A key children’s services priority for the previous Welsh Government Health and Social Services Minister, Mark Drakeford, was to reduce the proportion of children in care in Wales, which is almost 50 per cent higher than in England. He had focused attention not only on this inequality between countries but also on inequalities between local authorities within Wales.
We are used to hearing about inequalities in health and educational attainment. But when it comes to children’s services interventions in child protection or the care system, the tendency is to focus on individual cases – especially the few, dreadful, child deaths. However, the social inequalities which are reflected in children’s health and education outcomes are also seen in patterns of abuse and neglect, or other extreme family difficulties.
There are three main kinds of inequalities in children’s services interventions. First, social inequalities affect which children are likely to be in contact with children’s services, placed on a child protection plan or taken into care. Second, once in contact with children’s services, different groups of children may be responded to in different ways. Third, interventions may have different outcomes for different groups of children or not reduce the gap between children in need of children’s services and those who are not.
Our recent evidence from England showed that children living in the most deprived 10 per cent of small neighbourhoods in the country were 10 times more likely to be on a child protection plan and 12 times more likely to be in care (‘looked after’) than children in the least deprived 10 per cent. Each step increase in deprivation increases pressures on families and is associated with more children receiving these kinds of interventions. Moreover, there are huge inequities in the intervention rates between ethnic groups. When we compared children from equally deprived neighbourhoods, we found that White children were six times more likely than Asian children to be looked after.
We also found to our surprise, that when we compared equally deprived small neighbourhoods in disadvantaged and affluent local authorities, the less deprived local authorities overall had substantially higher intervention rates across every level of neighbourhood deprivation. We called this the ‘inverse intervention law’. We don’t yet know whether this applies to Wales, but a team based in Cardiff University is testing that out and we’ll know by the end of the year. We need to do much more to understand why all these inequalities occur, what the consequences are for children and how these gaps can be narrowed.
All this evidence reinforces the importance of paying attention to the impact of social structures and policies on children’s services practice. A cultural shift may be required to place the material circumstances of family life (and the interactions of such circumstances with other factors affecting parenting capacity) at the front and centre of children’s services practice. To bring down intervention rates, can we reduce these structural inequalities between rich and poor, ethnic groups, local authorities and countries, while still securing children’s safe development?
To read the report, De-escalating Interventions for Troubled Adolescents, click here.
About the author: Paul Bywaters is Professor of Social Work at the Centre for Communities and Social Justice, Coventry University. He has been a social work academic for over 30 years, publishing five books and more than 50 peer reviewed articles and book chapters.