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Warning over child death risk in face of mounting safeguarding pressures

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Rising demand on children’s social care services at a time of stretched resources could lead to a repeat of the system failures that occurred before recent high-profile child murders, the president of the Association of Directors of Children Services has warned.

Speaking to LGC following the publication of ADCS research into safeguarding for children nationally, Dave Hill said the impact of austerity and increasingly complex issues faced by families meant child protection was approaching a “tipping point” that could impact on “generations of young people”.

The Safeguarding Pressure Phase 5 report published this week revealed a 29% increase in referrals to social services where neglect or abuse was the main factor since 2008, with a “toxic trio” of domestic abuse, mental health problems and substance abuse cited as “major and increasing” parental factors.

Dave hill

Dave hill

The report estimated that 2.2 million initial contacts were made to children’s social care in 2015-16, an increase of 53% since 2007-8.

Mr Hill said he feared that increasing pressure on the system could result in the reoccurrence of safeguarding failures identified following the murders of children such as Ayeeshia Smith and Daniel Pelka. Ayeesha Smith was just 21 months old when she was murdered by her mother in 2014. Four-year-old Daniel Pelka was killed by his mother and her partner in 2012.

Mr Hill added: “There is an increasing risk of that kind of system failure.

“Lots of local authorities have high levels of demand and increasing caseloads – this creates a massive risk.”

The ADCS report, based on responses from 132 English councils and interviews with directors of children’s services, said the level of risk and vulnerability of children is likely to increase due to the impact of social and economic pressures on families.

It adds that children’s needs are becoming more complex at a time when specialist interventions and services, such as mental health provision, are depleted.

The report also found there had been a 31% real terms reduction in council spending on early help services between 2010-11 and 20015-16.

Mr Hill said while councils had previously found ways to innovate in order to manage demand, such as “double investing” in both safeguarding and early intervention, ongoing financial pressures on council budgets meant councils had “hit a brick wall”.

He added: “If [councils] have not got the money to get the balance right, then you just end up going round in circles, with more high end referrals and end up fighting fire and get locked into that cycle.

“There is a small number of councils who are getting the balance right and quite a few getting it dramatically wrong.”

Mr Hill said while government was aware of pressures on children’s social care, its immediate focus was on adult social care because of its relationship to the NHS.

He added: “I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel over funding.

“There’s a growing sense that we are approaching a tipping point that, if reached, will impact generations of children.

“We owe it to the children, young people and families in our communities to address these issues before it’s too late.”

The report said councils’ children’s services budgets, excluding education, had reduced from £8.4 billion in 2013-14 to £8.3 billion this year.

It added 60% of councils reported an increase in the number of contacts with children’s social services during the period, with nine reporting an increase in excess of 50% in 2015-16.

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