Care Review Chair criticises “runaway train” of child protection investigations

Ahead of the release of the Review’s ‘Case for Change’, Josh MacAlister has criticised the speed with which social workers intervene, saying there is a culture of “investigating” rather than “supporting” families.

11/06/21

Care Review Chair criticises “runaway train” of child protection investigations

The Chair of the wide-ranging review into children’s social care has said social workers are both “investigating too much” and “not helping enough” in a controversial interview.

The comments come as the review is due to publish its first major document since it began its work in March this year. The so-called ‘Case for Change’ is intended to highlight “what most needs changing in children’s social care”.

Speaking to the Sunday Times, with the comments behind a paywall, Josh MacAlister said a “false choice” was often presented between supporting family rights and help for parents, or being in favour of an interventionist system.

“It can be true that we are both investigating too much and not helping enough, and that, particularly in the case of teenagers, the system isn’t taking responsibility for keeping them safe, particularly for things that go on outside the home.”

MacAlister also said social workers too readily intervene with Section 47 inquiries.

“We’ve got a bit of a runaway train at the moment in terms of the continual surge in section 47 investigations, initiations of child protection conferences, that don’t result in further action, that aren’t correlated with an increase in identified harm,” MacAlister said.

“This is a decades-old trajectory towards more investigation. And despite reviews that have looked at these issues before, including the Munro review [published in 2012], which had a fantastic analysis of the problems, we’ve not been able to reach a tipping point where we move from investigation to help.”

The Chair of the Review also said there was “big variation” across the country and that, while lots of social workers balance the competing risks well, some do not. MacAlister added that often when children and families experienced good outcomes it was because a social worker had “gone above and beyond”.

“A system built on people going above and beyond isn’t sustainable in the long run. And there are too many cases and too many situations with families and young people in care where we’re just not doing well enough, and that does require a root-and-branch, bold and broad review of the system, which is what we’re doing.”

Joe Hanley, Lecturer in Social Work at the Open University, said on Twitter the comments “stigmatised” social workers.

“Josh MacAlister has made a (publicly funded) career out of criticising social workers, from Frontline, to his Blueprint, to the #carereview. The validity of his arguments aside, there was a way he could have made these points that didn’t stigmatise social workers.”

The comments come after a previous speech calling on private providers of children’s residential care homes to cut costs and reduce profit-making, slamming the current system as “broken”.

Josh MacAlister, giving a speech to the Independent Children’s Homes Association on Friday, said private companies were delivering consistently poor outcomes, despite making an estimated £250m a year in profits.

“Given pressures in the system and economic realities, this is indefensible. It cannot continue,” said MacAlister, who was Chief Executive of Frontline until assuming his role as Chair of the review.

“We need to ask, if we were creating care today that was good enough for all our children, what would it look like?” MacAlister said, adding: “I do not believe the current system is one we would choose to design.”

Children’s homes can be provided directly by local authorities, by the private sector or by charities – however 70% of children in care are placed in private sector, with the figure in Wales rising to 78%.

According to data from the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Childcare, costs charged to local authorities for independent provision of children’s homes have soared by 40% from £2841 per week on average in 2013, to £3970 per week – more than £200,000 annually per child – on average in 2019.

“I would implore those of you who are owners of private children’s homes, particularly large groups, to act with responsibility to bring down costs and reduce profit-making and to be responsive to the needs of children,” MacAlister said.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) launched a ‘market study’ into children’s social care provision earlier this year at the request of MacAlister, to examine the lack of availability and increasing costs in children’s social care provision, including children’s homes and fostering.

Giving evidence to the markets watchdog, children’s social care leaders criticised the ability of private providers to “pick and choose” which referrals they accept and at what price, as well as the uneven geographical spread of homes across the country.

“Typically, the supply of homes hasn’t developed in response to need but rather providers have taken advantage of low cost accommodation, often in areas with pre-existing challenges which are exactly the wrong areas to place vulnerable teenagers,” the Association of Directors of Children’s Services said in its evidence.

The imbalance in power for placement choice was echoed by Ofsted, which said: “prices are high. Limited choice means that the commissioner is often not in a good position to negotiate the best care and support for children.” Calling for a ‘national approach’, the regulator said: “No single local authority can resolve these serious sufficiency issues on their own; indeed, a cross-government approach is required.”

The Local Government Association also warned of the risks of private equity firms in the children’s social care market – and their potential to collapse, with catastrophic consequences for children in care – and called for a national body to oversee the largest providers, similar to the role the Care Quality Commission (CQC) holds for adult social care provision.

The collapse of adult care home provider Southern Cross in 2011 led to a legal duty for the CQC to monitor the financial health of the “most difficult to replace” adult social care service providers, however, no such duty currently exists for children’s social care providers.

The decision by the CMA on whether to escalate the ‘market study’ to a full investigation will be published by 11 September 2021.

Read Josh MacAlister’s interview with the Sunday Times (subscription required): https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/social-workers-too-quick-to-wade-in-review-finds-qtd0763wd

Read more ‘Social care leaders warn of dangers of private equity firms in children’s placements’: https://www.socialworktoday.co.uk/News/Social-care-leaders-warn-of-dangers-of-private-equity-firms-in-children%E2%80%99s-placements

Picture: Josh MacAlister/Twitter

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