Independent Review of Children’s Social Care

Case for Change

Executive Summary


The experiences and outcomes of children and families tell us that children’s social care needs to change. We should not casually accept that a small number of children and families have such poor life experiences and outcomes. This is not a criticism of the many dedicated professionals who work to improve the lives of children and families, nor is it a criticism of any individual government -but it is a call to action. Improving children’s social care will take us a long way to solving some of the knottiest problems facing society -improving children’s quality of life, improving the productivity of the economy, and truly levelling up.

At present the system is under significant strain: more families are being investigated, more children are in care and costs are spiralling as money is increasingly spent on crisis intervention. Underlying this there are significant and concerning inequalities -with deprivation, ethnicity and prior care experience all associated with increased likelihood of state intervention. In the case of deprivation, we have now reached a point where the weight of evidence showing a contributory causal relationship between income, maltreatment and state intervention in family life is strong enough to warrant widespread acceptance (Bywaters, Bunting, et al., 2016). This does not mean children’s social care is powerless. The fact that services can either deepen or alleviate these inequalities should grip us with a focus on levelling up outcomes for the poorest children and families through children’s social care.

Improving children’s social care is not something that national government, local authorities or other partners can achieve on their own. The statutory children’s social care “system” is only the tip of the iceberg: promoting and protecting children’s welfare and rights must be a priority that goes beyond any single agency. Government’s primary focus should be on supporting the resources of families and the wider community to keep children safe as close to a family environment as is possible, whilst still acting decisively and swiftly where children require protection. Too often we are allowing situations to escalate and then being forced to intervene too late, severing children’s relationships and setting them on a worse trajectory.

We need to do more to help families

In the majority of cases, families become involved with children’s social care because they are parenting in conditions of adversity, rather than because they have caused or are likely to cause significant harm to their children. We have a shared obligation to help families raise their children. Communities can also play a key role in supporting families, in some cases removing the need for statutory intervention. When the state steps in, too often the focus is on assessment and investigation not support. In the year ending March 2020, there were just under 135,000 investigations where a child was suspected of suffering significant harm did not result in a child protection plan -three times as many as just ten years ago(Department for Education, 2021d). The review has consistently heard from parents and families who came to social care looking for support, but their experience of being assessed added stress to an already difficult situation without meaningful support being offered. In part, this is because there are fewer local services to support families: between 2012/13-2019/20, spending on non-statutory children’s services decreased by 35% in real terms (Department for Education, 2021b) and there are also pressures on wider support such as safe accommodation for victims of domestic abuse (Davidge et al., 2021), mental health (Care Quality Commission, 2020) and substance misuse services (Black, 2020). But it is also because there is an inherent tension between the objectives of a service that protects children and tries to support families.

Investing in family help matters –but more money alone is not a silver bullet. There must be a clearer definition of what ‘family help’ is, it must be high quality, based on good evidence and those doing this work must be confident holding risk. We have offered an initial definition of a family help service to start this conversation. This description is a starting point for debate which we will evolve in the next stage of the review.

We need a child protection system that keeps children safe through more effective support and decisive action

Social workers have to make complex and challenging decisions every day, balancing how to protect a child from harm, whilst keeping families together where possible. We need a system that gives them the skills and confidence to do this. Yet, process continues to dominate over direct work with families, and decision making and risk assessment are too often underpinned by a lack of knowledge. Information sharing problems remain across agencies despite decades of reviews calling for greater sharing.

The system particularly fails teenagers who face harm outside of the home. Teenagers are the fastest growing group in both child protection and care (Department for Education, 2021d), and many experience serious harm or die. There was a 60% increase in the number of10-19 year olds being treated for knife wounds between 2012/13 and 2017/18 (Campbell & The Guardian, 2019). Government departments and safeguarding partners have failed to have an effective response to the risks that teenagers face. Different parts of the children’s social care, police, education, justice and health systems are responding differently to the same teenagers. Accountability for keeping these teenagers safe is lacking.

When children have met the threshold of child protection and are at risk of serious harm, we need to be more decisive in providing effective support for families, and in making decisions if it is clear that support will not lead to enough change. Court proceedings are by their nature adversarial and have high human and economic costs -more work is needed to promote solution finding and non-adversarial approaches before children and families are taken to court. Shared and supported care options could help keep families safely together without the need for breaking family ties. We should find stable alternative homes for children where they cannot remain with their birth parents. Kinship arrangements and adoption can offer children permanence outside of care. The government approach to adoption shows the positive impact of focused action. A similar level of focus on kinship is needed to promote and support its use and ensure that more children grow up with carers who already know and love them.

