Care Applications Soar After Baby P Case

More applications to take children into care are being issued than at any time since the present system of child protection was established.

The sharp increase comes after the reporting late last year of the death of Baby P, when the Government instructed all local authorities to look again at cases of children at risk and subject to a child protection plan, to see whether they really were safe from harm.

New figures seen by The Times show that 693 applications to take children into care were issued in December, 66 per cent higher than in December 2007 and 89 per cent higher than the all-time low in June 2008, when 367 requests were made.

The figures suggest that thresholds for taking children into care have been too high in recent years as local authorities responded to government ambitions to reduce the number of children living with foster carers or in residential homes.

Baby P died in August 2007 from injuries inflicted by his mother, her boyfriend and a lodger. The 17-month-old boy from Haringey, North London, had been subject to a child protection plan, and had had 60 different appointments with social workers and health professionals, who had wrongly judged the plan to be working.

The new figures have been compiled by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, which helps children during the legal process of care proceedings and residency battles. It began collating the figures when a new child protection system came into force in 2005, a response to the death of Victoria Climbié.

Anthony Douglas, its chief executive, said that senior social workers were overruling advice by their legal departments that thresholds of risk had not been met to instigate care proceedings and were now willing to take far fewer chances. “Something very dramatic is going on,” he said. “Local authorities were asked to review their cases and their thresholds and it’s clear in many cases they are deciding that, despite legal advice that they don’t have sufficient ground for care proceedings, they will do it anyway.”

Very few cases have been rejected by magistrates in recent weeks, he said. This suggested that the cases in question should have been in the care proceedings system all along.

Tim Loughton, the Conservative spokesman on children, who has been critical of government efforts to reduce the number of children in care, went farther and said the figures showed that too many risks had been taken in the past.

“The only explanation is that children’s services have now lowered the thresholds to take children into care, having previously raised them under intense pressure to get the numbers in care down,” he said.

“On top of that there is the pressure on stretched children’s services budgets and the ongoing shortage of social workers, which made departments do everything possible to avoid taking children into care before the Baby P tragedy.”

Mr Loughton was also very critical of the Government’s decision last spring to raise the fees that local authorities must pay for each care proceedings case from £150 to £4,000 — an initiative to get the family court to pay for itself. That move coincided with the introduction of a new legal process, the Public Law Outline, which requires a social worker to build the entire case before going to court, rather than doing it once the case has begun, under the direction of the judge.

Mr Douglas said that the new legal process had undoubtedly led to the number of cases hitting an all-time low in June, as social workers struggled with the new system.

The Baby P tragedy had also thrown the quality of child protection plans into doubt, he said. The plans replaced the at-risk register and are put in place when children are judged to be at risk of abuse or neglect but there are grounds to believe that the parents can change.

“That assumption is now being put to the test,” Mr Douglas said. “Are agreements reached with the family and their friends good enough? Are family centres really changing behaviour? Or is it a smoke screen and not much is changing at all?”

– A government intervention team has been sent into Birmingham social services after Ofsted judged its work to be inadequate. Eight children known to the department have died within three years. A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said that ministers would decide shortly whether further action was needed. Intervention teams have also been sent into Reading, Wokingham, Essex and West Sussex. Last week an inquiry began after seven children died in Doncaster.