Up until very recently, there had been little sign that the effort and investment in new ways of working with families on the edge of care was making a difference - nationally, applications by English councils to commence care proceedings rose 30 months in a row between June 2014 and November 2016. However, that streak was finally broken when applications in December 2016 fell below the level of that seen in December 2015 (see graphic).
Trends in care applications
The number of care applications received by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) for the first nine months of 2016/17 stands at 10,958, a figure already higher than the annual total for 2013/14. In the first nine months of 2016/17, the previous highest monthly applications total - 1,237 in February 2015 - has been surpassed five times.
The upwards trend that began in June 2014 was initially gradual but began to pick up pace in June 2015, with only August and September that year recording monthly totals below the 1,000 mark. The total figure for 2015/16 was 15 per cent higher than 2014/15, with the rise for the 12 months of 2016/17 on track to be greater still.
When looking at rises in applications in the context of the child population as a whole, a similar picture emerges. These figures, compiled annually by Cafcass, compare rates of care applications per 10,000 children in England based on data from the Census. They show that rates rose from eight per 10,000 children in 2009/10 to 9.7 per 10,000 by 2012/13, and despite falling to 9.2 in 2013/14 rose again to 9.7 in 2014/15 and reached 11 per 10,000 in 2015/16 (see graphics).
As is often the case, the national figures mask significant local and regional differences. In 2015/16, 68 per cent of authorities increased their rate of care applications per 10,000 child population, while 31 per cent saw a decline and one per cent no change.
The largest percentage increase for a single local authority was 134 per cent in Rutland, and largest percentage fall being 41 per cent in the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. A third of London's 33 councils reported a fall in applications, as did six out of the 10 councils in Greater Manchester. By contrast, 10 of the 12 authorities in the North East region reported rises.
The factors for these regional and local differences are many and varied, but Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas suggests the variability may reflect differences in practice, models of working and decision making (see Cafcass box). However, when two-year trends are examined, just 11 authorities (seven per cent) have reported consecutive decreases in the last two years, while 46 (30 per cent) have reported consecutive increases over the past two years. This indicates how difficult it is to maintain reductions over more than a single year and that the trend overall is upwards.
Impact of care applications rise
Last September, England's most senior family court judge Sir James Munby said the rises in care applications were creating an imminent "crisis" in the care system, with courts struggling to cope with the demands being made of them, and little in the way of a strategy for addressing the situation.
"The immediate implications of this crisis are twofold," he said. "First, we have, at least in the short-term, to struggle to cope with our existing resources. Second, these very large increases in the number of care cases are, inevitably, driving up very significantly the cost of legal aid."
Munby expects annual care applications to reach 20,000 by 2020 unless fundamental changes are made to the way social care operates. Like Douglas, Munby advocates greater emphasis on initiatives that aim to solve problems early rather than dealing with them once they are entrenched.
He cited the Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) and Pause Project, which works with mothers who have had children previously taken into care to try and prevent repeat removals, as examples of work that should be continued and expanded.
"FDAC, Pause and similar projects are, at present, the best hope, indeed, in truth, the only hope, we have of bringing the ever increasing numbers of care cases under control," Munby said.
According to Department for Education data, the number of children in care has risen from 67,000 in 2012 to 70,400 in 2016 - although research by the Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS) puts the figure at more than 71,000 (see ADCS view). Analysis of the figures shows the proportion of children placed in care due to neglect and abuse fell from 62 to 60 per cent between 2012 and 2016. At the same time, the proportions looked after as a result of family dysfunction and absent parenting rose from 14 to 16 per cent and five to seven per cent respectively.
The recent rise in the numbers in care saw children's services spend £280m more on looked-after children and safeguarding in 2015/16. Meanwhile, analysis of local authority Section 251 returns shows early intervention spending fell from £3.2bn in 2010 to £1.4bn in 2015, with further reductions reported in 2015/16 in early help services such as children's centres.
Causes and outlook
Munby says social workers and children's social care services are "working as hard as they can" and that little is known about the reasons behind the rising trends. There are also few consistent trends in children's services demand data. The proportion of children looked-after due to neglect and abuse - the largest category - has remained relatively stable, yet councils report a significant upturn in the number of referrals for this. ADCS's Safeguarding Pressures Phase 5 research showed abuse and neglect referrals rose from 45 to 53 per cent between 2013/14 and 2015/16. This coincides with rises in child poverty and homelessness over the past two years.
