“Increase in child protection investigations, but fewer finding abuse”

By Tristan Donovan

| 11 June 2018

An increasing proportion of children are subject to official child protection investigations before their fifth birthday, despite a drop in the number of probes uncovering abuse or neglect, an academic has found.

Professor Andy Bilson of the University of Central Lancashire used Freedom of Information requests to collect information on child protection and adoption rates of children born in 2006/07 and 2011/12 across 70 local authorities.

The data showed that children born in 2011/12 were 35 per cent more likely to have a section 47 investigation before they turn five compared with 2006/07 children. In total 6.4 per cent of children born in 2011/12 had a section 47 investigation, compared with 4.7 per cent of children born in 2006/07.

Bilson said: "It's a frightening increase and although there has been a big increase in investigations, fewer of them are finding abuse than they did in the past.

"In other words, more children are being put through an investigation that doesn't lead to a child protection plan and more parents are being put through the wringer."

The data also showed a 21 per cent rise in the rate of children in care who were adopted or on a placement order by the age of five in the 70 local authorities. However, Bilson said most of the change was driven by just 20 of the 70 councils.

"For these 20 local authorities there was a 96 per cent increase," he said.

"That's huge, it's doubled. In these local authorities there has also been a much bigger increase in every aspect of children's services contacts."

Bilson said more research is needed but speculated that there are two possible explanations for the rises in these 20 councils. The first is that there has been a sharp rise in the number of families having problems but Bilson says the authorities do not stand out in terms of deprivation.

"The other explanation is that maybe the response of those child protection systems to what's coming into their front door has changed so that they are much more likely than they were five years ago to respond with section 47 investigations or have changed how they recognise abuse."

Bilson said the findings don't show whether the rise is good or bad but do warrant further investigation.

"Directors of children's services need to look very carefully at what is happening in their authority," he said.

"We know directors are feeling the squeeze because of cuts in finances and reductions in their ability to respond to children in need but if you don't respond to those things the danger is you end up with more children in care and a very expensive child protection system.

"Councils need to invest in the alternatives to care because it's going to cost them a lot more very soon if they are not careful."