By Lucy Croxton, Policy, Public Affairs and Campaigns Manager for the Together Trust
1 June 2022
Earlier this week, the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care was published. Since the Review commenced in March 2021, we have campaigned to ensure that the views of the people we support are represented in roundtable discussions and meetings with the review team, amplified through our involvement with the Alliance for Children in Care and Care Leavers, and heard within our response to the Case for Change.
This article will explore which of our reccomendations were realised in the final report and share our Campaigns Managers’ early reflections on the Review.
‘Ensure that where possible, families are supported to care for children. Children’s social care should support them to do so and ensure that Family Help definitions extended beyond hubs, support, and children’s social care professionals’
The Review is clear that the children’s social care system must compliment and strengthen the families and communities that children grow up in. It recommends that one new category, ‘Family Help,’ is created, and existing early help and child in need services are integrated within it.
Families needing support would get it from teams made up of professionals such as family support workers, domestic abuse workers and mental health practitioners, who would work alongside social workers. Family Help Teams would be based in community settings, including schools and family hubs, with their services tailored to local needs and feedback from service users. This would stop the need for persistent signposting and improve accountability for service delivery.
The Review recommends that a ‘temporary injection of £2 billion is needed over the next five years’ to target about half a million children who require extra support.’
We welcome the Reviews’ focus on making support available to keep families together where possible but are concerned that funding would be conditional on meeting the goals of the ‘National Children’s Social Care Framework, and delivering on a range of outcomes, objectives, and indicators of success’.
Across England, Councils are already facing an immediate £3bn black hole in their child services budget. We do not believe that the measures suggested to mitigate the number of children entering care are sufficient (including instigating a national foster care recruitment campaign, modernising adoption, improving the rights of extended family to become kinship carers) without Councils’ accessing immediate funds upwards of £3bn to stabilise their services before any ‘transformational’ changes are brought into force.
‘Recognise how austerity and underfunding of community-based services had led to high levels of child poverty and reliance on acute services’
The Review clearly identifies poverty as a leading cause of children entering the care system, citing recent research which shows that deprivation is a contributory causal factor in child abuse and neglect.
It suggests that the Family Help scheme will help minimise poverty, by including specific help for families around income maximisation, building in routine benefits checks, money and debt advice and advocacy for all families, introducing devolved budgets to social workers to provide direct support to families and linking families to other sources of assistance e.g. advice about ‘insulation, heating, loans, housing rights, charities, food banks […]’.
However, while the Review acknowledges that ‘many services are facing pressure,’ and stated that welfare services are often inaccessible, it did not consider the role that austerity has played in worsening outcomes for children in care.
‘Invest in training professionals outside of children’s services to understand the impact of trauma, attachment, and adverse childhood experiences’
The Review has a strong emphasis on training children’s services professionals to work with children in care, and recommends that the Government focuses on training the following groups of staff:
While we welcome the focus on training, we are concerned that there is no detail provided within the Review about how much training these cohorts would cost, or the level of investment that the Government should provide. Without this level of detail, we feel that it is unlikely the recommendation will come into fruition.
It is vital that professionals are kept fully updated on any changes introduced to the children’s social care system. This will prevent further losses to the workforce and increased instability for children in care.
We welcome the extension of corporate parenting responsibilities to all public bodies for children in care but would reiterate that those bodies will need to be trained fully on what it means to be a corporate parent, including their obligations and responsibilities, so that every child receives the quality of care that are entitled to, and so that the role of a corporate parent is not weakened.
‘Ensure departments across Government have the shared resource and accountability to help families thrive’
One of the recommendations of the Review is for Government to update the funding formula for children’s services and take greater care to ensure that changes in Government policy which impact the cost of delivering children’s social care are accompanied by additional resources.
This would go some way at addressing the children’s services funding blackhole, but would not, in of itself, create the level of resource needed to ensure that services function well. We would welcome reform which leads to a greater level of transparency in how Ofsted inspections are made, with child-focused practice being embedded into inspections.
