In Brief

Children’s social care system a ‘Jenga tower held together by Sellotape’

State intervention too often focused on ‘assessment and investigation’ and not support

A devastating review into council-run children’s social care in England has highlighted an “urgent need” for a new approach, describing the current system as a “tower of Jenga held together with Sellotape”.

The Case for Change, an independent report derived from conversations with more than 1,000 young people, families and staff members between March and June this year, found that the current system is “under significant strain” and that state intervention is all too often focused “on assessment and investigation” rather than support.

It comes as a Justice for Families campaign by The Sunday Times has been investigating how “children are being removed from innocent parents for months on end”.

Investigations prioritised over support

Figures cited in the report show that in 2019/20 there were 201,000 enquiries into whether a child was at risk of significant harm. More than 65% (135,000) of these cases resulted in no child protection plan being put in place – suggesting that thousands of families were “subjected to intrusive investigation that uncovered no abuse”, says The Sunday Times. The figure has tripled over the past decade.

The number of newborn babies taken into care has also increased in recent years, doubling over the past eight years in the North East of England. As many as 83.1 per 10,000 live births in the North East resulted in the baby being taken into care, compared with just 24.9 per 10,000 live births in London. Sir James Munby, former head of the High Court’s family division, is quoted in the report as calling it a “deeply troubling postcode lottery”.

Josh MacAlister, chair of the independent review, commissioned by the Department for Education, has called the whole system a “a 30-year-old tower of Jenga held together with Sellotape: simultaneously rigid and yet shaky”.

The report calls for a “pragmatic re-think” and argues that “the care system must build not break relationships”.

“Too often children are moved far from where they have grown up, are separated from their brothers or sisters, are forced to move schools, and have a revolving door of social workers. We are failing to build lifelong loving relationships around these children,” it says.

The influence of the Baby P case

The rise in child abuse investigations and newborns being taken into care suggests a “culture of caution”, reports The Sunday Times. “Some social workers and paediatricians worry that the harm of separating babies from mothers is not considered enough when making risk-averse interventions.”

This caution has to be considered in the context of the fallout from the 2007 death of Peter Connelly, known as Baby P, who died at home in Haringey after sustaining 50 injuries in eight months.

Official reports said that 17-month-old Peter’s “‘horrifying’ death was down to the incompetence of almost every member of staff who came into contact with him”, said the BBC in 2010. Social workers and paediatricians were blamed for missing the toddler’s injuries. Haringey Council fired four social workers involved and one had to go into hiding. 

“Such cases lead to professionals becoming more cautious, a trend made worse by staff turnover,” The Sunday Times says. “New social workers stick to protocols, and the protocols say that a bruise is likely to indicate abuse.”

What will happen next?

Following the publication of The Case for Change, the review will move into its next phase and “explore in more depth” the issues highlighted in the report. This will include focused work in local areas “to understand the perspectives of children, families and those working on the front line”. Recommendations for change will be made next spring, the BBC reports.

But despite such a dramatic need for an urgent overhaul of the current system, reform may be slow. “Countless politicians over the last 20 years, of all political persuasions and hues, have made promises and stood on manifestos promising to reform the social care system,” writes Conservative MP Shaun Bailey on PoliticsHome, adding “none have succeeded”.

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