In a country without the death penalty, the decision to separate a child from their family is the most serious a state can make.
When Donald Trump is separating families at the US border there is worldwide condemnation. In fact, most states exercise that power regularly within their own borders, to protect children from their parents. In England the rate is increasing at an alarming rate.
These are the numbers: by the time they reach their fifth birthday, nearly one in five children have been referred to social workers. The number in care has peaked at 75,000 – the highest level since records began in 1994. The system designed to keep our children safe is creaking under its caseload.
The “postcode lottery”
There is dramatic regional variation in how many children are taken into care. Where you live dictates the chance of your family being separated, or supported to stay together.
In Richmond upon Thames, south-west London, 23 out of every 10,000 children were in care last year. In Blackpool, in the north west of England, that figure was 185 for every 10,000. The north-south divide is clear, with a band of authorities spanning the north-east to north-west of England standing out.
Children in care per 10,000
Click the search tool to find out the rate where you live
20 per cent of under-fives are referred to social services in England. But the proportion of children referred to social workers also differs wildly across the country, from 9 per cent in Richmond Upon Thames to 48 per cent in Manchester.
Referral rates before the child’s fifth birthday
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There are also big variations in the rates of adoptions. By the age of five, one in 50 children born in 2011-12 in Southampton had been adopted, compared with one in 600 in Greenwich.
What’s behind the regional differences?
Some of that variation is not a strict “postcode lottery” but is dictated by well-understood factors: poverty is the strongest indicator of the rates of children in care in an area. Being poor makes it harder to parent.
Meanwhile, austerity has cut services to support families to stay together. There are also patterns of family separation in areas with different demographics.
Overlay the raw data for children in care, deprivation, council spending and ethnicity and you can see some patterns.
Looking at the variation in rates of children in care between different areas can also help us to understand more about the reasons why children are going into care. We tested the three theories in the latest data: the link with poverty (judged by the Index of Multiple Deprivation, an official composite measure of poverty), austerity (judged by council spending) and ethnicity (judged by the proportion of white residents).
Using a linear regression model, a commonly used statistical technique to examine the relationship between one variable and a set of explanatory variables, we found evidence to support all three.
All three variables – the deprivation index, council spending and the proportion of white residents – have statistically significant effects on the rates of children in care. Together they can explain up to 69 per cent of the variation between local authorities in looked-after children rates.
Taking each variable in turn, deprivation alone accounts for 44 per cent of the variation. Higher deprivation is associated with higher looked-after children rates.
Ethnicity accounts for an additional 22 per cent of the variation, where local authorities with larger white populations have higher rates of looked-after children.
Council spending adds a final three per cent to the explained variation. Councils with higher net expenditures tend to have lower looked-after children rates, suggesting that more supportive councils are better at keeping children from being taken into care.
The laws governing care proceedings apply uniformly across England but result in different outcomes on the ground.
While our basic model implies that the chances of your child being taken into care increase with deprivation, a large white population, and low council spending, a large share – 31 per cent – of the variation between local authorities remains a mystery.
Some of that 31 per cent will be down to random events and changes. Much of it will likely be explained by local authorities’ own customs and practices – the informal and formal rules that govern social workers, for example, or the community composition – that are hard to measure.
The chance of your child being taken into care is, in part, a postcode lottery.
Why are more children going into care?
The causes of the increase are multi-layered and contested. The 1989 Children Act says legal proceedings to separate families should be pursued when the child “is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm”. This means social workers have to assess the risk of harm as well as actual evidence that it has happened.
Events over the last couple of decades have made social workers more and more risk averse, triggering them to initiate legal proceedings sooner. The high-profile failures to protect Victoria Climbié then Peter Connelly (known as “Baby P”) from the abuse by their families, and the political and media vilification that followed for the social workers involved, prompted a big increase in legal proceedings to separate families.
Meanwhile, rising hardship is creating more struggling families. Poverty makes it harder to be a good parent. In the past decade austerity and decreased public spending in support of those families means they are getting less help through those tough times. There is less support for people with mental health, substance misuse and domestic violence problems – the key factors cited by social workers in cases of neglect and abuse.
Since current records began 25 years ago, there has also been a shift in society’s expectations of parents that is much harder to quantify.
The increase has been driven by a rise in numbers of children removed because of neglect and emotional harm, as opposed to physical and sexual abuse. Comparing the reasons cited in child protection plans in 2010 and 2016 alone, shows a stark difference.
The decisions the state makes for vulnerable children also changes with the political climate. In 2012, Michael Gove, then the minister responsible for child protection, began a drive to increase the number of adoptions of children in care, working on the theory that getting children settled as soon as possible in permanent homes was the best for them.
In 2013, the president of the family court, Sir James Munby, ordered that the trend should be reversed, restating the importance of family life in human rights laws and encouraging more children to be placed with family members. A reversal in the trend in adoptions followed – though some academics argue that the increase Gove triggered would have eased off anyway after the backlog in the system had been dealt with.
Who is in care?
Of the 75,000 children in care, over half (56 per cent) are male, 44 per cent are female. The largest age group (39 per cent) are aged 10-15 years; 23 per cent are aged 16 years and over, 19 per cent are aged five to nine, 13 per cent are one to four years, and 6 per cent are under one year.
Research by Paul Bywaters at Huddersfield University found a strong pattern regarding ethnicity: 22 in every 10,000 Asian children are in care, compared with 64 in 10,000 white children and 87 in 10,000 black children. However, in poor areas, white children were most likely to be in care – 120 out of every 10,000 white children.
What do other jurisdictions do?
New York City
Parents are appointed a parent advocate, someone who has been through the system themselves and is trained to give moral support. Providing parents with more support is credited with a reduction in the numbers in care in New York from 49,000 in 1992 to 9,000 now.
Instead of a lone judge, a jury panel of volunteers decides the outcome of court cases over care orders. When the panel can’t agree, the case is referred to a legally trained sheriff. Foster and residential care rates in Scotland are about 60 per cent higher than in England. On the flipside, adoption rates from care, which are largely against the parents’ wishes, are much lower.
A panel of experts, politicians and a judge decide – a child may be removed only if four of the five panelists agree.
Compulsory family group conferences bring extended family together, with social workers to try to solve problems. Designed to improve how professionals were working with Maori families, it is now being adopted around the world and in the UK in particular.
This is the second part in a series of reports on family separation. For this series we spoke to dozens of people with intimate knowledge of how the system works: parents who have been through it, the social workers who work to support them and recommend interventions, lawyers who fight their cases, the policymakers and academics who think about the system and the judges who make the final call. We sat in court for a week, watching the ebb and flow of everyday, heartbreaking cases. We examined the data that points to discrepancies over which children are removed from their families. And we invited the people at the heart of the system into our newsroom to tell us what is happening.
We have more pieces planned and as a next step we will be holding a ThinkIn in our newsroom on May 1 at 6.30pm, and another in Sunderland at 11am on May 22.
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- The child protection sector came together last year under the auspices of the Family Rights Group to conduct the Care Crisis Review, which identified many of the data points in this article.
- Professor Andy Bilson’s data is quoted in this article, read his wider research here.
- Professor Paul Bywaters’s research on ethnicity can be read in full here.
- The National Audit Office documented the pressures on children’s services in its report earlier this year here.