Repeat child protection referrals linked to high caseloads

By Neil Puffett

| 21 July 2017

The likelihood of children being re-referred to child protection services increase when social workers in their local authority have higher caseloads, a study has found.

Across local authorities the probability of children being re-referred varied from between seven per cent and 63 per cent. Picture: Morguefile

A report commissioned by the Department for Education looking into the issue of repeat referrals to children's services departments found that, after six years, more than half (55 per cent) of a sample of children who were referred to children's services in 2010/11 returned to the system at least once.

Across local authorities the probability of children being re-referred varied from between seven per cent and 63 per cent.

The study found that a series of individual characteristics were associated with an increased likelihood of re-referral. These were: younger children; females; disabled children; children initially stepped down as needing no further action; and children referred initially for abuse or neglect, parental disability or illness, family in acute distress, family dysfunction, or socially unacceptable behaviour.

In terms of the role of the local authority, the study found an increased likelihood of re-referral in local authorities with more than 10 children in need per social worker and where referral rates for children were above average.

"Regarding effects at the level of the local education authorities, it is observed that only the interaction between the number of children in need per social worker and the referral rates per 10,000 children can be safely judged as significant.

"This implies that the contextual effect of referral rates per local education authority is moderated by the children in need per social worker rate. The lower the number of children in need per social worker, the lower the effect of referral rates on re-referral propensity."

The study was based on a sample of 90,209 children within 144 local authorities.

The report states that the correlation between caseloads and re-referral rates illustrates how re-referral "might be related to the capacity of local authorities to handle cases at first referral".

"Simply put, if local authorities lack capacity to deal with referral cases, as they might be short-staffed, more children would return for a repeated referral, as their needs might have not been assessed or addressed adequately.

However the report adds that "this does not constitute conclusive evidence" and further insight is required from other sources.

In February a DfE report revealed that children's social work caseloads vary significantly across England.

The average for England was calculated at 16.1 cases per social worker, with the lowest being Lambeth at 7.6, although some councils have caseloads in excess of 30.

The report concludes that the research findings could have practical implications.

"Identifying groups of children with increased risk of re-referral is useful for defining guidelines for closer inspection of such cases at first and subsequent referrals," it states.

It adds that the identification of local authorities with more or less than expected likelihood of re-referral could allow good practice, and poor practice to be highlighted.

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