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New Research Highlights the Increasing Safeguarding Pressures

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) today publishes the latest version of its Safeguarding Pressures research to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the formation of the role of director of children’s services and the 25th anniversary of the passing of the Children Act (1989).

ADCS has collected and compared both qualitative and quantitative information from local authorities in four phases spanning 2007/8 to 2013/14. This latest research report draws together returns from 102 of the 152 local authorities in England and supplements this with DfE data to provide an insight into the pressures local authorities are facing in children’s safeguarding activity. For the year ending 31st March 2014:

  • It is estimated that 2.3 million initial contacts were made into children’s social care, this is an increase of 11.8% on the previous year and an increase of 65% since 2007/8
  • Referrals to children’s social care were up 11% in 2013/14
  • Neglect continues to be the most common category of abuse in child protection plans but there has also been a significant increase in emotional abuse (close to 10% since 2007/8)
  • A 13.8% increase in numbers of children and young people becoming subjects of an initial child protection plan was reported
  • It is estimated that 32200 children started to be looked after in 2013/14 - an increase of 5% since Safeguarding Pressures 3 – 13% of whom were re-entering the care system for a second or subsequent time
  • 76% of authorities reported changes in needs or demands on service provision for adolescents aged 16 and 17
  • 38% of respondents reported a reduction in children’s social care activity which is thought to be due to early help activity while 29% reported an increase due to the discovery of previously unmet needs
  • 76% of authorities reported changes to their social work staffing, for just under a third this was a positive change while just over two thirds reported recruitment and retention issues
  • A third of authorities are seeing a reduction of the number of starting to be looked after and more children are leaving care at a slightly faster rate.

This research shows that approximately 75% of initial assessments undertaken in 2013/14 identified one or more elements of the ‘toxic trio’ - substance misuse, domestic abuse and parental mental health issues. The proportion of safeguarding activity that had domestic abuse as a presenting factor varied from 30% to 94% amongst responding authorities.

One south east authority said: “It is clear that substance misuse is a factor in over a third of child protection cases and domestic abuse is a factor in between 50 to 55% of these cases. These two factors are present to an even higher degree for the group of children who require child protection plans for a second time or more.”

A number of councils reported significant impact of new and emerging duties such as ‘Staying Put,’ supporting families with no recourse to public funds and implementing SEND reforms set out in the Children and Families Act 2014. Whilst these are about improving outcomes for some of the most vulnerable families in the longer term, the financial pressures of implementing them in the short term means many are struggling to shift resources towards preventative safeguarding spend.

Alan Wood, President of the ADCS, said: “Local government has experienced significant budget reductions over the last four years with further reductions in both grant and general funding expected in the next two years. Spending on children’s social care services has largely been protected by elected members to date but the majority of respondents recognised this may no longer be possible from 2015/16 onwards. Significant reductions in early help services have been necessary to balance the books despite recognition that this will, in time, impact negatively on social care activity.

Funding reductions in other areas of council business including adult social care, libraries and benefits coupled with those seen in other public agencies, especially the police, are now having a clear impact on the preventative offer and children’s social care services.”

He went on to say: “Managing high-levels of demand within an ever-shrinking envelope of resources will continue to be a growing challenge for all directors of children’s services, their teams and frontline staff. No one should underestimate how hard local government has worked to minimise the impact of reducing resources and increasing demand but the signs are now all too visible that the system is approaching the limits of capacity to continue to absorb such pressures.”

The Children Act (2004) aimed to improve services for children by promoting early intervention, multi-agency working and clear and strong leadership in order to bring about positive outcomes for children, young people and their families. A myriad of changes have occurred over the last decade which have impacted on this goal, from the government’s spending review triggered by the global recession, the growth in the 0 – 4 population and an unprecedented number of inquiries, reviews, investigations and legislative changes to the transfer of public health services from the NHS to local authorities and increased media scrutiny and attention of these critical services.

Alan Wood concluded: “Given that the research covered 7.9 million children and young people in England, and over 50% of responding authorities believe demand for safeguarding activity will continue to increase along the same trajectory, balancing this need with preventative work will be the key to keeping children and young people safe and well. Child protection work is complex. Much progress has been made in the last 10 years but more can and must be done with partners to tackle the prevalence and impact of the ‘toxic trio’ and to mitigate against the cultural, demographic and budgetary pressures on safeguarding activity. We need to break down the barriers between GPs, schools, the police and adult social care to provide the seamless support envisioned in the Children Act instead of referring children on and between each other.. This will require a sophisticated and intelligent discussion and an innovative approach to ensure local authorities and their partners work together to meet this challenge.”

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