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Social services: more children in England at risk of ‘significant harm’ by the time social workers reach them

As part of our investigation into the state of children’s social services in England, we reveal how councils have faced a staggering increase in demand from children requiring complex safeguarding interventions.

Abused, neglected and vulnerable children are increasingly at crisis point and at risk of “significant harm” when they are referred to social services, official figures reveal.

Analysis of Department for Education (DfE) data reveals how councils’ children’s social services departments across England – particularly in the North East – have faced increasing demand over the last nine years.

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Experts have described how a cocktail of pressures brought about by austerity, poverty, and cuts to early intervention services by beleaguered councils is preventing children getting support before they are already at risk of harm.

Between 2012/13 and 2019/20, the number of referrals to social services increased by 8.3%, from 593,500 to 643,000 – although numbers have been fairly steady since 2013/14.

But it is not just an increase in volume – the cases social services are dealing with are increasingly complex, involving children at risk of significant harm and needing costly interventions such as child protection plans to be put in place.

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When a child is referred to social services, social workers will carry out an assessment to determine if they are in need of support. Children can be in need for a variety of reasons, such as disability or illness, as well as abuse or neglect.

But if social workers suspect a child is suffering, or at risk of suffering, significant harm, they also initiate and lead a safeguarding investigation, alongside other agencies, to determine if they need to step in – known as a Section 47 enquiry.

The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) say this can indicate a child is already at crisis point.

Children were assessed as being in need 408,300 times in 2019/20, an increase of 3.4% compared to 2012/13 when that figure was 395,000.

But the number of Section 47 enquiries increased by 58% during the same time, from 127,200 to 201,000. In 2012/13, around a third of children in need (32.2%) were subject to a Section 47 enquiry. By 2019/20, that had risen to almost half (49.2%).

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The proportion climbed again in 2020/21, to 52.3%, despite a big drop in referrals and new social services activity while schools were closed during the pandemic.

The next step after a Section 47 enquiry is an initial child protection conference (ICPC), where agencies such as the police, health, and education may meet with social workers to discuss the child’s situation. After this, a child protection plan may be put in place.

The number of ICPCs increased by 28.9% between 2012/13 and 2019/20, from 60,100 to 77,500, while the number of child protection plans starting in the year increased by 26%, from 52,700 to 66,400.

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Both figures dropped in 2020/21 – but the decrease was disproportionately small compared to the significant drop in referrals to social services, so the proportion of children in need subject to them increased again.

In 2012/13, 15.2% of children in need were subject to ICPCs and 13.3% to child protection plans.

By 2020/21, this had risen to 19.1% and 16.8% respectively.

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Dr Paul Shuttleworth from BASW says underfunding by central government has meant councils have been forced to make cuts to preventative, early intervention services that could help families before they reach crisis, to protect statutory services such as those for children in care.

This, combined with increased poverty, has left social workers operating in increasingly challenging circumstances and under “much, much more pressure”, he said.

“Without having the due focus on preventative work, anti-poverty strategies, early intervention, of course there’s going to be more families that go to crisis point and these crisis spoints are obviously going to be where social workers are going to need to concentrate on,” he told NationalWorld.

“It just goes round in a circle, again and again.”

The North East has seen the biggest increase in demand – Section 47 enquiries have increased at almost twice the national average, more than doubling between 2012/13 and 2019/20 from 6,240 to 12,800. New child protection plans meanwhile have risen by 47.6%, also almost double the national rate of increase (26%).

Marcus Johns, a research fellow from the Institute of Public Policy Research North (IPPR North), said a “wide range” of factors can contribute to a child reaching a welfare crisis point – and that those in the North East are particularly disadvantaged.

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“The things that increase the likelihood of that include poverty, insecure housing, drug and alcohol abuse in their parents, and a whole range of factors, all of which have been impacted by austerity,” he said.

“The whole context of the last decade has been pushing up demand in children’s social care.

“We know that a lot of authorities in the North East have shouldered the deepest cuts. The relative fall in council spending on services was highest.

“At the same time you generally have higher rates of poverty, particularly child poverty in the North East. That does suggest overall that children in the North East are being disadvantaged.”

While there has been an increase in both referrals to social services and the number of times children are assessed as in need, there has also been a huge increase in the proportion of children referred who are judged to not be in need of services.

In 2012/13, 19% of referrals ended with the child deemed not in need. In 2019/20, it was 30.2% and in 2020/21 it was 30.5%.

A January 2019 report from government spending watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO) criticised the DfE for not taking steps to understand what was driving huge increases in demand.

The department had finally commissioned research on it, the NAO said, which was due back in summer 2019.

However the DfE has told NationalWorld the research is still being finalised and that the pandemic – which broke out in December 2019 – had delayed it so that efforts could be focused on the immediate needs of children.

A Government spokesperson said: “We recognise the challenges councils are facing, including the pressure on children’s services, which is why we are providing local authorities councils with £4.8bn in new grant funding to help maintain vital frontline services, including children’s social care.

“The ongoing independent review of children’s social care will also address some of the major challenges facing the sector.”

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