Social services are overly focused on “investigating” families struggling to care for their children rather than providing support to help them through their difficulties, a report has found.
The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care found the current system often weakens rather than strengthens a child’s support networks, depriving them of long-term loving relationships.
Of those leaving care to embark on their adult life, the only form of social support network available to one in 10 was the care worker assigned to them.
“Too often children are moved far from where they have grown up, are separated from their brothers or sisters, are forced to move schools, and have a revolving door of social workers,” the report said.
“We are failing to build lifelong loving relationships around these children.”
Former school teacher Josh MacAlister, who led the review, described the current system as a “tower of Jenga held together with Sellotape”.
It pointed out that the majority of families seeking support from the system were struggling in conditions of adversity, rather than abusing or neglecting their children.
But it found social care was focused on the stressful and invasive process of investigating and assessing parents, rather than providing any meaningful support.
It found just under 135,000 investigations where a minor was suspected of suffering significant harm did not result on the child being placed on a child protection plan – up threefold in a decade.
Meanwhile, funding to local services to support families has fallen by 35% since 2013.
“Each of these investigations is an intrusion into families that in itself can cause additional stress,” the report said.
“This was a consistent theme from our engagement with families.”
The report also found that children raised in “kinship care” – by a relative or family friend – had significantly better outcomes than those placed in state-organised care in terms of education and long-term mental health.
But despite those in kinship care often living with grandparents, many suffering long-term disability or financial hardship, the review found there was very little formal support from the state.
Kinship carers have little access to the Adoption Support Fund, the report said, and in some cases had to be formally assessed and registered as foster carers in order to continue the arrangement.
The review argued social services should be proactively considering kinship care options before starting care proceedings in the family courts.
It said it would reduce the number of moves a child has to go through and reduce the loss of the existing connections they have, including with their birth parents and siblings.
Children whose parents were in state-arranged care are more likely to be in care themselves, the report found, with one commentator noting: “The state is the grandparent to many of today’s children in care.”
It found 40% of mothers who have had more than one child removed from their custody were in care while a survey of 127 fathers in care proceedings revealed 22% had been looked after by the state.
“Rates of intergenerational care demonstrate a long-term failure to break cycles of trauma and abuse and are a stark demonstration of how much must change,” the report said.
The review said the role of the state should be to “support and enable the inherent strengths of families and communities”.
It added sometimes the best thing the state could do was “get out of the way” as long as it was acting decisively in cases where a child required protection.
“Too often we are allowing situations to escalate and then being forced to intervene too late, severing children’s relationships and setting them on a worse trajectory,” it said.
It added that where children do need to be removed from their families, the state must step in and act as “the pushy parent” to ensure they can get the homes and support they need.
Review lead Mr MacAlister said: “Our children’s social care system is a 30-year-old tower of Jenga held together with Sellotape: simultaneously rigid and yet shaky.
“There are many professionals and services doing excellent work but this report sets out the scale of the problems we face and the urgent need for a new approach.”
He added: “Improving children’s social care will take us a long way to solving some of the knottiest problems facing society – improving children’s quality of life, tackling inequalities, improving the productivity of the economy, and truly levelling up.”
The findings are published in the report “The Case for Change” and between March and June this year, the research team spoke to over 700 people who have been through the case system.
It spoke to around 300 people working with children and families, and received more than 1,000 responses to its call for evidence from those with knowledge of the system.
Sir Peter Wanless, NSPCC chief executive, said: “The care review must seize on a once-in-a-generation opportunity to deliver ambitious recommendations that can lead to a comprehensive, properly-funded care system that works for every child and family who needs it regardless of their background or where they live.”
Mark Russell, chief executive at The Children’s Society, said: “(Child social care) is a system hamstrung by under-investment, bureaucracy and artificial barriers.
“Tackling these enormous systemic, cultural and financial challenges, and reforming the system will require real ambition, imagination and considerable investment.”
Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, said: “It’s entirely unacceptable children are left to suffer harm before we give them help.
“This crisis-driven firefighting isn’t a strategy, it’s a guarantee more children will come to harm.”
Tulip Siddiq MP, Labour’s shadow minister for children and early years, said: “After failing to ban unregulated accommodation for all children in care, there is no evidence that ministers will deliver the reforms that are needed to stop vulnerable young people fall through the cracks.”