Children’s services cannot be delivered ‘on cheap’ as ADCS warn of ‘substantial increase’ in demand

Vital help from children’s services has become “the last resort” for some families in England, with social care leaders warning “we cannot continue to do this on the cheap”.

Councils are experiencing a “substantial increase” in demand, and are seeing families with more complex risks, needs and vulnerabilities, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) said.

Its interim report on safeguarding pressures from April 1 2020 to March 31 2022, estimates there were 2.77 million contacts with the “front door” of children’s social services in 2021-22, based on responses from councils.

This is up 10% from two years ago and represents an average of 7,575 initial contacts every day.

Government figures released last week showed that the number of referrals of children in England to social services who are assessed as needing help is at its highest level for eight years.

Some 413,320 “episodes of need” started in the year ending March 2022 – the highest since 2014.

ADCS said cuts to council budgets and other public agencies have stopped children’s services from providing targeted early support to prevent families from reaching crisis point.

Its report concludes: “There was an overwhelming feeling that the support available from local authority children’s services has become the last resort for some children and their families whose escalating needs should have been prevented or met through effective universal services, which were impacted during the pandemic.”

ADCS said significant funding is required to keep pace with anticipated demand as the impacts of the pandemic continue to be felt.

Its president Steve Crocker (pictured) warned that services “cannot continue to do this on the cheap”.

He continued: “More and more families are experiencing hardship, or have reached crisis, and we know that there is a strong correlation between poverty, deprivation and involvement with children’s social care.

“With the cost-of-living crisis beginning to bite, many more children and families will fall into poverty.

“Local authority children’s services are responding to needs which, under normal circumstances, should have been met earlier in the system and not escalated to the point of crisis.

“Funding is not keeping pace with this reality, neither are the foundations needed to make the system a success, such as workforce, placements, legislation and regulation.”

He added that there is “nothing more important” than investing in care and protection for vulnerable children.

The report was published on Wednesday ahead of a National Children and Adult Services Conference in Manchester.

It also said many councils are worried about meeting the needs of children struggling with their mental health, with responsibility “often” falling to children’s services due to a lack of NHS provision.

A separate ADCS report on mental health, also published on Wednesday, found that just under half of responding councils (46%) said there was “never” or “rarely” enough child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS) provision in the right places to effectively support children.

And 74% of respondents felt there were “rarely” or “never” sufficient therapeutic safe placements in the right places to effectively support children, with 35% feeling they were not of adequate quality when available.

ADCS warned that challenges in the mental care system “have the potential to overwhelm the children’s services system… and undermine any progress “if not addressed by Government”.

Mr Crocker called on children’s mental health to be made a “national priority”.

He said: “Local authorities are doing all we can to respond to the situation, including by stepping in when children cannot access the support they need, but this comes at a cost.

“The current system is not working for children, it threatens to overwhelm the social care system and will damage children’s life chances, it needs change.”

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “We have made an additional £3.7 billion available to councils this year alone to help them deliver key services and support families.

“We are backing families with better and earlier access to services that keep them safe and healthy, by expanding a network of family hubs all over England and increasing investment in the Supporting Families programme, which is helping to keep up to 300,000 families together safely and provide loving homes for children.

“This comes ahead of widescale reform to the care system through our response to the independent review of children’s social care.”

An NHS spokesperson said: “There are huge pressures on services for children and young people right across the country, but it is in areas where there is good collaboration between local services that we are best able to meet the needs of this age group.

“The NHS has accelerated its plans to transform and expand services for children and young people’s mental health – including rolling out mental health support teams in 4,700 schools covering 2.4 million pupils a year ahead of schedule so that children are given the support they need before the need for an admission to hospital.”

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