Rethinking how we protect young children at risk of abuse and neglect

Jordan Rehill, researcher, and Carey Oppenheim, early childhood lead, the Nuffield Foundation
Tuesday, April 27, 2021

The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care acknowledges that the current system of child welfare and support needs to be re-evaluated. It provides an opportunity to rethink how the system is organised and how it responds to children in need of care and support.

Services are set to face massive demand. Picture: Akira_Photo/Adobe Stock
Services are set to face massive demand. Picture: Akira_Photo/Adobe Stock

In our new evidence review, Protecting Young Children at Risk of Abuse and Neglect, we outline how policymakers and practitioners can better support young children and their families.

Even though a lot of data is collected on children in the child welfare system, we often lack the data needed to inform policy and practice in a satisfactory way. Department for Education figures show us how many children under five are currently looked after in England (14,980 children in 2020). We can see the primary reason they became looked after, their legal status, and their broad ethnic group. However, nationally, we can’t see how many children in care attended nursery or an early years setting and how many children in care reached a “good” level of development before starting school as measured by the Early Years Foundation Stage. We also see very little about their parents.

The next decade will see both universal and targeted services under massive demand and resource pressures – possibly more so than in recent years. Without fundamental restructuring, services could become more protectionist, with increased reliance on ringfencing to keep them going. Collaboration will very quickly fall away unless it becomes a bedrock principle.

The Leadsom Review is an important first step in this regard, emphasising the need for a joined-up, universal offer for all young children, including the most vulnerable. However, the scope of the review is largely restricted to health services and ignores the wider universal services that help to support children and their families.

Ambitious approach

To fully support our youngest children a more ambitious approach is needed. We must encourage and challenge policymakers and local authorities to share information, data, and insights between both universal and targeted services as well as between adult and child services. We must ensure that young children and families at particularly acute risk are supported to access universal services at the earliest possible point, and records of their engagement with services, as well as their development and early achievement, are shared.

The latest iteration of the Troubled Families programme – Supporting Families – promotes multi-agency working, data sharing and reaching struggling families early on, but, critically, it overlooks the role of deprivation and poverty in tipping families into vulnerability. There is strong, growing evidence on the relationship between poverty, inequality, abuse and child welfare interventions during early childhood. Recent Department for Work and Pensions figures show that 2.16m children living in families where the youngest child was aged under five years were living in relative poverty in 2020, up 46,000 from 2019.

Some academics argue that we must rethink our understanding of what drives demand for children’s social care services, and how we construct the supply of services in response. Front line staff and managers should consider families’ material circumstances and other difficulties as part of their assessment, planning and intervention processes. Social workers are only one part of a complex jigsaw, and much broader system changes are required for their work to be supported and effective.

For the youngest children at risk of abuse and neglect, the research is clear. Reduced budgets, siloed working and poor communication between health and social care present serious issues. There is also a lack of recognition of the importance of providing early support for parents and giving them enough time to demonstrate change. Research from the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory has shown that for newborns, frontline agencies need to ensure a consistent, earlier response during pregnancy so that mothers, fathers, and wider family members are given timely support, which may catalyse change.

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