Parents and carers having to battle for help from ‘adversarial’ child welfare system, committee told

People looking after vulnerable children have to battle for support and the child welfare system is failing in its duty to nurture their loving relationships, a committee was told.

Josh MacAlister, who is leading the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care – which published a report last week, said it is worrying that the system is becoming “more adversarial”.

The former school teacher described some families as being in a “bind” where they need or want help but are reluctant to come forward because they are worried they will be judged or investigated.

He told the House of Lords Public Services Committee: “Lots of parents have told me in the review work that we’ve done so far that they have to battle to get access to help, and that when it does come, if it comes, it comes too late in the day, often once the family is tipped into a more acute crisis situation, which is a reflection of the fact that energy within the system is disproportionately being spent on assessing and investigating families rather than providing support.”

Teenagers are a particular group of concern, Mr MacAlister (pictured) said, with “incredibly sophisticated exploiters” bringing them in to county lines and a children’s social care response that “wasn’t built for responding to that level of exploitation in the community”.

Missing within multiple agencies is “clear accountability” over which professional is responsible for keeping these young people safe, he added.

He continued: “Children’s social care is one of those areas where the most significant obligation that we have, especially to children who come into care, is to make sure that we nurture and grow the lifelong, loving relationships that they need to have in their life, and we are failing in meeting that obligation at the moment.

“And there is a comfort zone, for those of us who are public servants, and policymakers and lawmakers, in running toward services – ‘What’s the service we can offer? What’s the thing that we can do?’

“And instead of that instinct kicking in, we need, I think, to pause and take a different approach which is to ask ‘Who are the people who love this kid, who are the people this kid loves and cares about, and how do we help support and bring those relationships together around these people so that they have the dignity and care and warmth that we all know that we need, especially coming out of the pandemic?’

“And that’s the really unusual policy space we need people to get into on children’s social care, and I think that would be my priority.”

Chief executive of the Family Rights Group, Cathy Ashley, told the committee that the system is overstretched and overwhelmed, with families and local authorities under financial pressure, scrutiny and blame.

She said those providing “kinship care” – a relative or family friend of the child – feel they are often in a battle with the state over support.

She said: “So we’ve got it all wrong in the sense that, instead of seeing it as a partnership that should be operating between families and the state and our public services geared up to that, we’re instead actually making it a battle for those kinship carers to do right by those children.”

It comes as the House of Lords Covid-19 Committee wrote to Children Minister Vicky Ford with a series of recommendations following “extremely concerning and harrowing” evidence about the impact of lockdown on families.

It said it had heard of pre-school children unable to learn to crawl due to a lack of space, more children witnessing domestic abuse and parents of disabled children feeling “abandoned”.

Members warn that it seems likely there will be a significant rise in children identified as at risk but that they are “not convinced” children’s services and charities have the resources to meet this demand.

They are calling for the Government to provide “catch-up” health visitor appointments, more resources for early years providers so they can meet additional and more complex needs, and more funding for refuges and children’s services.

Committee chairwoman Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho said: “While no-one could have foreseen the far-reaching impact of the pandemic and the resultant lockdown, it is evident that there has been a shocking lack of consideration and policy development to combat the effects of both, especially in regard to pre-school children and continuation of essential social services as we begin to emerge from the pandemic.

“It is essential for the Government to demonstrate the same level of commitment to the youngest children that it has made to school aged children to help them recover from the pandemic.”

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