FEATURE Making the right decisions to protect children in need

NSPCC
NSPCC

Amid a new report on the impact of early intervention for children in need, children’s services departments may be acting too late to catch those kids at risk of abuse and neglect before it’s too late – prompting a rise in the number entering the care system.

For social workers, knowing what’s best for a child in need is difficult, and ripping them from their homes is not always the best course of action.

This is particularly difficult when most “Children At Risk” are not physically or sexually abused, but neglected, and starved of an emotionally rich environment.

Now new data has come to light suggesting that Nottinghamshire County Council could be doing more to keep children out of the care system as the number of Looked After Children – those who are under the responsibility of the state – has risen substantially in the county.

Since 2010, there has been a rise of 61 per cent, from 770 to 1,245 in 2014 over the course of the year.

This compares to a 14 per cent rise in Nottingham and only five per cent in Derbyshire.

Steve Edwards, director for children’s social care, said the service had indeed seen an increase of children in the care system, but that this had stabilised over the past 18 months.

He added: “There are between 800 and 850 in the care system at any one time – that’s just below where you’d expect us to be if you compared us with our statistical neighbours - Kent, Cumbria, Essex, Cheshire West, Derbyshire - fairly big shire counties with issues of deprivation.”

1,245 total Looked After Children in 2014

61% rise in five years

830 looked after children in Notts on a given day in 2014

575 children looked after for longer than 12 months

67% of children in long term care have special educational needs

And figures are also distorted by past failings, he added.

“Five years ago there were a lot less children in care than there should have been.

“We’ve detected children who needed protecting quicker, social workers are responding quicker and we’ve been getting children into care quicker, whether with foster homes or family members under Special Guardianship Orders.”

But Sandra McNair, NSPCC regional head of services for children and families, said there was a dire need for early intervention so social workers do not have to turn to court orders.

She added: “The figures indicate that cases being reported were so severe that they required immediate intervention by the relevant agencies in order to protect the child.

“But what this does show is that the need for well-targeted resources and early intervention is growing. Through early preventive services we can help decrease the need for statutory intervention at a later date and therefore better protect children and save money in the long term.

“We can all also play a valuable part in helping to protect children.”

A new report by the Early Intervention Foundation has revealed that local authority spending on “late” interventions is massive - topping £6.bn last year. Including Child Protection Plans, Emergency Protection Orders and Care Orders, much of this could be unnecessary if the children and families get support early enough. But party politics may be standing in the way of adequate family support.

Bridget Betts, an ex-social worker from Beeston, has 35 years of experience in children’s services and now runs an independent fostering agency.

She said: “It is about putting in resources to help and support families before a decision is even needed to remove children, so it isn’t sexy for this government because it doesn’t deliver results within five years.

“When you look at the cuts, family centres and sure start initiatives have disappeared and any cuts to access of these services is going to affect numbers.”

Meanwhile, high-profile cases provoke a knee-jerk reaction.

“Since Baby P, for example, there has been a gradual rise in child protection orders, whereas before numbers were falling,” she added.

Baby P or “Child A” Peter Connelly died in London in 2007, aged 17 months, after suffering more than 50 injures which led to a national review of children’s services, but since then social workers have been criticised for trigger-happy Care Orders – unfairly, according to Ms Betts.

“It’s a very complex issue making the decision to remove a child from their parents’ care. It’s ultimately the court’s decision and for the most part the threshold of evidence they have to represent in court is reasonably high.

“They have to ask: “Is the child at risk of being harmed if they stay in their situation”. As a social worker your responsibility is totally to the child, and you lose sleep at night wondering if you’ve got it right, or if you’ve left a baby in an unsafe environment.”

And we are only beginning to understand the serious impact of neglect in addition to sexual and physical abuse.

She added: “It is the most insidious form of abuse.

“As well as being fed and not being hungry there are other issues like a sense of safety, security, the knowledge that they are going to be looked after.

“There is a poverty of emotional experiences that children need in terms of their overall development, and their relationships, so as well as not being hungry, there are other issues like a sense of safety, security, and the knowledge that they are going to be looked after.

“We are better at understanding the implications of that now and we know that children are most vulnerable in the early stages.”

Neighbours, friends and family members who have concerns about a child’s safety can contact the police, children’s services or the NSPCC 24 hours a day on 0808 800 5000, or e-mail help@nspcc.org.uk.