Following a number of high-profile child deaths, social services’ increased aversion to risk coupled with a political drive to hasten and increase adoption has led to applications to take children into care hitting a record high.
A number of public figures have raised concerns about this rapid rise in applications, including Sir James Munby, president of the high family court division, and Dave Hill, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services. Their common message is that adoption is always an option for those that need it, but a more balanced approach should be taken to ensure that families are not being broken up unnecessarily. The process of removing a child from their family is inevitably traumatic, and the current system is not always providing the high quality care needed for children to achieve better outcomes. Furthermore, foster and residential care is extremely expensive, costing local authorities roughly £2.5 billion a year. With social services across the country already straining under the pressure of cuts, it’s clear we need to rethink how children’s services can be provided more efficiently, whilst ensuring the best outcomes for children and families.
Rethinking how we protect children
As part of our work on building a case study gallery to showcase examples of early action, we’ve come across a number of projects that are taking a different approach to child protection, and supporting children’s services in the process.
In our ‘Rough Guide to Early Action’ we featured the Ceredigion CAB and Children and Families Services’ ‘Specialist Intervention Team’ (SIT), whose caseworkers are supporting families to address the underlying socio-economic problems which are often limiting parents’ capacity to look after their children, such as insecure housing, a lack of income, or high levels of debt. One third of families say that without the support of SIT, their children would have been taken into care. The team is also delivering significant savings by preventing social services from having to escalate their involvement.
More recently we interviewed Volunteering Matters’ about their ‘Volunteers Supporting Families’ (VSF) project, which has supported vulnerable families and children in a number of local authorities since its inception in 2004. VSF is premised on the notion that keeping children safe is the responsibility of the whole community – not only the parents. The project has yielded some very impressive results. By building trust and developing impartial relationships with parents, volunteers help families to make the changes needed to create a safe and stable environment for their children.
We’ve always emphasised that early action can take place at any stage of prevention; Pause is an example of intervention at a very late stage that nonetheless helps to break the traumatic cycle for mothers repeatedly having their children taken into care. Pause gives these women space to reflect, enabling them to overcome challenges and build new skills. Still being piloted, the programmes are already beginning to show promising results, with women being supported into a range of services and no further pregnancies to date. Pause estimate that if they support 100 women for five years, they could deliver possible savings of £10 million for social services.
Key ingredients for acting earlier
There are a number of parallels between these examples that can teach us something about taking an early action approach towards family breakdown.
Firstly, parents’ ability to look after their children is often limited by underlying factors, such as socioeconomic drivers, physical and mental health, and family conflict. Accordingly, preventing breakdown requires a holistic approach which overcomes silo-working and ensures that families get the support they need. As Lisa McFadzean of SIT often points out to social workers “let me threaten you with eviction, redundancy or stop your income altogether. Let me give you a bailiff knocking at the door demanding money. Tell me how effectively you’re going to parent?”
Secondly, using a third party, be they a professional or a volunteer, as broker between families and social services can often encourage parents to engage. Third parties have more time to devote to developing deep value relationships than a social worker does, making parents more willing to disclose information and confide their problems.
And finally, acting early reduces considerable social and financial costs. By ensuring that those who can be helped early are supported, this frees up resources to focus on more complex and serious cases. Enabling people to care for their children and equipping them with strategies to increase their resilience ensures that they are able to lead happy, healthy and more productive lives, whilst contributing more and costing less.
It’s easy to despair when considering the huge challenges currently facing our social services, yet these examples demonstrate that redesigning services can offer a more sustainable future. To achieve this at a systemic level, political and funding structures must be transformed, which is of course easier said than done. Yet we must continue to push for this, given that the choice is to prevent now or pay tomorrow; with children’s futures in the balance, is that a risk we are willing to take?