I am grateful for this information provided by Andy Bilson and Elizabeth Hunter Munro about the recent study examining two cohorts of children in a variety of local authorities which revealed the startling difference between different areas in the number of children adopted; these differences were not related to contrasts in affluence/deprivation.
The number of children being investigated is on the rise; so too the numbers in the categories of neglect and emotional maltreatment.
Andy will be joining the Panel for the afternoon discussions on September 15th at the Conway Hall, to consider if risk of future emotional harm is really a justifiable reason to remove chlldren from their families. Please see here for more details and how to buy tickets.
Background to the study
In 2000, the government announced its intention to increase adoption and introduce a new form of permanent placement called special guardianship (SG) to reduce the numbers who stay for long periods in care. All subsequent governments have promoted adoption and, more recently, government has called for the number of adoptions to be doubled. A key aim of this policy is to reduce the number of children looked after, especially those who spend long periods in care, and instead to find permanent homes through one of these two means. By 2017 the rate of adoptions had more than doubled since 1999 and when SG is added almost four times as many children left care to these permanent placements . Between 2000 and 2017, 92,610 children left the care system to these permanent placements . Despite the dip in the annual number of children leaving care to be adopted since the 2014-15 financial year, the number of those aged under 18 who have left care to be adopted is higher than at any time this century . Over the same period the number of children in care has increased by 25% and is higher than for over 30 years and more children are spending long periods in care. This has led to Sir James Munby, the President of the Family Judiciary saying that the family court service in England faced a “clear and imminent crisis” because of large increases in the number of care cases (cited in Bowcott, 2016).
The incoming President, Sir Andrew McFarlane confirmed the continuing crisis and its link to reducing support for families saying:
“It may properly be said that we have reached a stage where the threshold for obtaining a public law court order is noticeably low, whereas, no doubt as a result of the current financial climate, the threshold for a family being able to access specialist support services in the community is conversely, very high” (McFarlane 2018)
Underpinning these trends in care and adoption there have been large increases in the number of children who have been investigated under section 47 of the 1989 Children Act (hereafter referred to as child protection investigations) because of concerns that they may have suffered or be likely to suffer significant harm (Bilson and Martin, 2016). The proportion of referrals and children in need that receive an investigative response has grown significantly in recent years and the biggest impact is felt in areas where deprivation is highest. Bilson et al (2017) estimated that, before the age of five, 22% of all children living in the most deprived 10% of communities were classified as having been in need because of abuse or neglect or the related category of family dysfunction.
In order to understand how these trends relate to each other and whether there are differences in practice between local authorities this paper provides an analysis of data from new freedom of information requests to the Department for Education and local authorities in England concerning two cohorts of children and their experience of children’s services before their fifth birthdays in the years ending 31st March 2012 and 2017.
The study used freedom of information requests with responses from around half of all local authorities to compare involvement with children’s services before their fifth birthday in 2011-12 and 2016-17. The number of children adopted and the number subject of section 47 enquiries increased by 50% in just five years. By 2016-17, 6.4% of all five year-olds, one in every sixteen of the more than 350,000 five-year-olds in these authorities, had been subject of investigations. These changes were not evenly distributed and rates of children who had an adoption decision before the age of five, either being adopted or on a placement order at the age of five, varied significantly across the country with a twelve-fold difference between the highest and lowest rates. These differences were not simply due to differences in deprivation. For example Southampton, which had the highest rate of children adopted or on a placement order at the age of five (1.85% of five-year-olds), had significantly higher rates than its ‘statistical neighbours’ in the study.
The twenty local authorities with the biggest increases in adoption decisions had a 96% increase in the number of children adopted or on placement orders in five years. Across these authorities all aspects of children’s services activity had increased more than in the other 50 local authorities with child protection investigations changing most – they increased by 90% and 7.8% of all children were investigated under section 47 before their fifth birthday. The research thus raises the question of why these authorities had such a large change in concerns about significant harm (child protection plans increased by 52% while investigations increased by 90%) and asks the question of why rates of adoption vary so much between local authorities.
The study confirms earlier findings that 1 in 5 children are referred to children’s services before the age of five but shows rapidly increasing levels of child protection investigation and rapidly growing numbers of children separated from their parents when the cumulative effects of adoptions and special guardianship are taken into account. These trends suggest that the impact of reduced funding for family support and the increasing stress put on families through growing inequality are impacting strongly on children and families.
Neglect and emotional maltreatment
Of particular interest to the discussions at CPConf2018 are the findings about neglect and emotional maltreatment – these were by far the most common reasons for a child protection plan being the key category in three-quarters of plans. Child Protection plans starting because of emotional maltreatment and neglect had increased by 50% from 7,403 children to 11,097 in the five years between these cohorts. Child protection plans thus mostly focussed on these areas rather than physical and sexual maltreatment.
Risk prediction tools in child welfare contexts: the devil in the detail, Emily Keddell 6th April 2018
The Care Crisis Review June 2018 The Family Rights Group – A sector-led Review of the rise in applications for care orders and the number of children in care
Postcode Lottery for Adoption June 2018 The Bureau for Investigative Journalism