Education Committee - Children first: the child protection system in EnglandFurther written evidence submitted by Action for Children

Executive Summary

The proportion of children who experience neglect in the UK remains at an unacceptably high level with studies suggesting that up to 10% of children in the UK experience neglect at some point in their lives.

Action for Children, working in partnership with the University of Stirling, has conducted a comprehensive review of responses to child neglect across the UK. “Child neglect in 2011”, enables us to fill in the gaps that currently exist about the situation for, and response to, child neglect. Key findings include:

Neither government nor local authorities know exactly how many children are being neglected.

Over half (51%) of social workers, and a third of police officers (36%) report feeling “powerless” to intervene in suspected cases of child neglect. For social workers this figure has risen from just over a third since 2009.

Social workers gave the main barriers to intervention as: the point at which they could intervene in cases of child neglect was too high (42%), and, the child’s need met the threshold but there were “insufficient services” (43%) or “insufficient resources” (52%). 80% of social workers think that cuts to services will make it more difficult to intervene in cases of child neglect.

52% of members of the public polled said they have been worried about the welfare or safety of a child they know or who is living in their area. This figure has increased by 8% since 2009.

37% of members of the public polled said they would like more information about who to contact if they have a concern about a child who is being neglected. This has gone up from 23% in 2009.

Action for Children

1 Action for Children is committed to helping the most vulnerable children and young people in the UK break through injustice, deprivation and inequality, so they can achieve their full potential. We help nearly 200,000 children, young people and their families through nearly 480 projects across the UK.

2 Action for Children has launched our first annual review of child neglect, undertaken in partnership with the University of Stirling. In conducting the review we undertook a telephone survey in 34 local authorities and via email in a further 11.1 We also ran in-depth, on-site focus groups in six areas across the UK.2 2062 adults in the general public3 and a total of 2,174 professionals responded to online polls (1,177 primary school staff, 140 pre-school—nursery staff and 329 health professionals). 282 social workers and 246 police officers also gave their views.4 We took a broad definition of neglect which includes early signs and concerns around neglect, not just responses to confirmed child protection cases.

3 Action for Children provides a range of services to overcome neglect. Through our services and our research we know that working with families at an early stage has significant impacts avoiding problems becoming entrenched and irreversible. We are committed to increasing knowledge about what works in addressing child neglect and are currently undertaking a four year study of our neglect intervention projects as well as developing new services to provide relationship-based support for vulnerable families.

The impact of neglect and the long term consequences of a delay in intervention where there is evidence of neglect

Impact of neglect

4 Neglect is far reaching in its consequences. Not only will the experience of it make a child’s life miserable, it can affect all aspects of their development and influence the relationships they make throughout their lives. In the most extreme cases, neglect can lead to the death of a child or be one of the causes of non-accidental death. The analysis of Serious Case Reviews (2003–5) found that neglect features in a third of cases where children die or are seriously injured.

5 Neglect can have effects across the lifespan, including:

Health and physical: early brain development including in ways which influence how a child reacts to stress;5 cognitive development and language delay and physical injuries.

Emotional effects: insecure attachment problems; low self-esteem, over-compliance or hostility; anxiety and depression.

Social effects: social isolation; social exclusion including anti-social behaviour; poor school attendance and attainment.

Adolescence and adulthood: becoming involved in risky behaviours; self-harm and suicide attempts; difficulties in forming relationships.

Childhood neglect is a major feature of life in the UK today

6 The proportion of children who experience neglect in the UK remains at an unacceptably high level with studies suggesting that up to 10% of children in the UK experience neglect at some point in their lives.

7 Despite this, our research shows that neither local authorities nor national governments know how many children are currently experiencing neglect. Of the 47 local areas we surveyed, only 21% collect data about the prevalence of neglect other than required data on child protection plans. And of these 21 areas, most only reported on official child protection figures rather than from other sources. Yet we know that the reported statistics dramatically under-estimate the reality of children’s experience.

8 Unless we have proper information about the number of children who are experiencing neglect (locally and nationally) it is impossible to plan effective services to meet the needs of children. The Government must help local areas improve data collection about the scale of neglect and effectiveness of services. In the first instance we recommend that:

The DfE must revise the Children in Need census to improve local authority data collection about child neglect.

