Care system ‘too stretched’ to give children and families the support they need, says review

22 June 2018

10 DOWNING STREET

The Prime Minister, Theresa May, meets a patient during a visit to the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, London, on Monday, after setting out plans to increase NHS England’s budget by 3.4 per cent a year on average over the next five years (see bottom of article)

The Prime Minister, Theresa May, meets a patient during a visit to the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, London, on Monday, after setting out pl...

CHILDREN are being referred to a care system “in crisis”, in which professionals are overwhelmed by their caseload and are battling a “culture of blame”, a new report warns.

Care Crisis Review, an independent study carried out by the Family Rights Group, a group of lawyers, social workers, and academics, notes that, in England and Wales, the number of care-order applications reached record levels in 2017. The number of looked-after children was at its highest since the Children Act 1989: 73,000 children are in the care system, compared with 60,000 a decade ago.

Published last week, the review says that consultations with more than 2000 people “confirmed the sense of crisis that is now felt by many young people, families, and those working within the system. Many professionals described the frustration they feel at working in a sector that is overstretched and overwhelmed, and in which, too often, children and families do not get the direct help they need early enough to prevent difficulties escalating.”

It notes “a palpable sense of unease about how lack of resources, poverty, and deprivation are making it harder for families and the system to cope”. Many contributors described “a culture of blame, shame, and fear”, which may have given rise to “an environment that is increasingly mistrusting and risk averse”, partly in response to media coverage of tragic child deaths.

The number of children in care has been rising since the early 1990s. They dipped in the mid-2000s, but rose again after the Baby P case (News, 26 November 2008).

Martin Narey, a former chief executive of Barnardo’s who was appointed the Government’s adoption adviser, was among those who argued for “many more adoptions and of much younger children in the UK”. He wrote in The Times in 2011: “We used to tolerate neglect and abuse much less and intervene much more.” He criticised “the well-intentioned but misconceived optimism of social workers that parents can improve”.

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There are “many overlapping factors” contributing to the rise in care proceedings, the review says. It notes significant regional variations, and strong links between the likelihood of children being taken into care and levels of deprivation.

“Austerity means that local-authority spending is not keeping pace with the steadily rising demand for children’s services,” it warns, noting that cuts to family support services “affect ability to intervene early”.

Among the recommendations is that the Government make up the £2-billion shortfall predicted for children’s social care by 2020.

The review concluded that, too often, the “wider family” of children are not involved enough in proceedings, and are “faced with having to make life-changing decisions quickly, with little time to reflect, or seek advice”.

There is, it says, a “significant untapped resource that exists for some children in and on the edge of care: namely, their wider family and community. Greater focus on exploring and supporting this resource could safely avert more children needing to come into care, or could help them thrive in the care system.”

On Tuesday, the chief executive of Safe Families for Children, Keith Danby, said that “lack of funding, combined with an increasing number of care applications, is stretching councils and making it increasingly difficult for them to invest in early intervention. What makes this especially disturbing is that early intervention is key to preventing children from coming into care in the first place. Councils are forced to fire-fight rather than invest in the future.”

Safe Families for Children provides respite care and support for families in crisis (News, 25 August, 2017). One of the charity’s partners, North Tyneside Council, has reported a potential 16-per-cent reduction of flow of children into care as a result of its volunteer support.

“Isolation and family breakdown are big issues today, and that’s something the Church can help with,” Mr Danby said. “Safe Families merely enables Christians to do what they already want to do: to reach out and love and serve those who are vulnerable, isolated, or struggling.”

Bishop welcomes NHS budget increase. The Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, welcomed the Government’s plans to increase NHS budget by 3.4 per cent a year on average over the next five years, but said that it was “the bare minimum needed; and far from clear as yet where the money will come from”.

As a member of the House of Lords Select Committee on the Long-term Sustainability of the NHS and Adult Social Care, he called for funding to increase at least as fast as GDP for a decade after 2020.

This week, he noted that its key recommendation — an office for Health and Social Care to advise governments — had not been taken on board; “nor does this announcement address the issue of social care, which is vital for the future of the NHS”.

The General Synod will debate the Committee’s report next month (News, 15 June).

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