Growth in care orders attributed to greater alertness by social workers and lower risk threshold after high-profile Haringey case
Record numbers of "at risk" children are being taken from their families and placed into care, official figures show, as social workers respond to what they regard as increasing neglect and emotional abuse of vulnerable youngsters.The rapid growth in care orders is attributed partly to social workers being more prepared to intervene to protect young children from persistent exposure to domestic violence, and parental mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse.
Experts also believe the "Baby Peter effect", following the death of Peter Connolly in Haringey, has persuaded many local authorities to lower the risk threshold to remove a child, in the hope that this will reduce the chances of a high profile child death.
The latest figures, published by Cafcass, the children's court advisory service reveal a rapid and unexpected acceleration in court applications in recent months, following a steady rise over the last three years. There were 894 care applications in March alone, the highest monthly total since records began in 2001. Between April and August more than 4,000 care applications were made in England – nearly 9% up on the same period last year.
Local authorities fear the rapid increase in children being taken into care is becoming financially unsustainable. Some councils have gone over budget on child protection this year as they are being forced to massive cuts.
In 2008-09 there were 6,488 care applications. Last year there were 9,184, which on current projections will be comfortably exceeded by the end of March. Almost all result in the child being taken into care.
Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas said local authorities were right in taking more children at risk of significant harm into care. "This data represents children's lives, and the rise in numbers shows a greater awareness of the life-threatening situations some children live in, day-by-day, with no light on their horizon."
He said that the case of 17-month old Peter Connelly, who was on Haringey council's child protection register when he was killed by his mother and two of her male friends in 2007, still loomed large. Subsequent inquiries found that safeguarding officials believed Peter's situation did not meet the threshold for taking him into care, believing he was safe with his mother. "Since then, many local authorities have lowered the threshold they use for making a court application to remove a child, and kept that threshold lower."
Matt Dunkley, president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services said the increases reflected a greater understanding by social workers of the dangers of leaving children in chaotic family environments where they were at risk of neglect or of witnessing domestic violence, and that, anecdotally, these risks had increased. "Social workers would say that the economy is placing more pressure on families who are least able to cope. They would say that the sheer number of parents abusing drugs and alcohol has increased."
He added that the figures would be even higher but for the fact that the family courts were "clogged up, " limiting the numbers of applications. Cases can typically take between 12 and 18 months to go through the courts, although ministers hope that a review of the family justice system will lead to the process being limited to 30 weeks.
Councils are looking to shift their focus towards "early intervention" policies such as parenting support projects in the hope that this will reduce the number of children at risk of being taken into care. But government cuts, including a 20% reduction in the early intervention grant funding, has made this shift more difficult.
A Department for Education spokesman said: "We are aware that care applications remain at very high levels, but there is no evidence that children are being taken into care unnecessarily. It's vital when decisions are made to take a child into care that the family justice system can respond quickly and effectively. We know that there are unacceptable delays in the system at the present time. The Family Justice Review, which is due to report later in the year, is taking a radical look at how these processes could be improved."