However, the ADCS research also showed large reductions in numbers of initial contacts, referrals and children in need over that timeframe, although the numbers on child protection plans and subject to Section 47 child protection enquiries rose by three and five per cent respectively. The report points to significant variations in activity between different areas, leading some to conclude that local systems and practice are major factors influencing demand and the number of cases progressing to care proceedings.
According to the research, there were an estimated 207,636 early help assessments carried out by local authorities in 2015/16, a rise of 11 per cent rise compared to 2013/14. Significantly, more authorities than previously asserted that effective early help services were having an impact on stemming demand and that these were being targeted at specific groups in need. This could suggest that, despite the funding pressures, children's services are beginning to shift activity to early intervention. It could also explain why a quarter of authorities participating in the ADCS study projected a reduction in safeguarding activity over the next two years, with a further 24 per cent expecting it to level off. The ability to "do things differently" was the main reason given for this optimism.
When to intervene
While the process social workers follow on how to use care proceedings is set out in legislation, deciding when a threshold has been met for issuing proceedings is not always black and white. Where a threshold lies can be influenced by national politics, the media, public sentiment, local policy and changes in management. A critical incident that threatens the child's safety or welfare will usually result in proceedings being triggered, but in some cases parental failures are more low-level and long-standing. These borderline cases, often seen in neglect, are the hardest for practitioners to decide upon, according to a recent study (see research evidence).
Care proceedings will only start after extensive efforts to keep the child with their family. If these efforts have failed then the parents will be invited to a pre-proceedings meeting as a final attempt to avoid going to court. Here, the local authority, parents and the parents' lawyer discuss how the parents can change the way they look after their child and what support the local authority can give. If both sides agree, they will write a formal agreement that both the parents and the local authority have to follow. If these efforts fail, a care application is made to the family court by the authority. If the court agrees such action is necessary, parental responsibility is handed to the authority, the legal definition of which is included in Section 3 of the Children Act 1989 (England and Wales).
Before a child is taken into care, the local authority will produce a plan for the future care of the child. The parents and the child should be involved in developing the care plan, which should show how the child's needs would be met in care, including their health, education and contact with family members. This is defined in Section 31a of the Children Act 1989 (England and Wales).
Across a series of hearings, the court will then decide what care order is required, its length and how the child's needs will be best met. Under changes introduced in 2013, care proceedings should take no longer than 26 weeks, although this can be extended for up to eight weeks in the most complicated cases.
Cafcass's Douglas questions whether in some instances care orders are being applied for and granted without sufficient thought given to care planning. This, he says, is a factor in why more than 15 per cent of children on a care order remain living with their parents.
Types of intervention
The introduction of the 26-week care proceedings target has been a key factor in increasing the focus on early help, with social workers now looking at ways to address problems earlier in a child's trajectory to care. The high costs associated with legal proceedings and local authority care has also created an added incentive to find ways to work with families on the edge of care sooner. Efforts have focused on particular high-risk groups, such as parents subject to recurrent care proceedings in the past (see research evidence).
Some authorities have prioritised resources towards early help, while others have reconfigured their children's social care teams to create a seamless service so that professionals stay with families from assessment through to delivering support so that stronger relationships can be forged (see Brighton & Hove practice example). A similar approach has been created in Greater Manchester, where the charity Action for Children is working with a number of authorities using multisystemic therapy to help children with problem behaviour (see practice example). Both initiatives hope that by working intensively with children and families when problems are first emerging, solutions other than care proceedings can be found.
A number of other initiatives, such as the Pause Project, have been developed through the DfE's Children's Social Care Innovation Fund programme over the past two years with the aim of helping address the underlying factors leading to mothers having multiple children taken into care. Another project is the "pre-proceedings" version of the Family Drug and Alcohol Court. Pilots of Early FDAC are working with expectant parents who have had at least one child taken into care to break the cycle of recurrent care proceedings (see practice example).
Cafcass is also at the forefront of work to reduce care proceedings. It is piloting an approach where family court advisers work alongside social workers in pre-proceedings to improve assessments of need in an effort to give parents the best chance to tackle problems without having to take the child into care (see practice example).
