One person's localism is another person's neglect
by Claudia Wood
Eileen Munro’s latest report on child protection has been warmly welcomed by the sector – freeing up social workers from red tape and targets, keeping staff at the front-line even when they are managers – all music to the ears of those staff who spend more time filling in the paperwork than visiting children at risk. And it may well be that being freed up from centrally prescribed targets, and relying on more local direction, will speed up the process of identifying families and children in need of support and, if necessary, taking children into care.
However, I do wonder whether less central direction will lead to more - and unwelcome - local variability. They say one man’s flexibility to meet local needs is another man’s postcode lottery. Consider this: back in 2007, when the previous government attempted to improve the system for children in care, a Working Group looking at the care population concluded that:
The care system might more realistically be viewed as being not one but 150 different systems... this high level of inter-authority variation is as likely to mean children who should be in care are being left at home in potentially dangerous situations for far too long, as it is to mean that many children made the subject of Care Orders should have been left at home with more intensive support programmes.
This variation meant that in 2007 there were 13 children per 10,000 of population in care in Rutland, compared to 221 per 10,000 in the City of London. The national average was 55. This difference could not be explained by socio-economic differences, but rather values based judgments regarding the role of the state in intervening in family life. This led to some local authorities spending much more on family support (which can prevent children going in to care) than others – the ratio between looked-after children and family spending ranges from 2:1 to 10:1 nationally.
Munro has recommended that local authorities should have a duty to provide early help to families whose children are at risk of going into care. This is certainly a welcome point. Many families whose children are in care received no support before this happened. But it seems Munro has put forward this blanket recommendation without actually considering the evidence – or rather, the lack of it.
The fact is, no one knows the optimum balance of family support versus children in care support. We don’t know which families respond well to and benefit from interventions, and in which cases care is likely to be a better option. We don’t know how intensive family support should be for it to work, how long it should be in place for, and when we should draw the line and take a child into care.
Last year, Demos published In Loco Parentis, out flagship report on the system for children in care. We concluded that the provision of early family support remains patchy and dependent on the culture of individual local authorities, which have very different interpretations regarding the ‘right’ amount of support a family should receive before their child is placed in care, and indeed the ‘right’ moment at which a child should be taken into care. This means that in some cases children go into care because they have too little family support, when this might have been easily avoided, while in others too much emphasis on keeping the family together can lead to a delay of the inevitable.
My concern is that a universal recommendation to promote family support, coupled by greater local discretion on how to do this and a dearth of evidence regarding what works, means we risk situations where family support is used as a tool to ‘prevent’ entry to care (and therefore drive down costs) rather than to improve outcomes. Families may be propped up indefinitely, with children growing up just shy of the care threshold. This phenomenon, known as ‘bumping along the bottom’, sees children never making it into care, but having a pretty poor childhood all the same.
The fact is, family support to prevent the need for care can only be justified if it is in the interests of the welfare of the child – if there is a good chance of improving the outcomes of the children and the families. Prevention should not be a goal in itself. I may be going against the tide of bureaucracy-busting localism, but I would say that when it comes to the key decision - take a child into care or support them in their family – national, evidence based guidelines are best.
We recommended in In Loco Parentis that the government undertake an audit of the variation of family support across England and assess the outcomes associated with approaches that aim to prevent entry into care. Local authorities that opt to have smaller care populations should only be doing so in the knowledge that this strategy will be the most effective in promoting positive outcomes for children – not to save cash.
Yes, we need to do more with families earlier, rather than intervening at crisis point. But I wonder whether Munro, in implying that family support should be increased across the board, has jumped ahead of the evidence. Family support doesn’t work for every family. Some children do need to go into care. Knowing how to tell the difference is a pretty fundamental question we need to answer first.