Twelve directors of children’s services in the north-east of England have warned that “shameful” levels of poverty in the region are driving dramatic rises in child protection intervention and the number of children in care. They argue the “dysfunctional market” for children’s residential care must be dismantled or radically overhauled and profit-making eliminated or capped.
The north-east has the highest rate of referrals to children’s social care in the UK, significantly higher than the national average. Since 2009, the region has seen a 77% increase in its care population. Inner London has seen a 25% reduction over the same period. The region saw the steepest increase in relative child poverty (after housing costs) between 2014-15 and 2019-20 – rising from 26% to 37%. This is compared with a UK-wide increase from 29% to 31% and means that the north-east has gone from having a child poverty rate just below the UK average to the second highest of any region or nation in just five years.
The high level of deprivation in the north-east is a significant driver of demand for children’s social care services. “National measures to reduce poverty, focused on raising family incomes, are needed to break the cycle of deprivation which is driving concerns about child welfare,” they argue.
One of the directors said in the report: “Poverty is stark, shameful and obvious. Life chances are blighted. I’ve worked in a number of local authorities all over the country, but I’ve never worked anywhere where poverty is as bad and life chances so poor.”
Levels of domestic abuse are also high, with one director of children’s services saying: “I worry that levels of violence and abuse are so endemic in some of our communities that it is not even recognised as a problem. We are dealing with a lot of violence in families – children-to-adult violence as well. This is learned acceptable behaviour.”
Demand for child mental health intervention outstrips supply.
The directors say: “The north-east is in a vicious cycle with levels of demand causing pressure across the system and spiralling costs. With a larger proportion of the budget being spent on statutory services, there is a squeeze on spending compromising the ability to provide the prevention and early help needed to manage risk outside the statutory system and reduce children coming into care.”
In the three years to 2019-20 north-east councils saw an increase in net expenditure in children’s social care services of more than £77m (18.2%). Net expenditure on children looked after and safeguarding services increased by almost £83m (27%).