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Variations in rates of looked after children suggest differing practice

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The latest government statistics on the levels of children in care in England show a continuation of an unrelenting upward trend since the Baby P case in 2008.

Percentage change in looked-after children 2013-17

Variations in rates of looked after children suggest differing practice

Percentage change in looked-after children 2013-17: big variation between neighbouring councils

A total of 72,670 children were in care nationwide at the end of March 2017, an increase of 21% since 2008, while 51,080 children are now on a child protection plan, a rise of 75%.

While poverty and austerity are widely accepted as key drivers, there are significant variations between councils within the same region that are not easily explained, with even neighbouring councils facing similar demographic and economic pressures registering big differences in rates of children in care.

In the north west, Halton BC has experienced an 82% increase in the rate of children in care per 10,000 of the under-18 population between 2013 and 2017. Of the region’s 23 councils, 18 also recorded a rise over the period.

However, Wigan MBC is one of the five councils that have seen a decrease in rates, with a 12% reduction.

Wigan’s assistant director of children and families, Jayne Ivory, told LGC that this reduction is due to several factors, including a strong focus on high-quality care planning, an emphasis on sustainable permanent placements, including supporting children to remain with their family when appropriate, and intensive work by family support teams when a child is first identified as in need.

Ms Ivory added: “We work as part of a broader council that has an interest in investing in what works. It is not just about the money, it is about the quality of what we are doing and the evidence for what we are doing, and we have taken the opportunity to innovate.”

Levels of children in care usually rise sharply when a council goes into government intervention as weak safeguarding processes are improved.

Herefordshire Council, which was issued with an improvement notice for its children’s social care services in 2013, experienced the biggest rise in looked-after children in the West Midlands between 2013 and in 2017 at 40%.

Herefordshire children’s wellbeing director Chris Baird said the rise reflected the impact of intervention on “all professionals” and figures remain comparatively high due to the “post-intervention legacy”.

However, the data suggests that government intervention will not necessarily push up rates of children in care beyond those of nearby councils.

The latest figures show that only three of the 18 councils with the highest rates of looked after children in 2016-17 are currently subject to a direction or improvement notice, while three have left intervention in recent years.

Moreover, the rates are also not a clear indicator of quality of services. While 10 of the councils with the highest levels are rated as requires improvement and one inadequate, six are rated good and one outstanding, closely reflecting the national spread of Ofsted ratings. 

Alastair Douglas, chief executive of Cafcass, which represents children in family court cases, said the organisation’s own research could not find a correlation between Ofsted ratings and rates of children in care, with only a short-term spike in numbers following a negative rating.

He said there are some differences in approaches by courts within the tight legislative framework, particularly with the thresholds applied to a parent with learning disabilities.

But Mr Douglas said variations within regions are better explained by the different “philosophies” within councils about early help, edge of care interventions and keeping children out of care, with some children “parachuted” into care because certain services are just not available.

He said: “There are some local value systems that are very strong about care by relatives and others where there is more reliance on foster carers and removal from the extended family. That is more a function of key decision makers probably than the court process.”

Charlotte Ramsden, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ health, care and additional needs policy committee, said the introduction in 2014 of a six-month limit on care proceedings is likely to have had an impact on the levels of children entering care.

She said the measure, which aimed to reduce delays that put children at greater risk, had led to the use of a “shorter, tighter intervention methodology”.

Ms Ramsden, who is Salford City Council’s strategic director for children’s services and adult social care, said while this was good for most children, some families need more time to adjust and respond to support.

She added: “Sometimes parents do take much longer than that [to respond to support] and it is about the confidence of the authority and partners to extend their timescale or to make a decision that it is wrong to initiate proceedings.”

Ms Ramsden also said that at a time of resources “shrinking rapidly”, social care services had become “hugely dependent” on support from schools. But she said there was variation in working relationships between schools and councils nationwide.

Ray Jones, emeritus professor of Social Work at Kingston University, said the variations between councils with similar population characteristics can be explained by the corporate and political leadership’s “grip” on children’s social care. 

He said: “When politicians and corporate leaders do not keep a lid on problems, that feeds down to the frontline and the consequence is a lot of defensive practice.

“Things can become more risk averse and the frontline can feel very vulnerable.”

Mr Jones added that problems can also be caused when there is “excitement at the top of a council” about “novel and innovative agendas” with a consequence that “the corporate agenda dominates, and the service agenda gets lost”.

The Early Intervention Foundation says while factors such as increasing poverty may correlate with increased demand on children’s services, a causal relationship is yet to be established.

EIF director of dissemination Anne Molloy said there are fewer services to tackle the impact of poverty, poor housing and mental health problems, leading families to “arrive very quickly at the front door”.

But she added: “It is clear that demand on the child protection system is increasing, but there are weaknesses in the available data which mean we can’t fully understand the various factors that lie behind this rise.”

The ongoing rise in children in care since Baby P is on one hand reassuring, as evidence suggests processes have been tightened and councils are acting quicker and more decisively as they call time on neglect.

However, while some councils have the confidence to maintain early intervention services in the face of funding pressures, the evidence suggests many are clearly struggling to cope, with the consequence that they appear stuck in a loop of being forced to concentrate resources on children who have already reached crisis point.

It is hard to see how more children will not suffer unless this cycle is broken.

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