Increase in number of children at risk of abuse and neglect

By Joe Lepper

| 25 October 2018

The number of children deemed to be at risk of abuse or neglect has risen markedly over the last year, government figures show.

The number of child protection plans being started by councils has risen. Picture: Shutterstock/posed by model

Department for Education statistics show that councils started 68,770 child protection plans in 2018 - the equivalent of 188 a day - up 3.6 per cent on the 66,410 started in 2017.

As of 31 March this year there were 53,790 children on protection plans, an increase of 2,710, or 5.3 per cent, on the 2017 figure.

It represents the biggest rise since 2014, when the number rose by 5,110, from 43,190 at the end of March 2013 to 48,300 in 2014.

The figures also show a jump in the number of children deemed to be in need of support over the last year, reversing a fall in the figures between 2016 and 2017.

As of 31 March this year there were 404,710 children in need, up four per cent on the previous year, when 389,040 were classed as being in need.

Neglect remains the top reason for children being deemed in need, with it being a factor in 48.1 per cent of cases, but the statistics show that domestic violence and mental health are increasingly among the factors being identified in assessments of children.

Domestic abuse was cited as a factor in 10,890 more cases Between 31 March 2017 and 31 March 2018. Mental health was a factor in a further 18,110 more cases, drug misuse in 8,500 and emotional abuse in 7,930 cases.

The number of referrals to children's social care has also risen, by 1.5 per cent, from 646,120 as of 31 March 2017 to 655,630 in 2018. Meanwhile, the number investigations into child protection concerns, through a section 47 enquiry, has increased by 6.7 per cent over the past year, from 185,680 in 2017 to 198,090 in 2018.

The figures come days after more than 120 organisations warned the government in an open letter that support for vulnerable children and young people is at "breaking point" due to rising demand and funding cuts.

The letter, signed by among others Coram and the National Children's Bureau, urges the government to ensure children and young people are "at the heart of government spending".

Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the Local Government Association children and young people board said councils are struggling to cope with demand.

"It is absolutely vital that councils are able to support families and help children who are at risk of significant harm, but it is also important that help is available before problems escalate to that point," she said.

"But this is being put at risk by the huge and increasing financial pressures children's services are now under, with many councils being pushed to the brink by unprecedented demand.

"We are absolutely clear that unless new funding is found in the Autumn Budget, then these vital services, which keep children safe from harm and the worst abuses of society, will reach a tipping point."

Rachel Dickinson, vice president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, said the statistics show that local authorities "remain highly active in protecting children and young people across the country", despite experiencing significant budget reductions over the last eight years.

"Vital preventative services that we know reduce demand for high-end services have been particularly affected during this period, resulting in an increasing number of children and families in need of help," she said.

"The reasons for the increase are varied and are, in part, due to increasing professional and public awareness of child protection issues, domestic abuse, poor parental mental health and substance misuse are also becoming more common and impacting on children's lives.

"Unless we address the root causes of these issues and invest in children now we cannot begin to turn the tide of demand for statutory services and be a country that works for all children. Government cannot be silent on these important issues in the forthcoming budget."

Natasha Finlayson, chief executive of Become, a charity for children in the care system, said rising levels of need are partly the result of cuts to early help for families, due to government austerity measures.

"The rise can be explained in part by an ever-growing public awareness of the signs of possible child neglect and abuse and a willingness to raise concerns, which is to be welcomed," she said.

"However, the last five years of so-called austerity mean that more and more families are struggling, mainly because of cuts in early intervention services and restructuring of the welfare system.

"Council budgets for early help services designed to prevent families falling into crisis have been reduced by over a quarter in the past five years, with a drop of almost 50 per cent in Sure Start children's centre budgets alone.

"Around 1,000 centres have closed and many of the remaining centres have reduced the number of families they are able to support.

"Without this safety net of early help, the problems faced by struggling families living in poverty are more likely to spiral out of control.

Commenting on the figures, children's minister Nadhim Zahawi said: "Every child, no matter their circumstances, should have the care and support they need for a happy, fulfilling life.

"That's why we are improving children's social care and the child protection system so that children at risk are identified sooner, and across government, tackling the causes of why children are in need - including through our landmark Domestic Abuse Bill to better support victims, cracking down on child exploitation in all of its forms, improving access to specialist mental health support for children and young people, and looking at how we can improve the educational outcomes for children in need.

"We know there are pressures on councils, but today's data shows more vulnerable children and families are getting support to meet their needs."

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