Time to take stock: understanding how early intervention works for children's social care
Isabelle Trowler, Chief Social Worker for Children and Families in England, reflects on the key implications from our 'Realising the potential' report for children's social care, including the need to test approaches that can generate long-term gains for families with complex needs, and to avoid setting public and political expectations that are "wildly disproportionate" to services' capabilities.
I have been looking forward to the Early Intervention Foundation’s latest report, Realising the potential of early intervention. I hope it’s well read and well received.
For me, the nuance the report provides on the question of whether early intervention can reduce pressure on children’s social care is much needed. Very often it is argued that early intervention will stop the trajectory of families into the expensive arena of children’s social care, and reduce the numbers of children experiencing abuse and neglect. The inevitable escalation argument is used because it is powerful and emotionally charged, and it has been successfully used to justify spend in this area. It seems entirely logical to want to “get in early” and stop a painful trajectory into social hardship. But what are we really getting for our money?
There is an assumption that investment in this area will by default stop escalation into children’s social care, and save money accordingly. With a multibillion-pound annual spend on children’s social care alone, that’s a pretty attractive argument – but despite a major focus on developing early intervention services over the last 10 years, over that same period we see that more children are subject to child protection plans and more children are coming into public care, and an increasing proportion of spending on children’s services is being spent of these most vulnerable children.
Of course there are lots of factors at play here, and this isn’t just about the quality of earlier services. Nonetheless, it’s time to take stock. Whilst we have all been on a mission to find out what works to reduce child abuse and neglect, it’s equally important to acknowledge what hasn’t worked too.
Whilst we have all been on a mission to find out what works to reduce child abuse and neglect, it’s equally important to acknowledge what hasn’t worked too.
The vast majority of people who access early intervention services will never neglect and abuse their children – or indeed not even get close to it. There is a very clear difference between neglect, for example, and the struggle of parenting in poor communities – the two are frequently and horribly confused, and service solutions need to be properly differentiated accordingly. This is one of the central themes in my policy briefing published last week, The Case for Clear Blue Water. Frequently, services are neither (a) sophisticated enough to tackle the entrenched violence, addiction or family dysfunction which characterises many family problems which result in care proceedings; nor (b) designed to support parents with learning disability or enduring mental ill health, very often present in families who face care proceedings.
One of the most helpful points the EIF report makes is that early intervention is unlikely to reduce pressure on children’s social care in the short term, because the needs of these families may be too deeply entrenched. This doesn’t mean we can’t help high-need families, but we need to urgently identify and test promising or new approaches to support and secure lasting change. What we shouldn’t do is shoehorn families into services which won’t meet their needs just because that’s all that’s available.
What we shouldn’t do is shoehorn families into services which won’t meet their needs just because that’s all that’s available.
As the EIF report sets out, thoughtful and well-designed early help services can improve quality of life, for example, by improving children's mental health and wellbeing, educational attainment and reducing the likelihood of involvement in crime or antisocial behaviour. Services may even divert a small group who might otherwise go on to abuse or neglect their children. Intensive, skilled support provided to families with children on the edge of public care may well reduce the need for it.
But what is needed is a range of effective support that is able to match different levels of child and family need, including the needs of the most vulnerable children and families. This isn’t what is often delivered. Early help services which are not well evidenced or tailored to individual need, and which are sold as a panacea to reducing child abuse and neglect, are unhelpful, setting public and political expectations at levels that are wildly disproportionate to the current capability of these services.
Early help services which are not well evidenced or tailored to individual need, and which are sold as a panacea to reducing child abuse and neglect, are unhelpful, setting public and political expectations at levels that are wildly disproportionate to the current capability of these services.
Local authorities – and indeed, partner agencies – are facing a difficult financial future in which it will be necessary to continue to consolidate resources and prioritise. Service investment will need to be based on a much more nuanced approach to what should be provided to whom, how and why. I warmly welcome the EIF report, and hope this is a catalyst for debate about how we build a national response to a wide range of social needs, which is also sophisticated enough to respond to the complexity of the lives of some of the most vulnerable children and their families. Certainly, there are no simple solutions.