An ‘urgent’ new approach to children in social care is needed, after an independent review has found that the system is too focused on investigating families rather than providing them with support. The overwhelming message from children and families involved in the ambitious Case for Change independent review of children’s social care in England, led by Josh MacAlister, is that they are ‘not getting a good enough deal’.

Mr MacAlister likened the system to a ‘30-year-old tower of Jenga held together with Sellotape: simultaneously rigid and yet shaky’.

He said,

Improving children’s social care will take us a long way to solving some of the knottiest problems facing society – improving children’s quality of life, tackling inequalities, improving the productivity of the economy, and truly levelling up.’

Parenting interventions

The Department for Education’s 2019 Children in Need review found that over a six year period, one in ten children had a social worker. In the majority of cases, families become involved with children’s social care because they are parenting in conditions of adversity, rather than because they have caused or are likely to cause significant harm to their children.

Poverty and deprivation, a key factor impacting on mental health, makes parenting more challenging and as it filters through families and ‘shapes the experience of raising children,’ the report says.

The report looks at interventions that have good evidence of strengthening family relationships and improving outcomes for children.

These include:

  • Parenting Support: Interventions which seek to build parenting capacity to improve child outcomes, strengthen parent-child interactions and manage children’s behaviour. Examples include some versions of the Incredible Years and Triple P programmes.
  • Supporting the Parental Relationship: Interventions which focus on the quality of the relationship between parents, whether together, or separated/separating, to improve children’s emotional, behavioural, social and academic development.
  • Intensive Home Visiting (IHV) Programmes: Trained maternity and early years practitioners conduct intensive and regular home visits aiming to improve a range of parent and child outcomes through psychoeducational and therapeutic methods.
  • Reducing the risk of abuse and neglect: interventions that work intensively and therapeutically with individual families to reduce the immediate risk of abuse, neglect and other indicators of significant harm.

Family help

The ‘significant variation’ in what support families are being offered at a local level makes it difficult to ‘get a grasp’ on what impact the services are having, the report states. It calls for a clearer definition of what ‘family help’ is, stating that it must be ‘high quality’, based on good evidence and those doing this work must be confident ‘holding risk’.

It says:

The aim of Family Help should be to improve children’s lives through supporting the family unit and strengthening family relationships to enable children to thrive and keep families together, helping them to provide the safe, nurturing environments that children need,’

The aim of Family Help, which it has invited consultation on, would be to provide support with: parenting, helping parents and carers to manage their child’s behaviour; improving the relationship between parents; supporting families to protect their children from exploitation or harm within their community, and providing respite for parents of children with disabilities.

It would also support adults with challenges that impact on children, including support with parental substance misuse, mental health, physical disabilities or domestic abuse, as well as helping to manage and mitigate other stresses on families such as poor housing and debt.

Role of the state

When it comes to supporting children and families, the statutory children’s social care system is only the ‘tip of the iceberg’, the report states.

It says that the role of the state should be to ‘support and enable’ the inherent strengths of families and communities – sometimes by getting out of the way – whilst acting decisively where children require protection.

‘This could mean doing more to support children to stay safely with their families where possible,’ it adds. ‘Too often we are allowing situations to escalate and then being forced to intervene too late, severing children’s relationships and setting them on a worse trajectory.’

Anna Feuchtwang, chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau, said that the report made for ‘depressing reading’.

‘It is unacceptable that so many children and families are being let down and denied the support that could allow them to enjoy healthy and stable lives,’ she said. ‘Too many previous reviews, reports and research have made the same points. We know what’s wrong with the system, what we need is the political will and urgency to change it and invest in children’s futures.

‘The review has again underlined how children’s social care is increasingly focused on investigating serious cases and putting children into care, rather than supporting struggling families to prevent harm from happening in the first place. This isn’t simply the result of a more risk-averse system. It is inescapably linked to the devastating erosion of central Government funding for children’s services over the past decade.There is also an important acknowledgement that children from poorer backgrounds, disabled children, and those from black and ethnic minority communities are often hardest hit by the cuts in early intervention. NCB fully supports the review’s call for a more effective and compassionate response to families facing conditions of adversity. We cannot avoid tackling thorny issues like poverty and discrimination if we are going to reduce the number of children coming into care, and avoid the spiralling costs of child protection.’

Extra funding

Meanwhile, the Department for Education has announced that children with a social worker in England will benefit from further dedicated support in school and at college to help level up their outcomes in education.

More than £16 m will be given for councils to extend the role of Virtual School Heads from September this year, meaning there will be a local champion for children with a social worker in every local authority in England. This will ensure that more focus is placed on children with a social worker, targeting support earlier on in these young people’s lives and helping improve how they engage with education.

Children and families Minister Vicky Ford said,

Every child or young person should be given opportunities to fulfil their potential regardless of their background. For children in care, or those who are known to social care teams, it is absolutely vital we help them to overcome the barriers they can face in education so that they have the best chance to succeed in life. Our Virtual School Heads are already doing a phenomenal job supporting children in care, and working closely with schools and delivering significant improvements to their educational outcomes. That’s why we are extending their role, so that their leadership and experience can benefit other children with social workers, boosting their attainment and attendance and ensuring they can access support that meets their needs.’

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