Review confirms a crisis in children’s social care and family justice sector and sets out 20 options for change

Social care pageA review involving researchers from the University of Sheffield has outlined 20 recommendations to tackle the rising number of children entering the care system in England and Wales.

Professor Kate Morris, Head of the University of Sheffield’s Department of Sociological Studies, along with PhD students Calum Webb, Permela Sehmar and Martin Hennegan, has been part of a team developing reports for the Nuffield Foundation-funded Care Crisis Review.

The report, facilitated by the Family Rights Group, found there is a crisis in the children’s social care and family justice sector and explores the factors which have contributed to the highest level of children in care since the Children Act 1989 was enacted. Care order applications also reached record levels in 2017.

The Review involved an inclusive listening exercise with more than 2,000 people across England and Wales, complemented by a rapid academic review of evidence about the contributing factors to the crisis.

Review: key findings

• There is a sense of crisis felt by many young people, families and those working within the system.
• Professionals are frustrated at working in a sector that is overstretched and overwhelmed and in which, too often, children and families do not get the direct help they need early enough to prevent difficulties escalating.
• There was a palpable sense of unease about how lack of resources, poverty and deprivation are making it harder for families and the system to cope.
• Contributors expressed a strong sense of concern that a culture of blame, shame and fear has permeated the system, affecting those working in it as well as the children and families reliant upon it. It was suggested that this had led to an environment that is increasingly mistrusting and risk averse and prompts individuals to seek refuge in procedural responses.

Despite these concerns, the Review found that the child welfare legislative framework is basically sound and there are some local authorities that are bucking the national trend. The system works well sometimes: children and families described individual practitioners who had transformed their lives and professionals described innovations, approaches and leaders who enable them to practice in a way that is respectful, humane and rewarding.

The Review also found common agreement about the way forward, with a consensus that relationship building has been and is at the heart of good practice.

Options for change

The Review sets out ‘20 Options for Change’, including:

• Immediate steps that could be taken to move away from an undue focus on processes and performance indicators, to one where practitioners are able to stay focused on securing the right outcomes for each child.
• Approaches, including family group conferences, in which families are supported to make safe plans for their child.
• Suggestions of ways in which statutory guidance, such as Working Together to Safeguard Children, can be changed in order to promote relationship-based practice.
• Opportunities for revitalising local and national family justice forums and other mechanisms, so that all can become places where challenges within the system are discussed and solutions developed.
• Proposals for the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education, in consultation with the devolved administrations, to examine the impact of benefit rules and policies, and the projected effect of planned benefit reforms, on the numbers of children entering or remaining in care.
• A call for the Ministry of Justice to undertake an impact assessment of the present lack of accessible, early, free, independent advice and information for parents and wider family members on the number of children subject to care proceedings or entering or remaining in the care system, and the net cost to the public purse.
• That there are improvements in exploring and assessing potential carers from within the family, when a child cannot live at home, and better support is provided to such carers and children so they do not face severe financial hardship.

Professor Morris, who sat on the Review's Stakeholder Group and Academic Advisory Group, said: “It is vital that we arrive at well informed and robust recommendations to address the rising numbers of children entering our care system.

“The involvement of all stakeholders in the Review including family members, young people, the judiciary and practitioners means the Review makes a unique contribution and offers important recommendations for policy makers and practitioners.

“We are delighted to have been able to work with the Review and to see our research informing the Review's recommendations.”

The Review also supports the Association of Directors of Children's Services and the Local Government Association’s call for the Government to make up the £2 billion shortfall in children’s social care service. It also highlights the need for an additional ring fenced fund which can act as a catalyst for local authorities and their partner agencies to achieve changes needed in their local context to address the crisis.

Nigel Richardson, Chair of the Review said: “Dealing with the crisis is complex – inevitably so, because children and families live increasingly complex lives. But making the difference cannot be just about constant re-structures, or ever changing systems – the fundamental basis of our child welfare approach is encouragingly sound.

"The way forward has to be about working with complexity to offer hope. Offering an inclusive approach to family decision making so that families are helped to better understand the concerns about a child’s welfare and then helped to coordinate and propose a safe response to those concerns from within their own, usually extensive, family and friends network. It’s about moving away from an over reliance on the language of assessment and intervention and more towards understanding and helping. It’s about being less adversarial, risk averse and harsh and much more collaborative and kind.”

Tim Gardam, Chief Executive of the Nuffield Foundation said: “Bringing people together from across the sector in this way has been invaluable in beginning to understand and address the ‘care crisis’. This type of coordinated response across England and Wales allows us to understand how the increase in care order applications differs from region to region, and the localised responses deployed to address it. The proposals outlined in the report are a result of a collaborative process and offer some initial changes that could be made to improve outcomes for children and their families.”

Participants in the Review included the Local Government Association, Ofsted, Cafcass and Cafcass Cymru, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, the All Wales Heads of Children’s Services, third sector organisations and alliances, the Offices of the English and Welsh Children’s Commissioners, members of the judiciary, lawyers, social care practitioners, young people and families.