The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care: a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity?
EIF director of policy and practice Donna Molloy welcomes the findings of the 'bold' independent review of children’s social care, reflecting on the current state of the system and the key role that properly resourced, evidence-informed early intervention can play in a children's social care system that provides a safe and nurturing environment for children.
This article was originally published by Children & Young People Now.
The Case for Change published this morning is bold, visionary, and does not shy away from raising difficult issues. The analysis is right. The system is far from being fit for purpose and has become increasingly skewed towards managing risk. We are not doing enough to support families who are struggling in the face of adversity and multiple stressors, to provide the safe and nurturing environment that children need to thrive.
The vision in the Case for Change for a strengthened, high-quality system of family help based on evidence is exciting and one we can really get behind. We know that early intervention and family support can make a real difference. Well-delivered family support services, which build on families’ strengths and respond to what matters to them, have been shown to deliver wide-ranging improvements across important child outcomes, including wellbeing, mental health, attainment, physical health, and reduced crime, violence and antisocial behaviour.
Yet we know families are often unable to access the help they need, at the point they need it. They can face intrusive and stressful investigations and assessments, while lacking meaningful support. To give one example, evidence shows that where parental relationships are characterised by frequent, poorly resolved conflict, this can have a range of negative impacts on children. Almost a quarter of parents are considered to be in “distressed” relationships and while there is great work going on currently to improve support for parental relationships, we are still some way from this type of support being available to all the parents who could benefit.
Particularly welcome in The Case for Change is the call for new focus on tackling deprivation. The recognition that families’ socioeconomic circumstances should not be seen as a background issue is important; the evidence of the impact of poverty on children’s outcomes is consistently strong. Effective family support can help mitigate the effects of poverty and disadvantage, but is not sufficient to prevent poor outcomes on its own. Improved family support will be most effective if accompanied by clear action to improve the social and economic context in which children live. There is space for continued bold thinking from the care review in this area right now.
The review rightly flags the need for better coordination of central government policy in order to meet the needs of children and families. The fragmentation of policy responsibility for children and families across Whitehall departments is a longstanding and frequently highlighted problem. Bringing about a new improved support offer for families locally urgently requires better alignment of the government programmes which contribute relevant support. The Supporting Families Programme model of key worker-led whole family-focussed support, for example, feels like a potential part of the solution needed here. Bringing the care review vision for improved family support together with wider government thinking on family policy is important in making it easier for local agencies to co-ordinate a coherent offer in local communities.
We have known for a long time that early intervention can help families to stay together, mitigate the impact of stress and adversity, and help children to thrive. But if it is going to realise its potential, this agenda needs to be properly resourced for the long term. The help that is provided locally needs to have a basis in the evidence and to be well matched to needs, including support that is sufficiently intensive and skilled to be able to make a difference for families facing really complex challenges.
It feels like we have been talking about many of these issues for a long time. But the care review creates a new and important moment. The timing is right; Covid has created a greater urgency in relation to supporting families who need and want help. There is also a growing case being made that the government’s levelling up agenda must include investing in services to support the most vulnerable families. Indeed it is hard to think of a better way that government could achieve its ambitions to ‘level up’ than by supporting all children to reach their potential, regardless of where they grow up, or the family circumstances they are born into. An improved, more developed, evidence-informed family support offer has never felt more important. The next phase of the review may be just the opportunity we need to get this right.