Cafcass seems to treat 912 applications in January 2012 (the highest number since Cafcass was set up in 2001) as a ‘right’ number. In February 2012 it attributed a 12.4% increase in new applications in the period between April 2011 and January 2012, compared with the same period the previous year, to “Agencies [...] working more quickly to ensure that children are removed from deeply damaging households where many have been for some time and [...] showing a lower tolerance for poor parenting.” That rise over the full year to March 2012 now stands at 10%, a change that Anthony Douglass, for Cafcass, also credits to the “elimination of drift in neglect cases”.
If this is true, then it is surely good news and the rise is evidence of safer, more effective practice and a reduction in harm to children. (If it is true, we should also expect the rise to level-off soon).
But how do we know it’s true? When the Guardian used the graph below in February 2012 to plot the rise in care applications, it was easy to spot the sharp increase following the publicity around the now notorious ‘Baby P’ case and to attribute that change to an immediately more risk-averse system. Three years later, as the numbers continue to rise, albeit less steeply, can we be confident that needs and risks, strengths and protective factors are being correctly identified?
What could cause the number of care applications to rise?
Well, if child protection practice stays the same, care applications could rise for a range of reasons. For example:
- an increase in the total number of children.
There has been a higher birthrate in recent years. If this is the cause, the rise in care applications would be steepest in the 0-5 age group. I haven’t yet seen any data which tests this possibility.
- an increase in abuse and neglect.
Although poverty doesn’t cause abuse or neglect, there is a strong association between these harms to children and households in poverty. An increase in households in poverty, such as that caused by the current economic downturn could contribute to a rise in abuse and neglect.
- a reduction in prevention / early intervention capacity.
If total numbers of children, and numbers of children exposed to abuse and neglect are unchanged, numbers of care applications could still rise if the capacity to respond to the risk of harm to the child through other means is reduced. In particular, at times of reduced funding, non-statutory services often face cuts before statutory services do. Children who could once have been protected through preventative work with a family may become subject to a care order because that’s the only possible way to make them safe, rather than as a last resort when other forms of support and engagement have been ineffective. (A BASW professional officer quoted in Children & Young People Now points out that this can be damaging for the children and families concerned: “Removing a child from their family should always be a last resort, and it is heartbreaking to consider that while families may need support, there is simply not the funding and resources there to give them a chance to change.”)
If none of these things has changed – if numbers of children, levels of need and risk, and capacity for early intervention are static, then numbers for care applications go up (or down) because of changes in child protection social work practice. Such changes may be absolutely right, but it is important to test this assumption. One lawyer quoted in a Guardian article earlier this year reminded readers that removing a child from a home where s/he can be safe “may damage children as much as leaving them in an unsafe situation” and that social workers’ anxiety prompted by cases such as ‘Baby P’ could “cloud their professional judgment about what may be in the best interest of an individual child.”
While this may be unfair, it is also valid to test whether this might be so, for the very important reason that it is unjust and sometimes damaging to subject children and families to intrusive and potentially harmful child protection processes where the risk of harm to the child(ren) from their home environment does not justify it.
In the absence of a ‘right’ number of care applications (and there can never be a ‘right’ number, because every child and family situation is unique) then we can’t draw any meaningful conclusions from a rise or fall in the number of care applications. Nor is there a ‘right’ response to the rise, because, whatever the general cause or context, as practitioners, when we work with children and families, we must work with their own circumstances, not provide a generalised ‘system’ response.
What we can do though is better understand what is happening within the system, and how it creates pressures and expectations in our work. We can test what the evidence tells us about context and practice and whether as practitioners we are keeping children safe and supporting them and their families towards better outcomes with all the means at our disposal.
What does your own experience and evidence tell you about the context and practice where you work? Why is the rate of care applications at the level it is in your area? Is that a good thing, or a bad thing? Why is that? What will you do about it?
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