Three quarters of child protection social workers do not have the time or resources to prevent vulnerable children from coming to serious harm, while child protection ends at 14 in some authorities, research by Community Care has revealed.
A Community Care survey of 600 children’s social workers and managers found that most professionals are struggling to protect vulnerable children as demand for social care services soars and local authority budgets are squeezed.
The vast majority (88%) of respondents said austerity measures in their council have left children at increased risk of abuse, while 73% said they lack the time, support or resources to prevent children from experiencing serious harm.
“My colleagues and I are so worried”
Child protection thresholds have risen over the past year, according to 80% of respondents, making it harder for workers to intervene and protect children from neglect and abuse.
This echoes the findings of a 2011 survey by Community Care, which also found thresholds were rising as services tried to reduce the number of resource-intensive cases.
Social workers said thresholds have risen for even the most serious forms of child abuse. Nearly a third (30%) said thresholds for sexual abuse had risen in their council, while 31% said this of physical abuse and 78% said thresholds for neglect had risen.
Budget cuts, rising child protection referrals and social work vacancies were cited as the main causes of rising thresholds. Many respondents referred to the deaths of four-year-olds Daniel Pelka and Hamzah Khan, which highlighted the dangers of chronic neglect.
Nearly half (47%) of child protection workers had even come under pressure to reclassify section 47 child protection cases as ‘child in need’ cases – a less serious category requiring less intervention. Almost three quarters (72%) said the pressure was due to senior management trying to reduce the number of child protection cases.
“We were told teenagers aged 14-16 can’t have child protection plans”
The survey also revealed that older children and teenagers are likely to be the biggest victims of a system that many experts now believe has reached breaking point. With cash-strapped services having to find new ways to allocate limited resources, professionals told Community Care that unofficial, even unlawful, policies are developing in some areas, denying support and care to teenagers aged 14 and above.
One social worker wrote: “We were told if you have a teenager on your case who is 14-16 years old then they cannot have child protection plans anymore, because they are either deemed ‘capable of voting with their feet’ or ‘able to self-protect’.”
Another admitted: “The council has been tipping children out of care at 16 again to save money. This is putting practice back 20 years. This should never be acceptable. Outcomes are reverting back to the bad old days.”
“There is never any time to stop, think or reflect”
Social workers described their anxiety at being unable to give children the response they need. “My colleagues and I are so worried,” one wrote. “There is never enough time to work in the way you would want to, completing tasks thoroughly and writing up your case notes. The work feels tense and pressured. There is never any time to stop, think or reflect. Having no time to reflect can have a serious impact on our decision making, as can exhaustion. All of which will impact on the children and families we work with.”
Nearly two thirds (64%) of professionals said they were very or quite uncomfortable with the level of risk they are managing in such cases. Only 12 of the 600 surveyed said they felt comfortable and relaxed about the level of risk.
“Time to give social workers the support they need”
Dame Clare Tickell, chief executive of Action for Children, said: “You can’t put a price on a child’s life. It is shocking if social workers are being prevented from protecting children because of budget cuts.
“We know that they want to help before children and families reach crisis point, but these figures suggest they are restricted from doing so. It’s time to give social workers the time and support they really need to get the job done.”
Bridget Robb, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, said: “The reduction in early intervention services, even their decommissioning by some local authorities, means more children are being assessed by social care as children in need or due to safeguarding reasons. They often then present with very complex needs.”
“A phenomenal amount of pressure on everyone”
“This is putting extra pressure on social workers who in many cases are having to cope with budgetary cuts in their own councils. Schools and health visitors are increasingly being required to work with children without the benefit of a social work assessment of their needs and access to their support services,” she said.
Andrew Webb, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said: ”Budget cuts of over £2.7bn to local government has put a phenomenal amount of pressure on everyone working in local government, but as directors of children’s services, we need to ensure that our social workers have the professional confidence and decision making skills to ensure every child receives the services they need to protect them from harm.”
Government denies social workers’ experiences
But a Department for Education spokesperson dismissed the results, claiming they were “simply not true”.
“The actual figures show that in the last year there were more children put on child protection plans than the year before, as well as an increase both in the number of looked-after children and children in need at the end of the year.
“We will continue to focus on overhauling child protection, cutting red tape and improving the skills and experience of social workers so they can make the right decisions for children. The vast majority of councils are protecting child protection budgets more than other services.”