Groundbreaking research led by Kingston University and the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) has shed light on the evolving and multifaceted demand for children’s social care services.
An analysis of 3.6 million social work assessments identified twelve common categories of demand present across children’s social care in England and the associated intervention pathways and outcomes.
The study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, revealed an increasingly complex picture of demand for children’s social care services between 2014 and 2021, with a disproportionate rise in child mental health problems, extra-familial harm, and complexities around parental mental health.
Professor of Social Work at Kingston University, Rick Hood, believes that the study was a milestone in the sector.
He said: “This study represents the largest and most comprehensive analysis of data on social work assessments carried out so far in England.
“We hope our findings will help local authorities understand demand and match services to what children and families need to thrive and meet their potential.
“There is an absence of sufficient resources available to address the variety of demand meaning many children will not receive the right kind of help early enough and end up returning into the system later in life.”
Professor Rick Hood – Photo credit: Kingston University
With children’s social care under increasing pressure, this research, which identified 12 categories of demand, will help local authorities to better support children and families.
Social workers record any combination of 40 common risk factors when they carry out a child and family assessment, and until now little has been known about what combinations are most prevalent for which children.
The two-year quantitative study categorised 3.6 million social care assessments linked to a range of social care and education outcomes, including child protection and care interventions, re-referrals, and re-entries to care, school exclusions, and educational attainment.
Further analysis explored how outcomes differed based on children’s characteristics, their category of need, and the type of provision they received.
The report found:
- Single-factor domestic abuse and violence was found to be the most prevalent category of demand, accounting for a fifth of all cases.
- A combination of concerns about parental mental health and concerns about either alcohol or drug misuse was the second most prevalent form of demand.
- Average rates of re-referral were 30 per cent over 12 months and 59 per cent over six years. For some categories of demand, these rates were significantly higher and children in more complex categories of demand were more likely to be re-referred and to have a repeat child protection plan.
- Children in the ‘risks outside the home’ category were more likely to be older, male and/or Black, accommodated in care and less likely to have a child protection plan than the average child assessed by children’s social care.
- Children at risk of domestic violence and abuse were more likely to have a child protection plan if assessed with other risk factors, particularly neglect.
The report has called on policymakers and local services to respond to the findings through:
- An increased role for, and investment in, youth services and child and adolescent mental health services to prevent a rise in numbers of young people with complex needs.
- Better training for practitioners that acknowledges complex links between social and economic circumstances and racial and ethnic disparities in assessment.
- Enacting social policies that improve financial and socioeconomic circumstances of families.
Strategic Director for External Affairs at the National Children’s Bureau, Phil Anderson, said the research provides new evidence on the need for more investment in mental health services.
He explained: “This study provides new evidence on which to base services that address the needs of the whole child and their family, so they receive the help they need as early as possible.
“It supports the case for a significantly increased investment in child and adolescent mental health services as well as improved training for practitioners.”
As part of the project, local authorities in England are being encouraged to undertake their own demand analysis, using tools available on the project website to inform strategic decisions and the design of local children’s services.