18 December, 2018
The extent of pressure being felt by Local Authorities and in particular Social Workers working with children is starkly laid bare by recent statistics produced by the Department of Education.
The headline grabbing figures are somewhat shocking. Councils in England started almost 200,000 investigations into possible harm in 2017/18. An average of 188 children a day in England are being put on protection plans due to risk of abuse or neglect. Councils reported an increase in new child protection plans of 2,360 over the last year with a total of nearly 69,000 child protection plans commenced in that year.
The 198,090 investigations into possible harm is a 56% increase from 2012/13. Little surprise then that the Local Government Association (LGA) commented that Councils were being "pushed to the brink by unprecedented demand".
It will come as no surprise to learn that the 10 local authorities with the most new referrals in 2017/18 were all in the north of England with north east authorities occupying no less than 6 of the "top ten" places.
The rise can probably be explained at least in part by greater public awareness and a willingness to report abuse following recent high profile cases. However, it would be churlish not to also factor in the effect of years of austerity and changes in the welfare benefit system as well as significant cuts in early intervention services designed to provide support. This rising workload is inevitably putting Councils under further financial strain and it is sadly ironic that they have been forced to reduce or even stop many of the very services which are designed to help children and families before problems escalate to the point where a child might need to come into care.
The effect on individual Social Workers should not be underestimated with rising caseloads. They also face external media pressure which is often critical and must have a detrimental effect on morale. Social Work expert, Andrew Bilson told the BBC that Councils were increasingly "firefighting and responding rather than looking for ways to prevent harm and support families."
As a Solicitor working in the abuse field I come across many examples of Social Workers "going the extra mile" and performing their duties with great skill and dedication. Ironically, a recent change in the law might have the effect of causing Local Authorities to adopt a lighter approach in investigating and intervening when in receipt of reports of neglect or harm. In the Court of Appeal in late 2017 the judgment in CN & GN v Poole Council determined that a local authority did not owe a duty of care in deciding whether care proceedings should be commenced or in exercising its powers to investigate and take action to prevent significant harm to children. Unless it could be established that action taken by the Local Authority amounted to an "assumption of responsibility", any duty of care would arise only once a child had been removed into care.
That decision has been appealed to the Supreme Court and the judgment is eagerly awaited so as to clarify the current status of civil claims by all involved in this area of law and no doubt by Local Authorities also.
Even if the Supreme Court upholds the decision, I suggest that it will not result in an intentional drawing back of involvement of Social Services where harm or neglect to children is suspected. It may however cause a change, and probably a reduction in compensation claims against Local Authorities in such cases. If such savings can be used to support families in need and reduce the need for care orders that must surely be a welcome result.