Cuts to council budgets leave 36,000 children at risk of potential abuse and neglect in cycle of repeated referrals.

Posted by / Saturday 30 June 2018 /
Worried about a child2
  • New figures show thousands in England referred to children’s services repeatedly before action taken on issues like abuse, neglect and family dysfunction.
  • Action for Children highlights one shocking case of young boy living in filthy conditions on a diet of crisps and sausage rolls, after opportunities to offer early help were missed.
  • Charity warns chances to intervene early and prevent harm to children missed year after year as councils put in ‘impossible position’ with falling budgets and rising demands.

A six-year-old boy living in squalor, surviving on crisps and sausage rolls, and unable to function or communicate with other children at school, was let down multiple times, a shocking new report highlights today.

Despite repeated referrals from the local health visitor team in his early years, as well as the charity Action for Children and the boy’s school, the cash-strapped council missed a number of opportunities to offer early help and to take him into care at an earlier stage before the family reached crisis point.

Alarming new research from the charity reveals this could be one extreme case out of tens of thousands of vulnerable children in England being repeatedly let down, as severe cuts force councils to scale down their services.

An analysis of child referrals to social services by teachers, police or health professionals over two years revealed as many as 36,000 children were re-referred back to these services, when they didn’t get help the first time.  

Despite being re-referred, more than a third – over 13,500 children – had no statutory support from social services over the two-year period. And previous Action for Children research shows many of these children are likely to be left struggling with no support at all.

With the vast majority of children referred for serious concerns such as abuse and neglect (51%) or family dysfunction (22%), the charity is warning that councils crippled by government cuts can’t provide early support which tackles the root causes of family problems and prevents children from coming to harm.

Central Government has cut funding for children services by nearly a quarter since 2010, with funding for council early help services set to fall again by nearly a third by 2020.


Imran Hussain, Action for Children's policy and campaigns director, said:

"It's simply horrifying that thousands of children are being left to face the potential risk of abuse or neglect, not just once but again and again.

"Every day at Action for Children we see the heart-breaking results of families suffering at the hands of domestic abuse, neglect, or drug addiction – these are scars that stay with children for the rest of their lives. But we know things can turn out differently if councils are able to step in with early help to stop these problems spiralling out of control.

"Councils are being put in an impossible position and children are stuck in a revolving door – repeatedly referred to children’s services but only getting help when problems reach crisis point. The government must urgently put an end to the punishing funding cuts which give councils no option but to drastically shrink children’s support services. Otherwise more and more vulnerable children will be left at potential risk and without the early help they desperately need."

Case study

An Action for Children family support worker described the uphill battle she had in getting help from social care for a child in desperate need of support, after opportunities for early intervention had been missed:

"Last year, a mum with learning difficulties and her six-year-old son were referred to us by his school for intensive family support. Until then, the only professionals to have seen the family were the local health visitor team who had run their concerns past children's services several times, but no action was taken to offer early help to the family. Without parenting support in place, the alarm was raised again when the boy was at school, but he still didn’t get any help from children's services.

"When we visited the family home it was filthy and smelly with barely any furnishings. The only comfort in the boy's room was an old cushion which looked like a sack of potatoes and had never been washed. It was clear he had had no stability or routine.

"At around six stone, he was twice the weight he should have been for his age and we discovered he was typically eating sausage rolls for breakfast, a whole tube of Pringles crisps at morning break-time and fried chicken take-away for tea most nights.

"As well as always turning up dirty to school, he couldn't function in the classroom or communicate with other children and would often make strange noises or start screaming.

"We immediately began visiting two or three times a week to offer an intensive programme of parenting support – with a particular focus on healthy eating. And we contacted children’s social care to make an urgent referral into child protection.

"The young boy has now been taken into long-term foster care and has made significant progress; his behaviour in school has settled to the extent that he is now in the classroom full-time and he has lost a lot of weight.

"Early opportunities were missed to help him and his family a number of times when the alarm was raised. Sadly, the system failed him."

- The case study is anonymous to protect identities


Huw Beale, Action for Children media team:

07718 114 038 / [email protected] (out of hours 07802 806 679)



Research notes:

  • Action for Children commissioned Aldaba Ltd to analyse an extract from the Department for Education’s Children in Need database for the years 2013/14 and 2014/15.
  • The analysis looked in detail at children who are referred to children’s social services for help but are assessed and found to not be in need of statutory support. We used this data to build case histories for children to determine outcomes of multiple referrals over the two-year period.
  • Not all referrals for 2013/14 and 2014/15 had a ‘pupil matching reference number’ which is needed for a detailed picture of a child’s journey. In both 2013/2014 and 2014/15, 59% of referrals had this number.
  • Using the 59% of referrals with a pupil matching reference number, our analysis found that over 21,000 children who were referred in 2013/14 but didn’t get statutory support, were referred back again in 2014/15.
  • The ‘more than 36,000’ figure for children re-referred is based on our analysis for the 59% of referrals with a pupil matching reference number and extrapolating this to 100%. The absence of pupil matching reference numbers for the whole sample means this is currently the best way of estimating the figure.
  • Our analysis then looked at who referred children to social services. Our findings show the top three referrers for both children that do get statutory support and those that do not are the same; police, health services and schools. These are all public bodies who have a recognised role in safeguarding, where safeguarding frameworks, policies and training are in place to ensure people make appropriate referrals.
  • The 'more than 13,500' figure is based on our analysis for 59% of the referrals with a pupil matching reference number (more than 8,000 children) and extrapolating it to 100%.
  • Our research last year found that only one in four children who were assessed as not in need were then signposted on to early help services, leaving three in four without this support. This left an estimated 140,000 children on the fringes of social care who were not referred to early help after their cases were closed.
  • As well as analysing who referred these children to children’s social services, we also analysed why they were being referred. The top two reasons for referral for these children in 2013/14 and 2014/15, were abuse and neglect, followed by family dysfunction. These are the same top two reasons as for those children who were found to be in need.
  • Our research last year with the Children’s Society and the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) found that central government funding for children and young people’s services has fallen from £10.0 billion in 2010/11 to £7.6 billion in 2015/16 in real terms - a fall of 24%. Local authority spending on early intervention services for children and young people, such as children’s centres and family support, has fallen from £3.6 billion in 2010/11 to £2.1billion in 2015/16 - a fall of 40%.

  • The projected real-terms reduction in central government funding for local authority early intervention services between 2016/17 is 29%. For further details see the full report, Turning the Tide