With demands in the safeguarding system showing little sign of easing, innovative prevention programmes such as these need to deliver results to help avoid the care crisis predicted by some experts.
CAFCASS: LEARN FROM AREAS REDUCING CARE NUMBERS
By Anthony Douglas, chief executive, Cafcass
Paradoxically, while care applications are rising by record percentages at the national level, at the same time an increasing number of local authorities are reducing their numbers of looked-after children by equally staggering double-digit percentages.
To do this well means managing the risks to children well and the anxieties of fellow professionals. Issuing care proceedings can bring a collective sigh of relief, but unless the threshold for removal is met and unless there is a strong and viable care plan in place, local authorities may well end up issuing a care order but with the child left in much the same situation at the end of proceedings. This is partly why in some local authorities, upwards of 15 per cent of children are placed at home with their parents on care orders. The clamour from the multi-agency system to remove a child is not the same as there being a clear evidence base that the child can benefit from a permanence placement outside the family.
Second, local authorities need an internal mechanism through which to assess evidence objectively and to manage risk, so the responsibility is held corporately, not by individual social workers. As up to half of frontline social workers in some local authorities are newly qualified, risk sharing between practitioners and their managers is a central feature of those local authorities who are managing risk well. The mechanism may be a Support Panel, a Care Panel or a Resource Panel which can contain risk, allocate resources and draw in other agencies to take a meaningful part in the daily delivery of edge of care plans.
Third, the local authority must have services in place to help families bring themselves back from the edge of care. Examples include the One Story programme in Brighton and Hove, which is based on strengths-based practice and a refresh of case recording practice (see practice example); the Pause project, where the cycle of repeat removals of children from the same parent has been successfully disrupted; and the insourcing of targeted early intervention services in Islington, which more authorities are looking to provide, so that their practitioners are able to offer a range of interventions themselves rather than be dependent on specialist but often expensive external providers.
What these local authorities have in common is a pre-proceedings infrastructure which is being built up and strengthened. This could easily be scaled up to become a national framework; principles are easy to follow and roll out. There is a clear case for investment in the short-term to provide the impetus to start reducing numbers. Essex has shown how a funding formula can work successfully, based upon using the same pot of money in a different way.
As much time needs to be spent understanding how an increasing number of local authorities are bucking the trend and reducing their numbers of looked-after children, as is being spent on understanding the reasons behind the seismic increases. There is a momentum to do something creative and constructive about this, which is encouraging.
ADCS: LOCAL GOVERNMENT MUST TAKE THE LEAD
By Dave Hill, president, Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS)
Wherever possible, children are best brought up within their own families. This is a core principle of the Children Act 1989. While this is possible for the large majority, over 71,000 children and young people are currently in our care, a figure expected to grow as ADCS's own Safeguarding Pressures Phase 5 research shows that children and young people's needs are becoming more complex and urgent. We know that care can be a positive thing for some and that the longer a child is in care the better their educational outcomes. But the sheer number of children coming into local authority care is placing the system under immense pressure.
Throughout my presidency I have argued for doing things differently to reduce the flow of children coming into care so that we can do even better for those children and young people we're already caring for. But some councils are seeing their local early help offers and preventative services being dramatically reduced as a result of local budgets having to be stretched further when demand continues to rise. In a bid to protect statutory services in some areas early help and other non-statutory services have been reduced, so in some cases it's no longer possible to provide vital support for vulnerable families before problems worsen. This is resulting in many more children and young people requiring more serious interventions.
Despite this, we've seen a number of councils remodelling their services, including refocusing resources into edge-of-care services and working with families to support them to better manage their children's behaviours to prevent family breakdown and enable children to remain within their families. In Essex, we've reduced the number of children in care by around 600 by adopting a strategy of working intensively together with families to help them become more resilient and stay together.
Clearly, we can't go on as we are. While there will always be cases where children will need to be taken into care there is a need for local government to lead the debate about taking fewer children into care so that we can make more meaningful interventions in the lives of those already in our care. To do this safely we need a long-term view of how we invest in early help and prevention aimed at tackling the root causes of issues, not just the symptoms.
This article is part of CYP Now's special report on preventing care proceedings. Click here for more