To protect children, help their families

Thursday 20 January 2022
Sad young child covering face

There’s no conflict between supporting families and protecting children. Head of Policy, Joe Lane, says the Care Review should push children’s social care to focus on the whole family

This is the second in a three-part series of Action for Children's 'big ideas' in response to the Care Review's Call for Ideas. Read the first part here.

Children’s social care is a crucial public service. A quarter of children spend some of their childhood categorised as ‘in need’ and more than two in five will be referred to social services at least once in their lives. Despite that, the service is overlooked by policy makers.

The exception to that is when tragic events, like the murder of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, force politicians to reckon with the importance of child protection. One effect of that attention is that when politicians do pay attention to children’s services, they tend to focus on the most severe cases and the need to remove some children from their parents.

What they don’t recognise is that most of the time, the job of children’s services is to support a child’s family to be able to keep them safe. Crucially, there is no conflict between those roles. The best way to keep most children safe is it give their family the support they need.

Why don’t policymakers focus more attention on supporting children’s families?

In some ways the lack of focus on children’s families is surprising. The Children’s Act, the legislation that underpins the provision of children’s services, presumes that public services should aim to keep children safe, with their families, wherever possible.

The services that do that are sometimes called family support – or family help.

The crucial reason family help is often overlooked is that the law and regulations that govern the delivery of social care push local authorities to focusing their resources on critical, late interventions, such as removing children from their families. In 2020, local authorities spent four times more on late intervention than early intervention – including family support.

Our key recommendation for the Care Review: start shifting the children’s social care system towards a focus on families by introducing legal duty to provide family help. That duty should ensure that families are supported before, during, and after they need the help of children’s services.

Three specific changes would help:

The need to provide more early help to children and families facing challenge is universally supported. The government’s own guidance on safeguarding children says that it is ‘more effective in promoting the welfare of children than reacting later.’

Despite that, not enough happens. That is because there is no legal obligation to provide early support to families at risk of needing social services intervention, the type of help they should get isn’t defined. Even when it is delivered, it isn’t measured.

It has been clear for over a decade that the legal framework for early support isn’t strong enough. The Care Review needs to make that clear to government and recommend a new legal duty to support families. That duty should specify that local authorities are responsible for ensuring adequate provision of early support for families before their children are in need.

2. Ensure all families with looked after children are supported

Improving family support is more than about improving early help. The way the social care system interacts with families is crucial during that interaction as well as before.

  • First, because we know many of those families are experiencing acute adversity.
  • Second, even if we just think about children’s outcomes, families with looked after children are far more likely to have interactions with children’s services in the future.
  • Third, because the vast majority of children who leave care go back to their families.

The Care Review should recommend changes to the care planning regulations to ensure that, where possible, families of looked after children are offered family support.

3. Act to make successful reunification more likely

Many more children experience social care than are ‘in’ social care at any one time. While last year there were around 80,000 looked after children in March, that includes around 28,500 children newly looked after.

Around 28,000 children lost their 'looked after' status last year. Most of them, because they were reunited with their families. Currently, families are given too little support after their children have been in social care. Too little is known about children and families experience of reunification and there is not enough support on offer to them.

The Care Review should recommend new national guidance to local authorities on the support that should be put in place to support families and children going through reunification.

Boy with ball and sunset

Children’s social care is a crucial public service

Improving children's social care will take time. Crucially, it will require that policy makers focus on children’s experiences. For most children who experience social care that means making sure their families are given the support they need to keep them safe.

A major challenge for the Review is that, currently, the normal policy levers to affect change are out of use or misfiring. Policy makers have known for a long time that the quality of children’s services is poor. Even after recent improvements, half of local authorities are judged by Ofsted to require improvement or to be inadequate.

As well as making those recommendations, the review needs to ensure that crucial policy levers – funding, regulation, and measurement – are working to incentivise local authorities and other partners to increase the support available for families through the children’s services system.

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