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Children’s social care

Families need help when they face challenges to stop problems spiralling out of control. If a child does need to be taken into care, they should be well-cared for just like every other child

What is early help?

‘Early help’ describes any service that supports children and families as soon as problems emerge. All early help is voluntary – families don’t have to participate if they don’t want to.

Examples of early help services include:

  • Parenting support
  • Play and activity groups
  • Emotional health and wellbeing support
  • Communication and language support

These services are vital in giving children the best start in life.

However, a decade of cuts to funding has left too many parents struggling to get the help they need.

Why is early help important?

Early help can prevent harm and keep children safe. When families face problems, getting the right support, at the right time, is essential. It can be what stops a minor problem from becoming a crisis.

Unfortunately, we’re not providing enough early help in the UK. Instead, the current system is focused on helping children only once they are in crisis. Stepping in as soon as problems arise, however, helps provide safe and happy childhoods. It helps keep families together. 

Early help services are also a sensible use of stretched budgets. The social services needed when families are in crisis are expensive. Money is being wasted simply because we are reaching children too late.

If we didn’t have access to early help services, we would probably have had to split as a family. We were on the verge of that; we were at rock bottom. If it wasn’t for those services, who knows where we would be now. They really picked us up and helped us, and they still are.

Barry, whose family received support from Action for Children’s early help services

What is the demand for early help in the UK?

What is the investment in early help?

Since 2010, investment in early help has been cut in half

How many children are in care in the UK?

There are over 100,000 children in care in the UK

How many children experience care?

1 in 50 children experience care at some point

Receiving support from a social worker

1 in 4 children will receive support from a social worker

How many children do we support?

Across our services, 40,000 children in care a year

Standing up for children in care

Every child should have a safe, stable, and loving childhood. Children taken into care have traumatic histories and other kinds of complex needs. They deserve the best care and support to help them thrive.

Without high-quality support, children in care are at risk of facing challenges such as mental health problems, serious issues at school, and trouble building healthy, lasting relationships.

They may carry these weights into adulthood which can hold them back from leading fulfilling lives and achieving their aspirations.

The entire care system needs a reset or these problems will continue. We must ensure that all children and young people in care, and those leaving care, receive high-quality support.

What does life look like for children in care?

A child in care will often experience lots of change. They’re often separated from their siblings. They may have frequent changes in social worker, due to high staff turnover. They may have to move home over and over, often living far from their local areas.

Most children in care live in foster care. They may also be cared for by a member of their wider family. A small proportion of children, around 1 in 10, live in children’s homes.

Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of the right homes in the right places. The greater the child or young person’s needs, the less likely it is that they will secure a place in a suitable home at the right time. Children too often end up moved away from where they’ve grown up or living in homes that don’t meet their needs.

What change is needed?

  1. Children and families need help as soon as they face problems: The best way to support struggling children, young people, and families is to help them as early as possible. Early help can also help families stay together. Too often, that early intervention doesn’t happen or isn’t good enough. After a decade of cuts, early help services need investment.
  2. Children deserve high quality care: All children should have safe, stable, loving childhoods – including those in care. We must ensure that children and young people in care receive high-quality care and support that is tailored to their needs.
  3. Leaving care shouldn’t mean leaving support: If a child or young person returns home from care, the whole family should get the support they need to make it work. Young adults leaving care to transition to independent living shouldn’t face a ‘cliff-edge’ of support when they leave care - they need advice, practical help, and a safety net to protect them.
  4. Change is needed now. We need to invest in transforming the children’s social care system. Delaying reform only means more harm happening to children, and higher costs in the long run.

Listening to the voices of young people

Its Our Care outside Parliament

In March 2021, a team of experts began looking at how to improve the children’s social care system in England – the ‘Independent Review of Children's Social Care’.

Then, in 2022, the Government responded to the ‘Care Review’, setting out plans for the improvements it aims to make.

To help the government do that, we, and others, formed the ‘It’s Our Care’ coalition. Here are some of the things we’ve learnt about the changes needed from the care-experienced young who are part of the coalition:

  1. We need to support children in care through big life changes
  2. We need to listen better and act upon what children in care want
  3. We need to help children in care stay in touch with the people that are important to them
  4. We need to help children in care have fun and achieve their goals
  5. We need to treat unaccompanied care experienced children like other children in care, and help them to settle safely in the UK

It's Our Care campaign

Its Our Care 2023

In 2022, we worked with six other children’s charities to bring over a hundred care experienced young people to Parliament. They met with the Secretary of State for Education, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and the Children's Commissioner to share their opinions on the Care Review.

A year later, we celebrated the first anniversary of the Care Review. We delivered a huge anniversary card to the Minister for Children. The card included messages from 50 young people with their vision for children’s social care.

We will keep working with the Department for Education and the Minister for Children to ensure that the government doesn’t delay on making the changes the care system needs.

Our latest research

We help decision-makers understand the needs of families and care experienced children and young people. We publish regular reports investigating the state of early help and the experiences of children in and leaving care.

School refusal: Insights from Parent Talk 2022-23

The Educational Outcomes of Children Referred to Children's Social Care

Our response to the government's 'Stable Homes, Built on Love' consultation

The cost of delaying reform to children's social care

Parenting services under pressure

Read all our latest reports here

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