Children subject to child protection plans ‘up 76% in 12 years’

A preschool age child plays with plastic building blocks (Dominic Lipinski/PA) Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

The number of children on child protection plans has risen 76% in 12 years, while the number of referrals to social care has increased almost a fifth over the same period, according to research.

There were 51,510 children who were the subjects of child protection plans in England as of March 2020, according to figures collected by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS).

This is a rise of 76% from 2008-9, when ADCS started the Safeguarding Pressures project.

By September, after the coronavirus pandemic had taken hold, this had risen 4% to an estimated 53,800 children across England.

Over the six months from March, local authorities said more children remained subjects of plans and fewer were stepped down from plans due to potential heightened risk, and absence of other support services.

ADCS has collected data from local authorities for more than a decade on provision of children’s social care and associated services, and demand.

It looked at safeguarding across 2019-20 and also examined activity during the pandemic up to September 30.

It also found that there were 642,980 referrals to children’s social care in 2019/20 – an increase of 19% since 2008.

The proportion of referrals made primarily due to abuse or neglect rose to 62.4% of all referrals in 2019-20.

In the six months up to September 30 there were 284,400 referrals to children’s social care, with more children being referred to social care services who had not previously been known.

Families who were just about managing prior to the pandemic had become in need of “significant help” and more children were coming to services’ attention at a later stage, when their needs had become more entrenched and complex.

While the number of children subject to child protection plans and referrals are up compared to 2008, they had started to fall in the two years prior to March 2020.

Over the 12 years councils have also experienced rises in initial contacts with families, child protection inquiries, more children in need and more children looked after.

ADCS said the rises go beyond population growth, adding that cuts to local authorities’ budgets over the past decade have prevented services from providing targeted, early support to prevent families reaching crisis point.

Just under half (44%) of the respondents reported a reduction in funding ranging between 15% and 30%.

Jenny Coles, ADCS President, said the research shows the difficulties local authorities have in meeting the levels of need “against the backdrop of a 50% real-terms fall in local government funding over the last decade”.

She continued: “Some children and young people will have found the last few months traumatic, stressful or even scary and we are already starting to see a new cohort of families in distress that we have not worked with before requiring our help and support.

“However, the true effect of the pandemic on children, families and children’s services is not yet known and will be felt for many years to come.

“For many, this will have exacerbated pre-existing challenges such as poverty, hunger, parental ill health and domestic abuse.

“National recovery plans must extend beyond mitigating lost learning.”

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “Supporting and protecting vulnerable families has been at the heart of our response throughout this pandemic, which is why we have kept schools, nurseries and colleges open to vulnerable children including those with social workers.

“We’ve invested millions in frontline charities that are directly supporting these children and our independent review of children’s social care will look at ways to improve existing support for the most vulnerable.

“Our data shows there has been no discernable spike in referrals to children’s social care services between April 2020 and January 2021, compared to the three years prior, but the department continues to monitor these pressures during the pandemic.”