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Children in poor areas ‘10 times’ more likely to be in cash-strapped care system

A UK-wide study has found that children in the country’s poorest areas are at least 10 times more likely to be involved in the child protection system than those in the most affluent areas, a statistic that has highlighted the state of inequality with children’s services in the UK.

The research, conducted by seven universities, found “strong gradients” in the rates of intervention across the UK, saying that around one in 60 children are in care in England’s most deprived areas compared to only one in 660 in the least deprived places.

The study also found that children living in equivalent neighbourhoods had starkly different chances of being in care depending on their local area, as local authorities in deprived areas were around 50% more likely to intervene in protecting a child than in a more affluent area.

Researchers admitted it was beyond the scope of their findings to say exactly why this was the case, but they did hypothesise that due to high demand, more deprived local areas had less resources to allocate to children’s services.

Lead investigator Paul Bywaters, a professor of social work at Coventry University, said: “This is not about pointing the finger at local authorities or apportioning blame to anyone for a situation that is in critical need of attention. What we’re doing is holding up a mirror to the child welfare sector, and to the UK’s governments, and saying ‘This is how it is – now what shall we do about it?’.

“We’ve known for years that child abuse and neglect is linked to poverty, but there’s been a fundamental gap in our understanding of how a child’s family circumstances, and neighbourhood deprivation or locality impacts their chances of the state intervening to improve their life chances.”

Prof Bywaters explained that this was partly because no data is systematically collected and published about the socio-economic background of the families whose children are involved with the child welfare system, adding: “Our study puts in place some strong foundations to build on and change that.”

He concluded by saying: “Our ultimate aim is to make reducing inequalities in child welfare a key policy objective, in the same way that tackling inequalities in health and education have been prioritised in recent years.

“With further austerity measures and fundamental changes to local government financing on the horizon, time is very much of the essence in tackling this most vital of social issues.”

Dave Hill, the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), responded to the findings, remarking that demand for children’s services had shot up over the last decade, but public services still were not receiving sufficient funding for these critical services.

He said: Whilst it is true that many local politicians have made great efforts to protect spending on children’s social care, savings from services such as children’s centres and youth work have been required to balance the books. 

“When we factor in the pressures in adult social care and other public agencies, especially the police, it is clear that our ability to step in and prevent problems from escalating to crisis point is in real jeopardy.

The impact of austerity is now all too visible in our communities, particularly the most deprived, record numbers of children coming into care and their needs are increasingly complex, explained Hill, adding: “Poor parental mental health, substance misuse and domestic abuse is sadly becoming more common amongst the families we work with.

He also urged the Department for Education to engage properly with the team who conducted the research, as well as ADCS, to rise to the significant challenges that the study has highlighted.

“With further reductions in local government funding expected in the forthcoming budget and fundamental changes to our financing on the horizon, time is of the essence in tackling this most vital of social issues before it's too late,” stated Hill.

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