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Care Review says investigation has dominated over support in first major findings

The first report from the Review of Children’s Social Care says the system is not doing enough to help families raise their children, and that better decision making and more support and decisive action is needed to keep children safe from harm.


Care Review says investigation has dominated over support in first major findings

The first report from the Review of Children’s Social Care finds that the children’s social care system in England investigates too readily whilst not doing enough to support families, protect teenagers or care for children who are looked after by the state.

The report, spearheaded by former Frontline Chief Executive Josh MacAlister, argues that the system is under significant strain with support for families being cut back as money is increasingly spent on crisis intervention.

MacAlister says the report highlights the need for a programme of investment and reform, greater cross-Government and agency collaboration and shift in social worker time spent with children and families.

“Our children’s social care system is a 30-year-old tower of Jenga held together with Sellotape: simultaneously rigid and yet shaky,” MacAlister said, adding: “There are many professionals and services doing excellent work but this report sets out the scale of the problems we face and the urgent need for a new approach.”

The ‘Case for Change’, which looks to set out the future direction of the review, says that not enough practical help is available to families with spending on these services having decreased by more than a third (35%) in real terms as money has shifted towards crisis intervention.

Painting a worrying picture of escalating costs, “disjointed” national policy, and a “bureaucratic and risk averse”, authors said the problems identified in the Munro Review – the previous wide-ranging review of the child protection system, carried out by Professor Eileen Munro – still remain.

“There is no situation in the current system where we will not need to spend more - the choice is whether this investment is spent on reform which achieves long term sustainability and better outcomes, or propping up an increasingly expensive and inadequate existing system,” the report states, adding: “We don’t do enough to understand the collective costs of poor outcomes for children in contact with social care when we think about the case for investment.”

The report also says attitudes to risk mean that investigation has dominated over support with 135,000 investigations (Section 47 enquiries) last year resulting in no child protection plan. It says this is creating an “increasingly adversarial system that is both less able to support parents or protect children.”

Describing statutory children’s social care system as “only the tip of the iceberg”, the report says promoting and protecting children’s welfare and rights must be a priority that “goes beyond any single agency.”

“Government’s primary focus should be on supporting the resources of families and the wider community to keep children safe as close to a family environment as is possible, whilst still acting decisively and swiftly where children require protection,” the report read, adding: “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.”

Process continues to dominate over direct work with families, as well as persistent problems with information-sharing between agencies, the report found, saying that decision-making and risk assessment are “too often underpinned by a lack of knowledge”.

The report conceded, however, that there is more to do to recruit, retain and support social care staff noting that burnout and “infrequent and inadequate” supervision were an endemic problem for professionals. Remarking that one in three of all social workers in children’s services do not work directly with children or families, authors said this was “a staggering misuse of the greatest asset that children’s social care has – its social workers.”

The analysis also finds that better decision making, and more support and decisive action is needed to keep children safe from harm – particularly for teenagers, who are the fastest growing group in both child protection and care. The report says professionals and parents trying to keep teenagers safe from harm outside of the home are being “failed by a system that was not designed for the task”.

The report found that more can be done to offer children permanence outside of care, saying that kinship arrangements and adoption can offer this stability. Pointing to the Government approach to adoption, it argues a similar level of focus on kinship is needed to promote and support its use.

Problems with parents involved in repeat care proceedings were also highlighted, with the report arguing that more needs to be done to provide support parents involved. Despite making up a fifth of all cases in the public law system, authors said that “intensive support” for parents at risk of repeat proceedings was “patchy”.

The report was critical of the current foster care system’s ability to recruit. Pointing to the fact that in 2020 around 137,200 people came forward with an interest in fostering but only 2,135 new foster carers were approved, which the report says raises “serious questions about the fitness of our current approach to recruiting prospective foster carers.”

The report also argues the state needs to become a “pushy parent” for children in care so that they get the homes and support they need, finding that taking children into care “too often weakens rather than strengthens the most important relationships that children have.”

The Review team said it heard “repeatedly” that children entering care were not getting the mental health support they need, and that many care leavers reported having small support networks. Research suggested that 6% of children in care had no one providing emotional support and nearly one in ten young people only had support from their leaving care worker.

“Too often children are moved far from where they have grown up, are separated from their brothers or sisters, are forced to move schools, and have a revolving door of social workers,” the report stated.

MacAlister acknowledges that some of the recommendations are likely to be met with fierce criticism, insisting that the report is intended to “open up debate”.

“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.”

The mention of funding is likely to raise eyebrows as a previously leaked version of the Chair’s contract with the Department for Education (DfE) for the review including controversial clauses on the “cost control” of its recommendations.

The unredacted contract stated that “recommendations must be affordable to [Her Majesty’s Government]” and that “DfE cannot assume any additional funding from the Exchequer to meet the recommendations.”

However, MacAlister has always refuted that the review will be hampered by an inability to secure extra funding, saying at the time that the contract states that he can recommend new funding so long as he “makes a case for it”.

Read more ‘Care Review contract raises concerns over its independence and cost control measures’:

Charlotte Ramsden, President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), welcomed the Case for Change and its highlighting of problems in the system, but stressed the incredible work undertaken by social workers and the wider workforce must also be recognised.

“Social workers operate within a strict legislative framework and under intense scrutiny from many different angles. Yes, the workforce must be empowered to make the best decisions for children and families, but appropriate and measured checks and balances are also needed to support this life changing work,” Ramsden said, adding that for too long external influences have driven risk averse cultures.

“There are fundamental issues raised within this report, such as the contributory causal relationship between income and state intervention, along with the racial disparities that exist. The review must therefore seek to understand not only the symptoms, but the root causes and solutions, which may be beyond the gift of children’s services, such as welfare and benefit policies.”

The review, which was announced in January and began its work in March, says the report is based on the views of more than 700 people with lived experience of children’s social care, as well as around 300 people working with children and families, in addition to the more than 1,000 submissions to the Calls for Advice and Evidence.

The review will now move into a phase of developing recommendations to address these issues.

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