Future of early help 'under serious threat'

Neil Puffett and Gabriella Jozwiak
Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Services supporting families at an early stage in order to prevent child safeguarding issues are "under serious threat", due to pressure on budgets as a result of rapidly rising numbers of children at risk of serious harm, and short-term funding arrangements, children's services leaders have warned.

Early help can protect children from neglect and improve their long-term outcomes. Picture: ZoomTeam/Adobe Stock
Early help can protect children from neglect and improve their long-term outcomes. Picture: ZoomTeam/Adobe Stock

The Association of Directors of Children's Services annual Safeguarding Pressures research found that an estimated 2.4 million initial contacts were made to children's social care in 2017/18, a 78 per cent increase over the past 10 years.

Meanwhile, the number of children on child protection plans increased by 87 per cent over the same period, and an estimated 75,480 children are currently in care - nearly 3,000 more than in 2017, when the figure was 72,670, and an increase of 24 per cent in 10 years.

The report warns that, despite a strong desire to provide services that support families at an early stage, the sustainability of early help services is a concern for many local authorities.

Unlike adult social care where the Care Act 2014 puts preventative work with adults on a statutory footing, there is no legislative requirement for local authorities to provide preventative services.

"Whilst this allows flexible local solutions to be developed in response to increase demand, it is reliant on discretionary funding which in turn depends on local leaders prioritising early help locally, at a time when other significant pressures are vying for dwindling resources," the report states.

The report reveals that more than half of respondents said the government's £920m Troubled Families programme, which aims to turn around 400,000 families, underpins their early help offer, allowing them to facilitate better joint working and co-location with other professionals and fund much-needed family support workers.

However, this funding is set to end in 2020, with no guarantee of financial support continuing beyond then. The majority of respondents to the survey said this will have a negative impact on early help services, with three quarters stating that "nearly all" early help services would be cut in their local area.

"The precarious nature of funding early help, combined with growth in the child population and the rise in demand driven by greater need, represents a serious threat to the future provision of effective early help," the report states.

Last week a report by the Early Intervention Foundation warned that the way early intervention services are currently developed is too short-term and fragmented, resulting in a lack of co-ordination across government and a failure to ensure schemes with a proven track record of success are rolled out nationwide.

It has called for the government to take a similar approach on the issue as it is on housing, and the environment, and draw up a 25-year plan.

Stuart Gallimore, ADCS president, said: "There is not enough money in the system to meet the level of need we are now seeing, and further cuts are planned. This is compromising our ability to improve children's life chances. 

Gallimore said that some local authorities have benefitted from additional funding by bidding for small, time-limited pots of ringfenced funding, mainly via the Department for Education's Social Care Innovation Programme, adding that other government departments, including the Department of Health, Department of Work and Pensions and the Home Office have "also adopted this piecemeal approach to tackling issues such as parental conflict and parental misuse of alcohol".

"Whilst funding is welcome, this short-termist approach is unlikely to make a meaningful difference to the complex, entrenched social problems so many children and families face. It's time for change, beyond one parliamentary cycle - without this we will never be a country that works for all children."

"We will continue to work tirelessly to support children and families to thrive but government's current approach to funding public services is simply not working, least of all for children. With Brexit taking up so much focus and energy there is a real risk that the serious issues highlighted here in Safeguarding Pressures will remain unaddressed. This cannot happen."

The research found big increases in case numbers within all aspects of safeguarding. Growth in the population of children aged 0-17 by nearly 750,000 over the past decade was found account for some, but not all, of the increase in demand for services, the report states.

Another reason was found to be cuts to universal services such as schools, which have reduced certain support services, resulting in increased demand on council services. And respondents cited changes to early help provision as another driver of increased need.

Nearly half of respondents told ADCS they had remodelled or changed their early help offers in the past two years, for example, to reduce costs.

Meanwhile, the number of early help assessments councils had carried out almost doubled in the past five years, from 105,100 in 2013 to 227,210 in 2018 - an increase of 116 per cent.

Respondents to the survey reported this rise was primarily due to welfare reforms, and the lack of affordable, secure housing, which are having a disproportionate impact on vulnerable families and leading to more children living in poverty and being put at risk of adverse childhood experiences.

The report also found there had been a rise in the number of Section 47 enquiries being carried out - when a child is suspected to be at risk of significant harm - more than doubling from 76,800 in 2008 to 198,910 in 2018. ADCS predicts the number of section 47 enquiries will continue to rise to 250,000 within the next five years.

The research found a main cause for this rise was councils struggling to support parents experiencing issues such as mental health difficulties, substance misuse, or domestic violence.

Respondents said domestic violence was the most prominent factor for children being re-referred to children's social care, with 69 per cent of children taken into care having experienced domestic abuse at home.

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