More needs to be done to support parents who have their children removed. Repeat care proceedings make up 20% of cases in the public care system, yet intensive support for parents at risk of repeat proceedings is patchy (Harwin et al., 2018)2. Better practice and alternative approaches are needed where children return home after a period of being in care to stop cycles of re-entry and trauma -nearly 30% of children who left care in 2006/07 returned to care within five years (Department for Education, 2013).

The care system must build not break relationships

There are also more than 80,000 Children Looked After (Department for Education, 2021e) now for whom we have an important responsibility, as well as a currently unknown number of care experienced adults in the country who we have failed to examine our relationship to.

Many of the current problems we see in the care system are symptomatic of the state trying and failing to provide a relationship as a service. The review will consider whether the state should instead play the role of enabling lifelong loving relationships for children in care.

Care too often weakens rather than strengthens relationships: many care leavers report having small support networks, 6% had no one providing emotional support and nearly one in ten young people only had support from their leaving care worker (Briheim-Crookall et al., 2020). Too often children are moved far from where they have grown up, are separated from their brothers or sisters, are forced to move schools, and have a revolving door of social workers. We are failing to build lifelong loving relationships around these children.

The “placement market” is broken: we need a pragmatic re-think with all options considered. The review is working alongside the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to look at this issue. We need to ask, if we were creating care today that was good enough for all our children, what would it look like?

Care for children who need secure accommodation -some of our most vulnerable children -reflects short term siloed thinking across government. Urgent action is needed given long standing issues and growing pressures on secure accommodation, although more homes are not a long term answer. There are particular issues for children in youth custody and government must step up its action to deliver on existing commitments. The state is not a pushy enough parent when it comes to getting access to the support children in care need. We have repeatedly heard from parents, carers and care experienced adults that children entering care are not getting the mental health support they need. Education can be transformational for children and there is more to be done to support children in care to achieve their potential.

Important birthdays for children in care are often accompanied by unequal and insufficient help. The support young people receive is too inconsistent and based on where they live, the homes they are in and their specific care history. There is much more we can do to help children who have been in care progress to further and higher education or find a job or home, acknowledging it might sometimes take longer than their peers. We need to do more to combat the stigma attached to care experience and to help care experienced adults to understand their identity.

Change will not happen without addressing the system causes

To make change happen across the areas identified in the report we need to address some of the underpinning issues in the system.

The cost of children’s social care is escalating and funding is increasingly skewed towards acute services and away from effective help (Department for Education, 2021b). It is getting harder to meet children’s needs within the current system and if we don’t take urgent action to prevent this, costs will continue to rise and the situation of children will deteriorate. There is no situation in the current system where we will not need to spend more -the choice is whether this investment is spent on reform which achieves long term sustainability and better outcomes, or propping up an increasingly expensive and inadequate existing system. We don’t do enough to understand the collective costs of poor outcomes for children in contact with social care when we think about the case for investment.

There is insufficient national coordination of policy for children in contact with children’s social care and more effective strategic direction and coordinated central government policy is essential to meet the needs of children and families.

This disjointed national picture translates into a similarly complicated picture locally. There have been promising reforms to multi-agency safeguarding arrangements in recent years, but a follow-up review of the implementation of these partnerships has highlighted inconsistent leadership and commitment by all partners (including central government) to support and fund multi-agency safeguarding (Wood, 2021).

The system continues to be bureaucratic and risk averse. Despite some action locally and nationally, the underlying behaviours identified by Munro remain. One in three of all social workers in children’s services do not work directly with children or families (Department for Education, 2021a). Even those in direct practice spend less than 1/3rd of their time with families (Department for Education, 2020a). This is a staggering misuse of the greatest asset that children’s social care has -its social workers.

There is more to do to recruit, retain and support social care staff, including a high quality social work workforce. Burnout is high (Department for Education, 2020a), supervision is often infrequent and inadequate, the use of agency staff is costly (Kantar, 2020), and leadership turnover is too high (ADCS, 2021).

Children’s social care has been subject to numerous reviews and strategies in recent decades, yet actually achieving change that improves the lives of children and families has been stubbornly difficult. “Top down” approaches to reform focused on statutory duties and entitlements are well intentioned but can have negative and unintended consequences, adding to the bureaucracy and inflexibility of the system. “Bottom up” approaches to develop and spread good practice have played an important role, but there is a limit to the progress that can be made without changes to the fundamental drivers and forces in the system. To achieve progress we suggest more systemic change will be needed, rather than making tweaks or piling more bricks onto an already wobbly and fragile Jenga tower. This is why this document asks big questions about how the system should change.