Analysing Repeated Referrals to Children's Services in England

This study set out to discover the factors behind children receiving multiple referrals to local authority children's services. The analysis focused on 498,867 children referred during the financial year 2010/11.


The study found nearly 15 per cent of children referred to children's services during that time were re-referred in the same year. By 2011/12 some 30 per cent had been re-referred and the proportion reached 50 per cent by 2015/16, implying that within six years half of all the children referred to children's services returned at least once. The re-referral rate varied widely across local authorities.

Around nine per cent of all children in the sample - 17 per cent of all re-referred children - were re-referred in at least three years out of the six years they were tracked by the study.

For 31 per cent of the children re-referred during 2010/11, no further action was deemed necessary. This decreased to 23 per cent of those re-referred in 2011/12 and continued to decline, reaching 18 per cent in 2014/2015.

The most common reason for children to be initially referred to children's services was abuse and neglect (40 per cent) followed by family dysfunction (18.7 per cent) and family in acute distress (10.4 per cent). The closer re-referral took place in relation to the original referral, the more likely the reason for re-referral was the same. This was the case for 70 per cent of children re-referred within a year. This falls to around half of re-referred children in 2012/13 and stays at around that proportion for those re-referred later.

Around eight per cent of the sample became looked-after children following their original referral. Around a quarter of these had periods of care lasting up to a week, while around half had periods of care lasting two months or less. Ten per cent spent at least a year in care.

Children who had been stepped down as needing no further action in their first referral were more likely to be re-referred than children who had not. Disabled children were noticeably more likely to be re-referred than non-disabled children when the initial reason for referral was not their disability. When the primary need of a child was disability, they were markedly less likely to be re-referred. Girls were slightly more likely than boys to be re-referred.

A child's age was an important factor when it came to re-referral: the older the child the less likely they were to be re-referred.

The research found the likelihood of children returning to the social care system increased rapidly for children living in local authorities with more than 10 children in need per social worker. The report suggests that if local authorities lack capacity to deal with referral cases, more children will return for a repeated referral, as their needs might have not been assessed or addressed adequately.



Re-referrals can be costly to local authorities but can also be stressful and harmful to the children as well as parents or guardians. Multiple referrals can be detrimental to children's development. 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, say the researchers. Identifying local authorities with more or less than the expected likelihood of re-referral can help determine best practice as well as investigate ineffective services.


Referrals and Child Protection in England: One in Five Children Referred to Children's Services and One in Nineteen Investigated Before the Age of Five, Andy Bilson and Katie Martin, The British Journal of Social Work, May 2016. This paper shows 22.5 per cent of children born in 2009/10 were referred to social care before their fifth birthday.

Child Protection and Re-referrals Involving Serious Concerns: A Follow-up Study of 400 Referrals Closed by Social Services Departments, Donald Forrester, Child & Family Social Work, July 2008. This study considers patterns of re-referrals involving serious concerns about a child.

Children in Need of Help or Protection, Sir Amyas Morse, National Audit Office, October 2016. Examines the DfE's progress in improving child protection services, including re-referral rates.

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