Learning from a crisis: transforming children’s social care

Many families struggle with a complex set of problems. Children’s social care exists to support them to continue to care for their children despite this. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has exposed deep flaws in the system’s current approach. Many families are not getting the help they need early enough, or at all.

The Problem

The challenges facing children’s social care teams over the last decade are all too familiar:

  • The number of looked after children have risen by 21% since 2010 to 78,150. The rate of children looked after has also risen during that period.
  • There are now 193,333 children on the edge of social care involvement in England, and 399,500 children identified as children in need.
  • Over a third of 19 year old care leavers are not in education, employment or training and care leavers represent 24% of the adult prison population. A recent study by UCL found that adults who spent time as children in the care system were 70% more likely to die prematurely than those who did not.
  • There has been a long period of austerity that has reduced the spending power of local authorities by 28.6% overall that has seen a reduction in funding for children’s services in many regions.

The COVID-19 crisis has provided a new context for these challenges and some new ones. For example during lockdown, child protection referrals have fallen by more than 50% in some areas of England.  Some child and adolescent mental health services have also seen a 50% fall in referrals.

These recent falls in referrals have happened at the same time as a 120% rise in contacts to charity helplines for domestic violence.

In the UK many young people and families struggle to cope with a complex constellation of problems: acute family stress, challenging behaviour, special educational needs and mental and emotional ill-health. 

Teenagers in and on the edge of care often have multiple vulnerabilities and develop high-risk behaviours, including substance misuse, going missing, risky health behaviours, offending behaviour, exploitation by gangs, and disengagement from school.  

There persists a culture of blaming young people and their families for their circumstance, despite the positive, committed work of many professionals within the social care sector. This culture advocates a punitive approach rather than a restorative approach. Still there is a preoccupation with managing risk for institutions rather than managing risks for vulnerable young people.

As a result, many families are not getting the help they need early enough, or at all.

The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated this problem. Increased time spent at home and online, has increased risks for some children. Some children are more vulnerable than ever to domestic abuse and violence, mental health problems, and exploitation. Reports of domestic violence and abuse to phone help lines have risen by 120% since the lockdown began. At the same time there has been a decrease in the levels of referrals of young people into early help and social care services.  Vulnerable children have simply become less visible.

Services have responded to COVID-19 with rapid changes in how they operate, some of which are innovative, ambitious and creative. The virtual and community-based nature of this response offers a set of specific opportunities for children and young people. Delivering technology-based support has benefited some young people – for example, the text-counselling service Shout. There has also been an increase in social action, involving local self help, and community volunteers. As many as ten million UK adults have volunteered both formally and informally in their community since the beginning of the crisis. These represent valuable new approaches and sources of hope which should be sustained.

However, a lot of the changes are inconsistent, unevenly implemented, and unevaluated –  introducing even higher levels of variability into children’s social care provision. Many vulnerable children who currently have a social worker did not attend school with as few as 5% turning up in some areas during the lockdown.

While, COVID-19 presents new challenges to services, the underlying problems are not new but all too familiar: parental mental health; adult drug and alcohol misuse; domestic violence and abuse. These have been exacerbated by COVID-19 and the economic consequences of lockdown. 

Services cannot fail to respond to this, but a return to the ‘old normal’ is not an option. The COVID-19 crisis has surfaced the weaknesses of the children’s social care system more clearly than ever before. The new context presents an opportunity to build a radically new social care settlement.

Along with many of our partners and clients, we want to help create a children’s social care system which:

  • Promotes child welfare by working systemically with families and communities. Children are part of families, and families are part of communities. Support for families should involve a whole family approach and locate young people within family systems and recognise that families are often under huge pressure: poverty, disability, mental health, drug misuse, abusive and violent relationships. 
  • Ensures all children grow up in a safe family setting. This means working hard to keep families together, and enabling families to keep their children safe. This often involves working and alongside the extended family, friends and other connected persons. Or, when these options are exhausted, foster carers, or adoptive parents. All young people can succeed in a family setting. 
  • Supports vulnerable young people to reach their full potential. The purpose of children’s social care is to ensure that vulnerable young people aren’t held back by their experiences. Care-experienced young people should leave care with the same opportunities ahead of them as other children.
  • Empowers young people and families to have a stake and voice in their own support. Families and young people should be supported to build enduring, genuine relationships with professionals and others. Practitioners should be encouraged to build meaningful connections with young people and stick by them. Services should recognise that everyone has the capacity to change.
  • Reduces inequalities and leaves no-one behind. No group or individual should fall through the cracks in the system. Decisions making and social care support should not just prioritise short term risk and urgency, but also consider reducing longer term risks and improving child welfare in preparation for adulthood.
  • A self-improving system, that better uses evidence, that develops and tests new approaches, and embeds and scales successful improvements and innovations. This system includes all the important partners who have a role in keeping children safe and promoting their welfare, especially schools, early help services, police, children’s social care, charities & community organisations and NHS. 

Our Work

If social distancing is here for the foreseeable future, traditional methods of engagement with support services need to be reimagined and if the true level of demand is yet to emerge, then we have to ask where are families going for support? Who are people looking to at a time when the need is so great?

Innovation during the Coronavirus crisis is emerging in local communities, driven by local knowledge and imagined and delivered by individuals, families and groups, often with little or no recourse to public services. This is a moment of empowerment and opportunity for communities united in a common cause. 

These hyper-local community responses to the Coronavirus pandemic are already moulding a new shape to children’s social care in the UK. It is vital that we capture the learning from this crisis in order to design the future of care services.

Our work designing and implementing new solutions in social care has already taught us that successful solutions in social care involve:

  • A whole family approach
  • Multi-disciplinary teams working together 
  • A strengths based approach to understanding what’s needed
  • Informing better decisions through the use of data 
  • A focus on sustainable change
  • Pro-active early-intervention starting where the family is at 
  • Co-design with local people and users of the intended service 
  • Whole-system approaches and community-based models
  • Enabling and empowering staff to do skilled, direct, relational work with children, young people and families 

We want to work with you to combine this knowledge with learning emerging right now, and to take this opportunity to transform children’s social care. 

We are currently:

  • Supporting Greater Manchester to conduct a Real Time Learning exercise, to understand how the wider system is responding to the Coronavirus crisis. This includes children’s early help services. 
  • Conducting research with young people in Lambeth to understand their  experience and well-being of Coronavirus. The findings will be shared with Lambeth CCG and other key local anchor institutions.

We are looking at these issues through other lenses as well. We recently released ‘From crisis to renewal: Redesigning the mental health system around people and communities’, which highlights changes in the mental health system in response to Coronavirus and advocates for a new vision for mental health.

Some examples of our wider work in below: 

  • Scaling North Yorkshire County Council’s No Wrong Door innovation to nine other places, including to six authorities in Greater Manchester. 
  • In partnership with Mutual Ventures, we are the delivery partner for the DfE Strengthening Families, Protecting Children Programme, supporting the scaling of innovations from North Yorkshire (No Wrong Door), Leeds (Family Values) and Hertfordshire (Family Safeguarding).
  • In partnership with Mutual Ventures, we are the delivery partner for the DfE CSC Innovation Programme, coaching new innovations, supporting scaling of innovation to new areas, leading extensive learning work.
  • Funded by the National Lottery Community Fund, we are delivering the Living Well programme which is supporting four areas in England and Scotland to develop new models of care for mental health in community mental health and primary care services, inspired by an approach developed in Lambeth, South London.