Children care services on the brink as demand grows

A sharp rise in the number of children needing protection plans is pushing underfunded services into crisis, research suggests.

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) has published data on safeguarding pressures within children’s social care spanning ten years, including survey responses from 92% of English local authorities.

According to the findings, around 2.4 million initial contacts were made to children’s services in 2017/18 – a 78% increase in ten years.

Referrals to children’s services have risen by 22% since 2007/08, while the number of those under protection plans has surged by 87%. Twice as many children were put under protection in 2017/18 because of neglect compared to ten years ago.

Abuse and neglect are the main reasons for referrals to children’s social care services, the association’s report said.

Some 75,480 children were in care in 2017/18 – an increase of 24% in ten years.

ADCS estimates 100 ‘new duties’ have been placed on children’s services since 2011 because of rising demand – some of which are not funded in full. Also, a ‘myriad’ of legislative changes and cuts over the past decade have impacted on children’s services’ abilities to protect vulnerable children.

Despite ‘devastating’ cuts to their budgets, the report said local authorities have protected and invested in children’s services by diverting funds or using reserves.

But the organisation warned things could get worse, with service demand rising year on year and outstripping child population growth.

‘This situation is simply not tenable with many respondents and other sources stating that services can no longer be protected going forward,’ the report said.

To manage service demand, local authorities need to be resourced properly to allow for a focus on prevention, the report said, a challenge it said the government should not ignore in next year’s spending review.

Stuart Gallimore, ADCS president, said: ‘The government’s approach to funding public services is simply not working, least of all for children.

‘There is not enough money to meet the level of need we are now seeing, and further cuts are planned.

‘Whilst funding is welcome, this short-termist approach is unlikely to make a meaningful difference to the complex, entrenched social problems so many children and families face.

‘It’s time for change, beyond one parliamentary cycle,’ he added.

The Minister for Children and Families Nadhim Zahawi said: ‘We are improving children’s social care and the child protection system so that children at risk are identified sooner, and [we are] tackling the causes of why children are in need – including through our landmark Domestic Abuse Bill to better support victims, cracking down on child exploitation in all of its forms, improving access to specialist mental health support for children and young people, and looking at how we can improve the educational outcomes for children in need.

‘In the Budget we announced an additional £410m for adult and children’s social care services, in recognition of the pressures on local councils. We are also investing £84m over the next five years to support up to 20 local authorities who are seeing high or rising demand for children’s social care to work more effectively with their most vulnerable families.’