Profound inequalities in child welfare intervention

The chances of children growing up in circumstances which lead to them being looked after by the state or being placed on child protection plans or registers are profoundly unequal both within and between the four UK countries. Children in the most deprived areas in the UK are over 10 times more likely to be in foster or residential care or on protection plans than children in the least deprived areas.

These are the findings of the Child Welfare Inequalities Project (CWIP), funded by the Nuffield Foundation, which has today published its final report. The project was led by Professor Paul Bywaters at the University of Huddersfield and undertaken with the Universities of Coventry, Cardiff, Nottingham, Queens Belfast, Stirling and Edinburgh.

The report finds that in response to large cuts in the funding of local government, the proportion of children’s services budgets being spent on keeping families together has fallen by a third, while more is being devoted to children in care or investigating whether children need to be protected. The most deprived local authorities have been hardest hit by spending cuts, leading to what the authors describe as a “vicious circle” in child welfare provision where the families and children who need support the most are struggling to get it.

Professor Paul Bywaters said:

“What’s unique [about this study] is that no one’s looked at the children’s social care system as an issue of inequality. People are used to thinking about health and educational inequalities for children and what we have shown is that there are profound inequalities in children’s social care as well.

“We think this picture of rising numbers of investigations and children in care calls for a fundamental rethink of how children’s services are delivered and what the priorities are.

“The largest cuts have fallen on the most deprived local authorities in the last 10 years. On average, the authorities with the largest proportion of families living in poverty have seen the biggest cuts in support services. That’s why it’s a vicious circle.”

Marked variations in child welfare across the UK

The research finds significant differences in rates of child welfare interventions and patterns of service delivery in the different UK countries. Northern Ireland has the highest level of child poverty of the four countries, but the lowest proportion of children in residential or foster care or on the child protection register. Intervention rates were around 50% higher in England, 75% higher in Wales and more than twice as high in Scotland. The report concludes that stronger family and community ties and a culture of service provision with greater emphasis on supporting families in material ways appear to be factors in this difference.

The report cites the case of Glasgow City Council as an example of where increased emphasis on supporting families and prioritising those facing greatest hardship and insecurity can reduce the number of children removed from their families. Professor Bywaters said:

“[Glasgow City Council] has been working very hard over the last four years to change focus in services. They have reduced the number of children in care by 500 and doubled spending on family support. This has had a major effect on reducing numbers of children entering care by 60 per cent and the number of placement moves for children in care by 70 per cent.

“They have gone from a vicious to a virtuous circle. They have not taken as many children into care, so social workers have more time to spend with the families they are working with. They can work to keep relationships going and shift funding to supporting families staying together, which is better for children in all sorts of ways.”

Rob Street, Director of Justice at the Nuffield Foundation said:

“Being placed on the child protection register or taken into care are among the most profound interventions the State can have on a child’s life, so we want to be confident that these interventions are being used as fairly and equitably as possible.

“This major study finds that the rate of intervention is markedly affected both by the socio-economic circumstances of families and neighbourhoods, and by the resources and priorities of local services. In shining a light on these issues – and making recommendations for change – the research provides a new way to think about children’s social care.”

Policy impact in all four UK countries

The project has already had major impacts with policymakers in all four countries of the UK and Ofsted, changing the conversation about the role of poverty and inequality in children’s social care. For example, the Welsh Government now has an explicit policy of reducing the numbers of children in care by supporting families better. The Scottish Independent Care Review cited this research in its call for a profound reorientation of children’s social work towards keeping families together. Across England local authorities have begun to change their policies in relation to how they support families in poverty and a suite of materials has been developed by the British Association of Social Workers. In Northern Ireland, the Department of Health produced an Anti-Poverty Framework to inform all social work practice.

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We improve people’s lives by funding research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare and Justice. We also fund student programmes that give young people skills and confidence in science and research.

We offer our grant-holders the freedom to frame questions and enable new thinking. Our research must stand up to rigorous academic scrutiny, but we understand that to be successful in effecting change, it also needs to be relevant to people’s experience.

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