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The current debate over the future of children’s social care services has largely been dominated by finances.
The Association of Directors of Children’s services and others have been lobbying the government with dire warnings of the implications for vulnerable young people of dwindling resources and an expectation that child poverty, currently affecting four million under-18s, could rise sharply up to 2021.
Children living in poverty are statistically more likely to be placed on a child protection plan and as former director of children’s services Ray Jones has pointed out in a piece for LGC, the “stresses and strains” of living below the breadline make it “harder to parent well”.
Non-statutory early intervention services that are vital for identifying early warning signs of potential neglect or abuse are inevitably sacrificed as councils struggle with ever tightening budgets and focus resources at the high end of risk.
The consequence is that some councils find themselves fighting fires as more children come to the attention of social services with serious and complex needs.
It would be surprising if the warnings did not have some traction in the upper echelons of government. However, ministers remain keen to stress that some councils have found a way to maintain performance in testing times.
In his recent speech to the National Children and Adult Services Conference, children’s minister Robert Goodwill announced £20m to bolster sector-led improvement but avoided the issue of wider council funding, preferring to focus on families “let down by poor services”.
As LGC reports today, the general trend of rising rates of children in care nationally masks significant variations across and within regions.
Some neighbouring councils, seemingly dealing with similar demographic, financial and economic pressures, register different overall rates of children in care and variations in rates over time.
The reasons for these variations are not easily understood, but various themes repeatedly emerge.
By all accounts, those councils that are united in a focus on children, with a political and corporate determination to maintain investment in family support services to manage demand tend to be more succesful at maintaining standards.
This is often when strong leadership has provided support and nurtured confidence at all levels of the workforce, instilling a positive culture focused on evidence of what works and the courage to innovate with approaches that do not always reap immediate rewards.
But it remains to be seen whether this approach can be maintained as resources continue to dwindle.
Writing for LGC today, children’s commissioner for England Anne Longfield warns cutting early intervention services is a strategy that “can only end in disaster”.
Ofsted judgements reveal that most councils are now struggling to maintain the quality services and directors often warn that a council rated good can quickly get into difficulty if just a few particularly complex cases emerge or leadership changes.
The Baby P case prompted a step-change in approaches to child protection which has led to more children benefiting from entering care sooner.
But as demand continues to grow, the danger of another serious system failure will increase unless councils are resourced to not only ensure children most in need are protected but also families are supported to prevent risk becoming critical.
Jon Bunn, senior reporter