Children's social care review must make the link to poverty
Published by Professional Social Work magazine, 18 May, 2022
England’s Independent Review into Children’s Social Care must stress to government the need to address poverty in its final recommendations, an influential academic claimed.
Professor Paul Bywaters made the comments following a new review of 90 papers from 15 countries evidencing the link between poverty and abuse and neglect.
He said the consistency of evidence was “compelling” and highlighted a need for social care policies that addressed the economic circumstances of families.
Presenting the report The relationship between poverty and child abuse and neglect: new evidence at an online presentation to the Nuffield Foundation, he said: “The government's are responsible for a range of policy areas connected with poverty that fall in the context of children's social care services - policies dealing with domestic abuse with mental health, education and immigration freeze.
"For example, we found evidence that too often these policies can conflict with the principle that children's welfare should be paramount.
"So the interaction of policies on social work with benefits policies housing policy and migration, meaning that interventions can sometimes make things worse.
"The government holds so many levers that set the context for local practice and they also set the tone of the hostile environments of the benefits and immigration system.
“A pervasive focus on risk in children’s social care, powerfully fuelled by the small number of dreadful cases, can give the message that government is not on the side of parents who are struggling, that it sees them as the problem.
“Families expectations and experiences of children’s social care is too rarely one of support and help with the difficulties which are uppermost for them in the current acute cost of living crisis with child poverty predicted to rise by another 500,000.”
Prof By Waters said discussions about abuse and neglect shouldn’t be dominated by a focus on “what parents do and don’t do” but also the services and infrastructure framework for family life provided by government.
He added: “I think a key challenge for the care review is persuading government that the socio-economic competence of family life is crucial for children’s social care to be effective.
“Covid showed that governments can make very radical policy changes affecting the socio-economic conditions in the context of family life if they choose to.”
Prof Bywaters said it was “striking” that the government’s Working Together to Safeguard Children document “doesn’t mention family poverty, income or employment once”.
In its The Case for Change interim report published last year, the IRCSC’s chair Josh MacAlister maintained poverty could no longer be treated as the “wallpaper of practice”.
He said: “We have now reached a point where the weight of evidence showing a relationship between poverty, child abuse and neglect and state intervention in family life is strong enough to warrant widespread acceptance.”
MacAlister cited a previous 2016 study by Prof Bywaters highlighting the link. Other research led by Prof Bywaters for the Child Welfare Inequality project has shown children in the poorest neighbourhoods are ten times more likely to be taken into care or placed on a child protection plan than those in the most affluent areas.
Prof Bywaters also said frontline services like social work needed to “do better engaging with families about their socio-economic circumstances”.
"The qualitative evidence suggests that poverty is too often seeing by services and by workers as a as a background issue as structural as distant. Something social workers can't do anything about and I sympathise with that. But this doesn't reflect the meaning of poverty for people who are living with it, which is something that's evasive, constant and an immediate worry, brings anxiety and depression, family conflicts, sleep disorders, lack of energy and vitality and hopelessness.
““The evidence for the insufficient engagement comes from the absence of discussion of family's economic circumstances. In most assessments, in case conferences, in court reports in case reviews and supervision, discussions, and in the factors that assessment data required for returns to central government.
“The lack of engagement matters because it means too often parents feel that some of their most pressing difficulties they need in their children's needs are not recognised. And this feels like a lack of respect, which adds to feelings of stigma and shame.”
Charlotte Ramsden, strategic director of people at Salford City Council, said: “We know and we have always known that child abuse and poverty are linked.
“We only have to look at where our referrals come from to know that.”
Ramsden said reducing property was “critical”, but she added: “We haven’t focused enough on understanding what it really feels like to live in poverty and therefore how to intervene effectively and bring the impact of poverty into that wider planning and approach to how we support and intervene with families.”
She said the role of social work in supporting families within multi-agency partnerships would be vital within the reviews recommendations.
“We are very interested to see how that plays out in the final report. Within all that, we’ve been emphasising learning from what works as well as what doesn’t and we have learned a huge amount around what effective social work practice and effective multi-agency practice really looks like.
“That mantra about doing with, not too, about strengths-based relationship-focused practice, about understanding the impact of trauma, about walking alongside families, about whole family approaches.
“Within all the work that’s been happening in relation to the children’s social care review, we have stressed continually the importance of considering the impact of poverty.”
Joe Howes, chair of End Child Poverty and chief executive of children’s charity Buttle UK, stressed the economic argument for investing in children and families.
“By levelling up and investing to help poor families through hard benefits we can prevent the need for larger costlier interventions later.
“We need to demonstrate the economic cost to the UK of poverty in terms of children’s social care cost and the knock-on affect on children’s education work and future outcomes.
“Growing up poor means being more likely to have a range of physical and mental heal problems, being excluded from school and being taking into care.
“As well as the human cost, this costs the treasury billions through greater additional spending on public services.”
Will the Independent Review into Children's Social Care live up to its bold ambitions? Click here for analysis