It has been a pivotal 12 months for developments in social care practice. Beginning with the publication of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care in May 2022, and more recently the Government’s report: Stable Homes, Built on Love in February 2023. The latter draws together three independent reviews of children’s social care, as explained below.
Independent Review of Children’s Social Care
Chaired by Josh Macalister, founder of the charity Frontline, the Care Review recommends that a radical reset of children’s social care in England is needed to encourage a shift away from crisis intervention and towards helping children and families earlier on.
One of the key proposals for achieving this is to reduce the number of children in care and support more families to raise their own children. The Care Review echoes the findings of the national review, which found that England’s child protection system ‘can and must do better for children’. To achieve the recommendations proposed, a £2.6 billion investment is purported to be required.
Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel
The Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel published its report in May 2022, following the tragic murders of Star Hobson and Arthur Labinjo-Hughes in 2020.
The report endorsed the recommendations proposed by the Care Review, advising that improvements within child protection are required. It made two critical findings. First, multi-agency arrangements for protecting children in England are more fractured and fragmented than they should be. Second, there has been insufficient investment in, and attention to, securing the specialist multi-agency expertise required to undertake investigations and responses into significant harm caused by abuse and neglect. Influencing the Panel’s recommendations was their finding that, sadly, the experiences of Arthur and Star are not unusual.
Competition and Markets Authority’s Children’s Social Care Market Study
The Competition and Market’s Authority published its final report on children’s social care in England, Scotland and Wales in March 2022. The report was triggered by two significant concerns raised with Government. The first was that councils were frequently unable to access suitable placements to meet the needs of children in their care. The second was that the increasing number of children in care was placing a mounting strain on council budgets. The review concludes there are significant difficulties in how the placements market is operating: there is a lack of the right type of placements, and large private care providers are making materially higher profits.
Stable Homes, Built on Love
The Government’s report draws together the three prior reviews and commences a consultation, seeking input from those who either receive or provide children’s social care services in England. Underpinning the report’s recommendations is the strongly held notion that every child deserves to grow up in a safe, stable and loving home.
Against the recommended £2.6 billion proposed by the Care Review, the Government has committed to invest £200 million (less than ten per cent of the recommended amount) during the next two years to address the most pressing issues faced within children’s social care. This will be achieved through improved multi-agency practice, greater support for family networks, improved fostering recruitment and retention, and improved workforce stability within the social work sector.
Although the report purports to recognise the difficulties faced by councils in securing appropriate homes for children with complex needs, it fails to address many recent concerns raised regarding the practicalities of doing so, which have arisen following amendment to the Care Planning, Placement and Case Review Regulations 2010.
The recommendations that flow from the Government’s report do not go as far as the Care Review had hoped. There have been questions raised about whether the timeline for the Government’s plan is too slow and whether the recommendations truly go as far as is required to achieve a reduction in the number of children in care. What seems to be inevitable is that there will be significant changes throughout social work practice, which children’s services will need to adjust to.
The Government is committed to ensuring that social workers with the highest levels of knowledge and skills are leading child protection work. However, it also recognises that vacancy rates within social work practice are at their highest levels since 2017, and a better package of funding and support is needed to improve not only recruitment but also retention. We also see a renewed emphasis on the importance of ensuring that, where possible, children are cared for within their extended families, and the wider family network is actively involved from the point the child is allocated a social worker. Importantly, and no doubt stemming from the Child Safeguarding Practice Review, the report delivers a strong message that improvement in multi-agency leadership and integrated working is long overdue.
While it is arguable that the Government’s proposals fall short of achieving the radical reset that the Care Review felt was unequivocally needed, the impetus for driving improvement and progression within child protection should be welcomed and encouraged by all involved in frontline child protection services.