Vulnerable children facing being taken into care are 70% more likely to end up in care proceedings if they live in north-west or north-east England than those living in London or the south-east, research has found.
The findings from Lancaster University’s Centre for Child and Family Justice Research highlight a stark north-south divide. The research, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, shows that the north-west of England registered the highest rate of care orders in 2015-16, with courts agreeing to 46% of care applications, compared with London which had the lowest rate. In the capital, just a quarter of applications resulted in a child going into foster care or being placed for adoption.
Prof Judith Harwin, who co-led the study to be published on Monday, said: “Our finding that children living in the north have significantly higher risk of ending up in care proceedings says to me that children’s vulnerabilities to risk are unequal, and children are bearing that risk.”
She added: “The north-east and north-west account for 27% of all children, but also for more than a third of all care proceedings. That forces the question: why?”
The likelihood of a child ending up in care proceedings also depends on where they live: the incidence of care proceedings in the north-east in 2015-16 was found to be 34 per 10,000, compared to outer London where it was about 13 per 10,000.
Attitudes to how much risk family court judges and local authorities are willing to bear once care proceedings are under way appear to vary dramatically across the country too, with children in London three times more likely to be returned to their families on supervision orders – 28% of cases – than in the north-west, which had the lowest rate of supervision orders at just 9%.
The inconsistency of approach between regions “raises questions about the fairness of the system”, Harwin said.
Whether the decisions being made by children’s services and family courts are fair or not still requires further analysis, she said, and could not be more urgent.
The research carried out by Harwin and Prof Karen Broadhurst responds to concerns about the soaring demand for care places, which was recently described by Sir James Munby, president of the family division of the high court, as a “looming crisis” that was putting the care system under unsustainable pressure. Munby said it was his analysis that “changes in local authority behaviour must be playing a significant role” in the rise.
By contrast, it turns out that all regions are behaving in a consistent and similar way when it comes to special guardianship and placement orders that lead to adoption. Special guardianship has increased nationally while placement orders that sever family ties have gone down.
Broadhurst, who specialises in research into repeat care proceedings where multiple babies are removed from mothers at birth, said it was well worth examining the differences and similarities between local authority approaches.
“It looks like infants are dealt with very consistently across the country, with figures showing a big jump in removals in recent years,” Broadhurst said. “When you remove a child at birth – and if you’ve had one baby removed, there’s a 60% likelihood of a subsequent one being taken – it means the local authority has decided there’s problem before it’s started.
“Decision-making in the second set of proceedings is often very pre-emptive – in the majority of cases, these babies are born healthy, so local authorities may be placing too much weight on the history of the case, and are insufficiently open to parental change.”
If reducing demand for care places is a priority as the system struggles to cope, Broadhurst suggests that “based on our data, one avenue of inquiry would be to look at those second removals and see if, for example, more residential mother-and-baby placements could be offered.” That, she said, could make a significant reduction to approximately 1,000 baby removals each year.
Broadhurst said the findings must prompt action. “We’ve been concerned about the disproportionate removal of children from poor areas since the 1980s, so why aren’t we doing anything about it – and why is resource allocation not more closely aligned to deprivation?”