‘Ensure that short breaks, therapeutic support and community outreach services for children and families experiencing potential family breakdowns are available’
Some provision has been recommended by the Review to support children and families experiencing family breakdowns. The Family Help model will be aimed at the cohort of families ‘who receive targeted early help’ but those not eligible for Family Help should have universal support available through family hubs, health visiting, school nurses, and other forms of support such as ‘the Mental Health Support Teams’ within schools.
However, the Review does not state how much Government investment would be needed to make community services universal, nor recognise that we are currently a long way from this. We would like to see an eligibility criterion for Family Help that is clear, transparent and has been consulted upon with stakeholders, including those most likely to access services, such as victims of domestic violence, those seeking support for addiction etc.
Further to this, the report makes no recommendations about ensuring that short breaks and therapeutic support are available to families, except for reference to increased support for foster carers. We feel this is a missed opportunity and would like to see it included within the Family Help model.
‘Recognise how regulatory constraints stigmatise children in care, for example when they turn 18, they are no longer able to remain in the children’s home that may feel like home, and equalise the entitlements of children living in residential care with children living in foster care, giving them the option to ‘stay close’ until 25’
The Review points to positive evaluations from both the ‘Staying Put’ scheme (allowing children in foster care to continue to live with their foster carers until age 21) and the ‘Staying Close’ trial (allowing children in residential homes to continue to live there until age 21). One recommendation is for the Staying Put and Staying Close schemes to be a legal entitlement and extended to age 23 with an ‘opt-out’, rather than ‘opt-in’ expectation. If Government implemented this recommendation, they would be moving to a more equitable care system for children living in foster care and residential homes. However, we believe that this entitlement should be extended to 25, in recognition that the average young person moves out of their home for the first time aged 25.
‘Recognise that the majority of children living in unregulated (or semi-independent) accommodation are not placed there because of their best interests but because of financial interests. End the use of unregulated placements’
The Review acknowledges some of the persistent issues for young people living in unregulated accommodation, and states that the Government’s decision to ‘regulate’ is a step in the right direction but does not go far enough – ‘every child in care should live in a home where they receive care.’ However, the Review does not recommend an outright ban on unregulated provision for all children and young people up to the age of 18. Instead, it recommends that new Care Standards should be introduced which ‘are flexible enough to enable the best of this type of accommodation, to provide regulated care in a way that offers a choice to teenagers who may do well in these homes.’ We echo the views of Children England, that any new Care Standards must not weaken the quality of care that all children are entitled to and must clearly state the principle that every child is entitled to care where they live.
‘Recognise that good quality care needs to have the young person at the center with agencies and professionals working to uphold their rights, meet their needs and champion their ambitions’
The Review recognises the right of children to have a family life, and the need for children to have their views and opinions heard throughout their time in care. We are pleased that the Review has recommended that every child has access to ‘opt-out’ advocacy support. Advocates help children understand their rights, make informed decisions about their life, and speak up on behalf of their interests. However, we remain concerned about the recommendation to remove the role of Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs) and Regulation 44 visitors and integrate it within the role of an advocate. This could effectively mean that children who opt-out of advocacy have no independent scrutiny or oversight of their care, and limited means to raise safeguarding concerns outside of their social worker. Changes made to improve the voice of the child over the last 30 years have been hard won and oftentimes introduced following the death or serious injury of a child in care. We must not regress these rights, especially at a time of huge transformational change where children’s voices risk being lost.
‘Ensure that children are part of their own communities unless it is not safe for them and take a place-based approach and address uncertainty around local authority funding, fluctuating levels of demand which leads to short term planning and a lack of suitable placements’
The Review clearly recognises some of the high-level issues in children’s social care. For the purposes of the report, these were:
The Review’s solution for solving these problems is the creation of ‘Regional Care Co-operatives’, which will consolidate functions currently performed by individual local authorities. They would have a number of duties, including:
RCC’s will be inspected by Ofsted and should initially be funded by the central Government, with local authorities eventually spending their existing children’s services budgets through them.
