The demand pressures on children’s services have been rising up the policy agenda. There have been repeated calls to the government to allocate more resources to supporting children’s services. The LGA, National Children’s Bureau, the Children’s Society and Action for Children have all warned the government about an “unprecedented surge in demand leaving services across the public, voluntary and community sector struggling to cope”, and urged the government to close the funding gap facing children’s services which is expected to reach £2 billion by 2020. Children’s service spending is projected to increase from £5.9 billion in 2008/09 to £15.4 billion by 2025, and demand for care continues to rise; in fact, the last financial year saw the the largest annual increase in children in care since 2013.
In light of these warnings, the response from central government has been muted. For example, any mention of children’s social care was completely omitted from the Autumn Budget last year. The level of concern among councils over the pressures building in the system is reflected in our recent Leadership Index with leaders and chief executives indicating diminishing confidence (a decline from 43.4 to 39.2 on a scale of 0 to 100 since March 2018) about having adequate powers and resources to deliver children’s services.
This blog reveals new insight into the nature and scale of this demand, based on analysis of data recently released by Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service), a non-departmental public body which represents children in family court cases in England. Every month, Cafcass releases new public law data which reports the number of new care applications submitted by the local authorities. The number of applications submitted by local authorities provides one indicator of care demand for children’s services. These applications are usually triggered by a number of concerns which suggest that a child may be at risk, including signs of neglect and abuse. Over 60 per cent of children in care in England and Wales are looked after due to abuse and neglect.
At first glance, the latest Cafcass data on care demand appears encouraging. The annual demand in 2017-18 is 2.7 per cent lower than that in 2016-17, and the number of care applications in the first quarter of 2017/18 is 2.6 per cent lower than the same period last year. There was also a visible drop in demand in the third quarter of 2017-18, and in the first quarter of 2018-19 (see figure 1).
FIGURE1: Number of Subjects on Care Applications
However, on closer inspection, there are some alarming trends. Firstly, there appears to be real volatility in the system, with a significant increase in overall number of care applications in the fourth quarter, following the drop in the third quarter of 2017-18 (see Figure 1). There was also an 8.3 per cent increase in May 2018, when compared to May 2017. Crucially, the monthly totals in both January and May 2018 are the highest for those months on record (see Figure 2).
FIGURE 2: Cafcass care order application demand
Secondly, the nature of demand appears to be shifting, with the proportion of older children in new care order cases steadily increasing in recent years. Analysis of the latest public law demand data, supplemented by additional data obtained through Freedom of Information requests made to Cafcass, shows the proportion of children aged 10 and over involved in new cases increasing on average by 1.18 per cent each year, since 2014-15 (see Figure 3). This rise in the proportion of children aged 10 and over in new care proceedings is believed to be linked to increasing numbers of section 20 voluntary care cases coming before the court (e.g. in cases where there is a dispute between the council and the parents over the long-term care of the child), and growing number of vulnerable children at risk from child sexual exploitation, gang violence and ‘radicalisation’. We may be seeing some of the initial consequences of the withdrawal of early intervention support coming through the system. This evidence of the shifting age profile of those in need of care is significant – both for the children involved who haven’t received the right support soon enough in their life, and for the system which faces deepening complexity and costs supporting older children.
FIGURE 3: Percentage of children aged 10 and over in new cases
A radical change of course is clearly needed. There needs to be a shift in focus from seeing children’s needs in isolation to addressing the needs of the whole family. A report focusing on the neglect of older children published last month found many examples where multi-agency plans lacked sufficient focus on parenting skills for families, especially those with histories of parental mental ill-health or substance misuse. The marginalisation of support for the whole family is also confirmed in the Care Crisis Review launched earlier this year which highlighted an increasing risk-averse culture among social workers who often felt under pressure to play safe by taking a child into care rather than working to keep the family together. The review also revealed that child welfare services are increasingly geared towards protective interventions involving risk assessment and monitoring (e.g. Section 47 inquiries, Child Protection Plans, etc.), instead of providing more support for families to overcome social, emotional, economic and physical adversity.
Local authorities continue to have to make tough decisions over how they deliver key services in the face of persistent financial pressures. According to a recent report on financial sustainability of local authorities, spending on children’s social care has remained one of the few areas that councils protect in the face of continuing cuts. However, the significant constraints on resources has meant the side-lining of non-urgent services; and early intervention services have particularly suffered with the closure of hundreds of children’s centre and youth centres in recent years, the consequences of which we are just starting to see now. The upcoming Spending Review provides a crucial opportunity to reconsider not only the approach in meeting the rising demand for children’s services but also a long-term approach in preventing any child or family from reaching a crisis point in the first place.