The Department of Health must update the Joint Strategic Needs Assessment framework to include numbers of Children in Need in the core data set.

The DfE must amend the Working Together statutory guidance to give professionals more space and time for full and proper assessments to tackle chronic neglect.

The public are increasingly worried about neglect but do not always report it

9 52% of the members of the public we polled said they have worried about the welfare or safety of a child they know or who is living in their area. This figure has increased by 8% since 2009. While 94% said people should become involved if they had concerns, of those who had been worried about a child 38% did not feel worried enough to tell anyone. This was not because they were afraid of repercussions or felt that it was not their business, but rather because of concerns about a lack of evidence or uncertainty about whether neglect is actually occurring. 37% of people would like more information about who to contact if they have a concern (up from 23% in 2009).

10 The Government must co-ordinate local services in order to encourage parents and the public to act early on concerns of neglect. We recommend:

As part of the advice all new parents receive from maternity services and within their personal child health record, they also should be given information about the local parenting support services available to them.

All too often children have to endure a chronic lack of physical and emotional care over long periods of time before they receive help

11 Encouragingly, most practitioners appear to have heard the message that it is important to identify neglected children early. Yet, our review shows there are large numbers of children about whom a range of people may be concerned and who are known to communities and professionals but who are not actually receiving adequate direct help. Rather than slipping through the net, they are, in effect, stuck in it.

12 Practitioners such as teachers and health visitors find it difficult to get a response to their concerns and social workers can get caught up in procedural issues. All are in danger of loosing sight of the child. Key to effective help for children is that their plight is spotted early and that something is done quickly to help them. Yet in practice this is still not happening.

13 We found that 51% of social workers and 36% of police officers have felt powerless to intervene when they have suspected a child is being neglected. For social workers this figure has risen from just over a third since 2009.

14 When asked what the main barriers to this are they said that the point at which they could intervene was too high (42% for social workers, 23% for police officers). Front line practitioners have told us that there are not enough services to offer help to all the children at risk of, or experiencing, neglect. This view was clear from both the poll results (which showed that 43% of social workers and 28% of police officers thought that a lack of services was a barrier to helping children) and from participants in all the focus groups: “We know as social workers that early intervention can make a difference but it is still a challenge to get families into services early, especially when services are scarce.

15 There is a tendency for some children and families to “bounce” in and out of services. Services are in place for a short time and then withdrawn when the urgency recedes. The clear research evidence of the need for longer term support appears not to have filtered through to service planning or provision.

16 Our findings show that, where funding cuts to services have not yet happened, the fear of cuts on cuts in the future is very real. This view came across clearly in the focus groups and is backed by evidence in the poll which showed that 80% of social workers, 51% of police officers and 44% of primary school staff think that cuts will make it more difficult to intervene.

19 The Government must increase children and families’ access to effective early support services. We recommend:

In line with the Munro review 2011, the Government should clarify and improve duties for local authorities and statutory partners to provide sufficient local early help services.

What else would help neglected children?

20 We need commitment to long-term effective early intervention services measured by outcomes not outputs. What would stop children being neglected is access to personal support services in the long term, intensive support services for those in greatest need now and a move towards transforming service provision so that we have more low cost high volume early intervention services and fewer high cost, low volume services for those in acute need.

21 Early support services need to be there for the long term. In the drive to reform public services commissioning arrangements must be revised so that any new family support initiative for children and young people must be funded for at least five years.

April 2012

1 The survey asked about the ways in which children with unmet needs could come to the attention of someone in a position to help and the nature and funding security of the services for children and their families

2 Focus group participants included practitioners from children’s services, health service staff, Local Safeguarding Children’s Board members, third sector, police, housing and education.

3 YouGov panel, fieldwork 3 - 22 June 2011, figures weighted and representative of all UK adults (aged 18+)

4 Through the YouGov panel, with fieldwork 13 – 21 June 2011

5 “The neglected child’s system of response to stress, through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA), develops abnormally and this in turn results in increased vulnerability to a range of psychological, emotional and probably, physical health problems throughout the lifespan”: (Safeguarding Children Across Services: Messages from Research, C Davies and H Ward 2012).

Prepared 16th November 2012