We have concerns that the creation of RCC’s will result in more children being moved out of their communities, as RCC’s will operate over a larger geographical area than local authorities. At the moment, over 40% of children in care live ‘out of area’, a percentage that increases year on year. The Review makes no recommendations about how this trend can be reversed.
‘Recommend that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is fully implemented in England, as the most comprehensive declaration of children’s rights currently in existence’
Sadly, the Review makes no reference to the United Nation Convention (UNCRC) on the Rights of the Child within their report, despite referencing the fact a ‘child’ is under the age of 18 in accordance with the UNCRC. We feel that this is a missed opportunity to provide children in care and care leavers with the most comprehensive set of rights available.
Article 12 of the UNCRC states that “every child has the right to express their views, feelings and wishes in all matters affecting them, and to have their views considered and taken seriously. This right applies at all times, for example during immigration proceedings, housing decisions or the child’s day to day home life.”
We are pleased to see that the Review recommended that care experience should become a protected characteristic under the Equality Act, something which we have supported people with care experience to campaign on, including Jakeb, who sadly passed away last year. However, we feel that had the Review committed to the UNCRC, the rights of care experienced people would be further amplified in law.
‘Invest in a national campaign to improve the public’s understanding of children’s social care and why some children are in care’
There was no recommendation made in the Review related to a national campaign which would improve the public’s understanding of children’s social care. This is a missed opportunity, as the Review focuses on building a sense of community and lifelong links around children in care, whether that be ‘teachers, friends’ parents or mentors.’ Yet we know that sometimes care experienced people face stigma from their own communities. An example of this occurs when residents organise to oppose the building of a residential children’s home on their street. A national campaign highlighting these experiences would contribute to creating the right environment for children to make lifelong links.
‘Recognise that good residential care practice supports families, and that residential care can be a positive first step in the care system rather than a last resort i.e. ‘step up, step down’ models’
The Review referenced models of shared care, where family networks are supported to help their relatives before children enter care. This involves ‘extended family, foster carers or residential children’s homes providing extra help and care.’ However, there were no specific recommendation about residential children’s homes being used to help children ‘step down’ into their families if it was safe to do so.
Further to this, there was reoccurring narrative that residential care is often used inappropriately and that there were many children in the care system which would benefit from being placed in foster care or for adoption instead. This was inconsistent with evidence we submitted about how high-quality residential homes could be a positive experience for many children in care.
‘Ensure that the residential care workforce is strengthened and supported, beyond just social workers. Enhance the profile and standing of those roles to support the recruitment and retention of a suitable workforce’
Much of the Review’s focus on the children’s social care workforce is on social workers and reimagining their role. The report cited evidence which showed that only one third of social workers time is spent working directly with families.
The solutions mentioned were to improve technology and systems, establish feedback loops to challenge unnecessary rules and bureaucracy and challenge the culture that pulls social workers further from families, as well as developing expertise through an ‘Early Career Framework’ which the Review felt would incentivise people to become social workers. Alongside social workers, the only other focus was on setting standards and regulating children’s residential home managers.
While the Review referenced the unacceptable high turnover and vacancy rates for staff working in children’s residential care, no recommendation was made about how to incentivise and retain this vital workforce, among others. Solving this problem would undoubtedly improve the consistency of children’s care across England.
Within the Care Review, there are recommendations which do have the power to make transformative change for children in care. These include the right to opt-out independent advocacy, strengthened rights and entitlements for kinship carers, and the blueprint of the Family Help scheme, which if rolled out properly has the power to make a significant contribution to keeping families together where it is safe to do so.
However, there are also many missed opportunities. The Review’s stance on unregulated provision remains unclear. There is no evidenced reason why the Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO) role should be integrated with that of an advocate, especially where their functions are different, and where each role acts as an additional safeguard to children in care.
The Review also had a once in a generation opportunity to recommend that the Government fully implements the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). It is unclear why this legislation is missing from its recommendations, especially when the Review’s central aim was to improve the rights of care experienced people.
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