Cuts to funds driving challenges to children’s care to ‘a whole new dimension’

Councils are facing “a whole new dimension” of issues with children’s social care due to the increasingly complex and difficult challenges stemming from online grooming and refugee children, a report published by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Children has revealed.

The inquiry into children’ social care, titled ‘No Good Options’, heard that local authorities were being forced to target dwindling resources at children suffering from abuse of neglect or at high risk of harm rather than being able to solve the problem directly.

It was also reported that the shift towards late intervention was making it harder to engage with families before they slipped to “crisis point” – leaving councils with no option other than to place children in care.

Nearly 90% of senior managers told the inquiry that they found it increasingly difficult to provide for children ‘in need’, including those with disabilities, families in crisis or those at high risk of abuse.

Figures published in the report also found that the number of child protection plans, which are put in place when a social worker believes a child is at risk of harm, had soared by over 29% between 2010-11 and 2015-16.

Another warning was issued about the “postcode lottery”: different authorities were taking “wildly different” approaches to intervention and identification of “children in need”, and also responded to placing children into care in vastly different ways.

Tim Loughton MP, who co-chairs the APPG, said that the findings of the report were worrying.

“Children’s social services have never had an easy job, but recently the challenge has taken on a whole new dimension,” he stated. “Our inquiry found that there is huge variation in the way in which local authorities decide to support the most vulnerable children.”

Commenting on the random nature of care in different areas of the country, Loughton said it was “striking” that the proportion of children taken into care varied from just 22 per 10,000 in one local authority to 164 per 10,000 in another.

“This cannot simply be explained by differences in deprivation,” he said. “It points instead to variation in policy and practice.

“Given that we know children in care are far less likely to gain good GCSEs and go to university, and more likely to have poor physical and mental health, such a ‘postcode lottery’ is deeply worrying.”

The MP urged ministers to focus on realistic resourcing of all children’s services – from prevention and early help for families to care and child protection – and to look at ways to tackle the stark variation in standards across the country”.

The LGA also argued that councils had warned Whitehall about pressure facing children’s services becoming unsustainable due to the combination of cuts to funding and a huge increase in demand.

Chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, Cllr Richard Watts, said: “The number of inquiries into child protection concerns undertaken by councils has increased by 124% over the past decade, and the number of children needing child protection plans has increased from 26,400 to more than 50,000 over the same period – an increase of more than 23,000 children needing social work support to stay safe from significant harm.

“Councils have worked hard to protect funding for child protection services in response to this rapidly rising demand, but ongoing cuts to local authority budgets are forcing many areas to make extremely difficult decisions about how to allocate increasingly scarce resources.”

Recent analysis by the LGA suggested that councils will be facing a £1.9bn funding gap for children's services by 2020, and in many areas the pressure on children's budgets is, shockingly, now even greater than that faced by adult social care.

“Councils have responded by reducing costs and remodelling services, but we must be clear that there are very few savings left to find without having a real and lasting impact upon crucial services that many people across the country have come to rely on,” added Watts.

He also praised the “heroic levels of support” by local authorities who were trying to cope despite huge pressures resulting from cuts to budgets, adding: “Their tough decisions and swift actions are saving children's lives every day.

“The number of children dying due to homicide or assault has fallen by 69% in England since 1985, and remains in long-term decline. But the pressure on these services is building, and the government must act now to ensure that councils have the funding they need to keep children and young people safe in the years to come.”

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