Child poverty

Poverty is one of the single most important factors leading to the involvement of children’s social services in families’ lives. Over 4 million children live in poverty, a figure that the Child Poverty Action Group believes will increase to over 5 million by 2022 [83].

The relationship between poverty and the likelihood that a child will be in need of support from social services is complex, but ultimately, it is clear that poverty makes the job of being a parent much harder.

Certain families are particularly likely to experience poverty, as evidenced by statistics compiled by the Child Poverty Action Group. For example, children in lone parent families or minority ethnic families are more likely to live in poverty (nearly half do).

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services reports that parental mental ill-health, substance abuse and domestic violence among parents are rising [10]. All of these factors are associated with poverty in a reflexive relationship, that is, parental ill-health, substance abuse and domestic violence make poverty more likely, but also stem from it.

Over 40% of children in households containing three or more children live in poverty. Yet this is not because parents in these families are less likely to work; 7 in 10 children living in poverty have parents who are employed [83]. However, being a single parent, having a larger family or being from a minority ethnic background makes finding and keeping well-paid work more difficult.

In turn, living in poverty makes children more susceptible to physical and emotional ill-health, developmental delays and forms of SEND, social alienation, and curtailing of life chances [84].

Having a child who is facing these hurdles make the task of parenting more difficult, and increases the possible need for social service support.

Availability of support

In response to funding cuts, local authorities have dramatically scaled back their discretionary preventative services (sometimes called “early help”) in order to maintain spending on statutory “reactive” children’s social care which they are obliged to provide. This is well demonstrated by National Audit Office analysis [18].

Local authorities must also appoint Virtual School Heads (VSH) whose role is to ensure the authority fulfils its duty to promote the education of children looked after and children who were previously looked after. “Virtual Schools” do not physically exist. Rather, Virtual Schools will, for example, collate and maintain up-to-date information about children looked after in school or college (or who were previously looked after), advocate for these children, and liaise with professionals working with these children in order to provide suitable educational support [85]. However, in its 2012 review of Virtual Schools, Ofsted found that provision varied greatly between local authorities [86]. In some local authorities, small teams of two people primarily commissioned services; in others, Virtual Schools offered training and even teaching support. Ofsted notes that “budget constraints had led to a significant reduction in the capacity of the Virtual School in some local authorities” [87].

Changing legislative requirements

Reforms to SEND, and the introduction of initiatives such as “Staying Put” (giving care leavers the option to stay with their foster families) have increased the number of children and young people in need of support and consequent pressure on local authorities. These increases have not been adequately reflected in funding.

Attitude to risk

Some argue that a culture of defensiveness has developed among social workers, who work in a sector with a high emphasis on compliance and who want to “do things right” rather than “doing the right thing” [88]. Ruth talked about this in relation to monitoring and recording incidents of defiant behaviour, saying that staff are anxious to log “everything” without reflecting on whether recording the incident is beneficial, or taking the time to understand the reasons for the behaviour. Ben’s social worker insisted on “doing things right” and meeting him at college, even though this was not something Ben wanted. Annie reflects that “doing the right thing” might have been seeking to compromise on the location in order to accommodate Ben’s understandable self-consciousness.

Risk aversion can be exacerbated by tragic events such as those surrounding Victoria Climbie, Peter Connelly (“Baby P”) and Daniel Pelka - cases in which horrific abuse was allowed to take place. Similarly, risk aversion is an understandable response to recognition that sex abuse cases in Rochdale, Bradford and Manchester were avoidable and that children had fallen through the cracks when social services, the police, education and health repeatedly missed opportunities to intervene.

Whilst such incidents rightly cause shock and alarm, in her review of child protection, Professor Eileen Munro highlighted how these events can sustain a blame culture (especially when the media or politicians get involved). This makes it harder to learn lessons because the cases are seen as someone’s fault, rather than reflective of systemic practises. This can also mean professionals are less likely to admit to mistakes in future [89].

Pressures on the workforce

The residential workforce in England is underqualified and undervalued in comparison with many other European countries. Petrie et al. found that in contrast with Belgium, Germany, France and Denmark, England’s residential workforce was the lowest qualified, typically to level 3 (A-level equivalent) rather than degree-level [31]. Furthermore, qualifications tend to focus more on mechanistic aspects of care giving, rather than supporting children’s holistic development, something advocates of the social pedagogy model claim it offers. However, in his review of children’s residential care, Sir Martin Narey contests the idea that higher qualifications are necessary, arguing instead that temperament is more important:

The priority... should be to recruit staff with the right qualities, temperament and resilience and then help them to develop and, as part of that development, to gain an understanding of the type of children they care for. [90]

Others acknowledge that training and qualifications can make a difference, when they are the right training and qualifications [31]. However, there is some scepticism about the effectiveness of social care qualifications in England [28].

Practitioners working in children’s care in the UK are more likely than their European counterparts to feel like technicians, with those working in England more likely to feel their job emphasises procedural tasks and behaviour management, over and above therapeutic work, and relational work with families [30]. This is perhaps reinforced by the fact that nearly half of all the 31,000 full time-equivalent children and family social workers in England are not in case-holder roles, instead holding managerial or supervisory positions [91]. This seems symptomatic of a system that prioritises accountability and paperwork (doing things right) over and above caring for children (doing the right thing).

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