ‘risks outside the home’ consistently fared worse across almost every outcome researchers examined. These were often older children and adolescents.

    In addition, the researchers, from Kingston University, Sheffield University, the National Children’s Bureau and Ofsted, identified poor outcomes for children who had suffered neglect, particularly older children on child protection plans.

    “Our findings reflect increasing levels of concern about adolescent mental health, complex safeguarding cases, and extra familial harm,” said the report.

    “Local authorities are seeking to reduce numbers of children entering care, while finding ways to deal with cases of multiple risks elsewhere in the system. However, in the absence of sufficient resources to address the variety of demand, the risk is that many children will not receive the right kind of help early enough and will return into the system when they are older and their problems are more entrenched.”

    The study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, took data from the Department for Education’s (DfE) child in need (CIN) census from 2014-21, identifying 3.6m cases where a risk factor was recorded following assessment.

    Categorising cases by type of demand

    Researchers identified 34 risk factors in total after data cleansing, and then created 12 mutually exclusive categories of demand from these based on clusters of factors – or single risk factors – that commonly appeared in assessment records. These were, in order of prevalence:

    1. Domestic abuse as a single factor (20% of cases)
    2. Complexities around parental mental health (19%)
    3. Other – where no needs were specified (13%)
    4. Disability (7%)
    5. Risks outside the home (7%)
    6. Complex domestic abuse/risks at home (7%)
    7. Child mental health (6%)
    8. Physical abuse (6%)
    9. Neglect (4%)
    10. Sexual abuse (3%)
    11. Concerns about another person in the household (3%)
    12. Risks in and outside the home (2%)

    Growing areas of need

    While the overall number of assessments identifying risks per year increased by 22% from 2014-21, there was disproportionate growth in:

    • Child mental health (111%)
    • Risks in and outside the home (78%)
    • Complex domestic abuse/risks at home (63%)
    • Concerns about another person (52%)
    • Risks outside the home (46%)
    • Complexities around parental mental health (46%)

    Strong links to deprivation

    Researchers also mapped children’s characteristics against the demand categories, finding that:

    • In all cases, prevalence was strongly linked to the level of deprivation of the area in which the child lived.
    • Boys were overrepresented in disability, risks outside the home and physical abuse, and girls in sexual abuse, child mental health and risks in and outside the home.
    • White children were overrepresented in concerns about another person, sexual abuse, child mental health, complexities around parental mental health and complex domestic abuse/risks at home. Black children were overrepresented in physical abuse, risks outside the home and neglect, and Asian children in physical abuse, domestic abuse and disability.

    They then analysed the categories based on how likely a child was to receive no intervention (40% of cases), a child in need plan only (45%), a child protection plan (9%) or be taken into care (5%), for which they used data from the DfE’s looked-after children statistics.

    Biggest sources of intervention

    This found that:

    • Three categories accounted for half of care episodes: complexities around parental mental health (20%), complex domestic abuse/risks at home (15%) and risks outside the home (14%).
    • The three most likely categories to lead to an episode of care were risks in and outside the home (16%), complex domestic abuse/risks at home (16%), and risks outside the
      home (11%)
    • Three categories accounted for 60% of child protection plans: domestic abuse as a single factor, (22%), complexities around parental mental health (21%), and complex domestic abuse/risks at home (17%)
    • The three categories most likely to lead to a CP plan following assessment were complex domestic abuse/risks at home (32%), concerns about another person and risks in and outside the home (20%)

    Differences in outcomes

    Researchers finally assessed outcomes for children – including re-referrals, repeat child protection plans, re-entries to care and school exclusions – based on their characteristics and demand categories. This found that:

    • 41% of CIN episodes that ended resulted in a re-referral from 2014-21. The demand categories most likely to result in a re-referral were risks in and outside the home, concerns about another person, risks outside the home and complexities around parental mental health, after adjusting for child characteristics, source of referral and length of episode.
    • 10% of CP plans that ended were followed by a repeat plan during the period. The categories most likely to result in a repeat CP plan were concerns about another person, risks in and outside the home, domestic abuse and violence and risks outside the home, after adjusting for other factors.
    • 27% of care episodes that ended resulted in a re-entry, with disability, risks in and outside the home, risks outside the home and child mental health the most likely categories.

    ‘Absence of sufficient resources’

    Lead researcher Rick Hood, professor of social work at Kingston University, said: “This study represents the largest and most comprehensive analysis of data on social work assessments carried out so far in England. We hope our findings will help local authorities understand demand and match services to what children and families need in order to thrive and meet their potential.

    “There is an absence of sufficient resources available to address the variety of demand meaning many children will not receive the right kind of help early enough and end up returning into the system later in life.”

    The study’s recommendations included:

    • Increasing investment in youth and child mental health services to tackle the rising proportion of cases involving older children and adolescents with complex needs.
    • Enhancing practitioner training around the complex links between domestic abuse and social inequality, between early childhood adversity and extra-familial harm, and the evidence for racial and ethnic disparities in assessment.
    • Polices to improve families’ financial circumstances in the light of the strong inverse link between socio-economic circumstances and children’s social care interventions.
    • Substantial investment in preventive services.

    Social care reform agenda

    The research comes with the government seeking to shift the balance of children’s social care from intervening late after needs have escalated towards providing preventive support for families, through its reform programme for the sector.

    Currently, three areas – Dorset, Lincolnshire and Wolverhampton – are testing the so-called families first for children model. This involves the merger of targeted early help and child in need provision into a single family help service, greater use of family networks to make decisions about children and a specialist child protection response.

