Welfare reforms, reductions in family support services such as Sure Start, and rising poverty levels are fuelling record numbers of children being taken into care, local authority leaders have said.
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) said austerity policies and an increasingly fragmented approach to public services were taking a toll on communities and punishing the most economically fragile households.
“The unintended consequence of the government’s austerity programme has been to drive up demand for [child protection] services as more and more families find themselves at the point of crisis with little or no early help available,” it said in a report.
The ADCS president, Alison Michalska, said long delays for universal credit payments, alongside welfare policies such as the two-child limit and housing benefit cuts, were causing difficulties for poorer families struggling to pay for food and rent.
The latest official statistics show 72,000 children were in care in England at the end of March, up 3% on the previous year, and the ninth successive year that this number has increased.
Between 2010 and 2016, the number of children assessed by social workers as as being in need rose by 5%, the number of children subject to a child protection plan increased by 29%, and numbers in care were up 10%.
Michalska, who is the director of children and adult services at Nottingham city council, said a growing number of families faced a bleak reality. She said more support was needed – including more flexibility in the benefits regime – to prevent families under the stress of poverty from spiralling into crisis.
“We are I think, I hope, beginning to see a move away from some aspects of austerity, which are welcome. But families living in deprived areas will continue to suffer unless some flexibility can be introduced to the currently inflexible benefits regime.
“For example, in some local areas in which universal credit has been rolled out the wait for benefits is, in some cases, exceeding six weeks which means that families are struggling to pay for basic essentials such as food and rent.
“The rigidity of the benefits system also compounds the impact of insecure, erratic and unstable employment. There is a real need for government to consider how the benefit system can reflect and deal with the issues that affect families today.”
Speaking at the national children and adult services conference in Bournemouth, she said that financial pressures in children’s services, the NHS, police and education, alongside reforms in health, education and social care were “all taking their toll on our communities”.
She added: “Providing help and support to children and families early is the only way to reduce demand for high-end statutory services and health and social care in the long run; not doing so is a false economy and, fundamentally, is not in children and young people’s best interests.”
An ADCS report, A Country That Works for All Children, said children living in the poorest areas of the country were 10 times more likely to be put on to a child protection plan or be subject to care proceedings than youngsters in wealthier areas.
Local authorities had suffered an average 40% cuts in funding since 2010, and a £2bn funding gap between demand for children’s services and available resources has emerged, it said. An estimated 600 youth centres closed between 2012 and 2016 while 1,200 children’s centres have shut since 2010.
The report added: “The symptoms of poverty are driving increased demand [for children’s services] and although councils continue to do their best to support vulnerable families and children, the lack of sustainable funding must be addressed as a matter of urgency.”
Robert Goodwill, minister for children and families, said: “Councils will receive more than £200bn for local services, including children’s social care, up to 2020. This is part of a historic four-year settlement which means councils can plan ahead with certainty.
We have invested £200m through our children’s social care innovation programme, providing councils and the voluntary and community sector with funding and support to develop new and better ways of delivering services for vulnerable children and families. As well as this I am also announcing up to £20m to support further improvement in children’s social care services.”