    However, the DfE has so far committed just £45m to testing these reforms and £200m in total for its children’s social care programme over two years. This is substantially less than the £2.6bn over five years proposed by the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, on whose 2022 findings the reform agenda is largely based.

    At the same time, there are widespread concerns that children’s social care is significantly underfunded currently, with authorities set to overspend their budgets this year despite having increased expenditure by 11% in 2023-24.

    Earlier this week, ministers responded – in part – to these calls by providing an extra £500m for children’s and adults’ services in 2024-25.

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    8 Responses to Children’s social work caseloads growing increasingly complex, research finds

    1. TCM January 26, 2024 at 6:28 pm #

      It took research to work this out??. Any SW will understand. For many years
      As long comes CC…and it’s real?? .maybe that is part of the problem.

    2. Vegito January 27, 2024 at 8:00 am #

      It is unsurprising that the research data coincides with the period of which the Tory Government has been in place, the cuts to public services, brexit, covid and the cost of living has put severe pressures on society, which is impacting ultimately on children and families it is not rocket science, if the government is stripping support and services at points when they are clearly needed it is no wonder we are observing increased complexity and raises in the number of case loads it is simple people are not coping.

      The fact the DfE are woefully short on the recommended budget for their new proposed reforms is not a shock either, on paper it sounds good however when it comes to putting their hand in their pockets they are not so quick to do that, so it is likely these reforms may ease some initial issues re case loads and re referrals however without the proper financial backing it will fail.

    3. Matt January 28, 2024 at 10:28 am #

      In my experience there has been an increased focus on safeguarding contextual risks in the community. These issues are linked with the children’s home life, and wider issues of public service cuts. I also think such research highlights the complexities and challenges of social work. I feel that this work is some of the most skilled and important in society, despite what the media says (or doesn’t say) about it.

    4. Pauline O'Reggio January 28, 2024 at 6:57 pm #

      Vegito I agree with you, over the years services in the care sector have been neglected, and more and more children and parents are suffering from mental health issues that are not being addressed. It is correct children and adolescents are affected and not being safeguarded with the current child protection plans. There are various reasons for this. Cases have always been complex as there is rarely one risk factor to a case.

      Whether it is COVID lack of investment, or Brexit society is changing therefore change needs to take place within local authorities across the board. I have noticed some vulnerable families are being bullied into criminal activity which impacts children.

    5. Pauline O'Reggio January 29, 2024 at 2:13 am #

      In my opinion over the last 5/10 years, the drive has been on who can reach senior positions and not about learning the profession and complexity required for the role. Managers/senior practitioners have been employed who may only have a few years of experience, they may not have the skills, knowledge, life experience, commitment, or ability to lead a team that can make well-informed decisions. In my view, they have not reached a level where they are confident with their leadership ability, this area also needs addressing if things are to change as this leaves social workers stressed, easy targets, with no direction or strong leadership, and no thought is made by managers about whether the timescales set are achievable, perhaps managers should be asking senior managers why this is happening if they want to support their team of social workers. It is no wonder there is a high turnover in the workforce. My views are based on my experience and observation having practiced as a child protection social worker for 43+ years. The work we undertake is important therefore realistic timescales should be a priority for appropriate case recording, analysis, case discussions with other professionals, and time to complete well-informed direct work with the child that catches the child’s views and wishes so that appropriate and relevant case plans are put in place which will protect and support the child.

    6. Robert Dean January 30, 2024 at 10:43 am #

      I have to agree with you Pauline, i have been a social worker on the front line for 14 years but have seen how people want to progrees and stop at nothing to do so. Despite their lack of experience. Senior managers however allow this because faces fit, not because of the persons experience and ability.. Mangers are are also bothered more with timescales shaming social workers by sending out their stats. I don’t know what they think this will achieve, we all know who we have and haven’t visited or the meetings we haven’t typed up because of time constraints.
      I think its also the bullying blaming culture in local authorities that makes social workers feel they have to cover their backs. It certainly isn’t the caring profession it’s meant to be.
      The government needs to look at society and what is impacting it and provide us with the tools and resources to deal with it. We also need strong managers that can provide us with guidance and support rather than blame and bully. Society has evolved social work has not its time to rectify this so that we can do our jobs properly and not feel that the profession we love is no longer what we need and leave the profession. Social work is a calling it isn’t just a job as some of the newly qualified workers I have seen coming through think. I worry about the next generation of social workers who have little care or compassion and do as little as possible. I’m not saying this is all AYSEs but there are an alarming amount who are.

    7. Pauline O'Reggio February 12, 2024 at 9:36 pm #

      Dear Robert, I could not agree with you more. What appears forgotten is the fact we are working with humanity and children who may have experienced trauma in their lives.

    8. Pauline O'Reggio February 12, 2024 at 10:20 pm #

      Dear Matt, I agree with you social workers are skilled professionals who have a great deal of responsibility to ensure (all )children are protected, you are continuously having to update your practice, knowledge, skills, and understanding because you are dealing with complex issues within society. You are required to keep up to date with current reach and the legal aspects of care proceedings.

      Your degree/master’s is not given to you, you have to work for it.

      Perhaps the focus should be on leadership, attitudes, and professionalism which no longer appear to be a priority these days. If a senior practitioner can attend a team meeting dressed in their dressing gown ask yourself if this is the leadership you consider appropriate. Those social workers working in the field and who are committed work extremely hard without little regard.

      Some questionable managers worryingly have a great deal of power over the workforce and are not challenged.

      I speak from experience.