Would we say that children’s services left our roads with pot holes if funding had to be taken from other budgets, like maintenance or roads?
These are the kind of see-saw decisions local authorities are trying to balance, according to Anthony Douglas, chief executive of CAFCASS, the national agency that supports and advises children and families through court.
“The general public are ambivalent about spending very large sums of money on vulnerable children particularly teenagers,” Anthony Douglas says. “The cost of looking after some being perhaps £0.5m a year, it is a dilemma, but the state has a responsibility to look after its most vulnerable people.”
Money for children’s services ‘can no longer be pinched from reduced budgets’, adds Douglas.
“Already these services have had a great deal of relative protection in the current financial difficulties at the expense of some other programmes.
“Some of these are significantly cross-subsidising children’s services, but I think in the future when there isn’t much left, then the crunch will come in probably two to three years.”
Numbers in care continue to climb
To make it worse, the number of children taken into care continues to climb. There has been an increase of more than 5% since this time last year, itself a record high. The rise has continued for five years and shows no sign of ending.
More of the children in the community on the same monitoring threshold are being taken into care. We are seeing ‘a bit more awareness, a bit more action’, Douglas says.
But when asked to explain the trend, Douglas is cautious, pointing out that different decades cannot be directly compared. As a society we are becoming more aware of problems from domestic violence. Another factor is that illegal drugs are now more likely to trigger violent reactions.
Effects of cuts will appear in two or three years
Yet the balance between growing awareness and finding funds is where the fight is taking place. The tough climate will challenge social services teams to cope, says Douglas. They will need to become more analytical and ‘progressively more clever’. Added to that, the hidden costs of cuts will only appear in future years.
“On current projections there will potentially be something even more serious to worry about, because these are not services you could charge for, these are not parents who could pay or be organised enough to do things: it really is a core service by the state, it has always had to be and probably will always have to be.”
40% of those taken into care settle, while the other 60% see their placements break down.
In some councils where services are in place to work with violent parents or those with addictions, more children can stay at home.
But what it takes to protect and give hope to a child is complex. If experienced foster or adoptive parents give support that adds to professional services. But a lot of support is necessary to rebuild broken lives.
Daily therapeutic care is crucial
“Often what is needed is therapeutic care,” says Douglas. “The children’s daily experience – which is scary – is replaced, basically by something that is risk-free and allows them to develop quite normally. In other words the normal things that most other kids would take for granted.
“If you have seen a child in good foster care who may have been neglected for two or three years, recover in two or three months, that does give some optimism. Of course children have the scars of those experiences. Certainly, of children who have been badly treated, 60% of their placements break down so while recovery from trauma is crucial but it is not easy.”
More fostering parents are needed but this is everyday inclusion in the family which ‘takes some doing.’
Winning the trust of a traumatised toddler
The shift towards early intervention will increase if plans to limit the adoption process to 26 weeks are enforced. With no waiting lists and time limits Cafcass says it will see an even bigger strain on its service providers.
“When you have lots of cases allocated from the word go, there is a lot of pressure on practitioners to find out about each child very very quickly
“Some children are not used to speaking about what’s happening to them and they may never have spoken about it.
“Half of the children we work with are under six, so that makes it even harder to analyse what’s going on for them.”
All this has to be recorded whether for a child who wants to look back at a decision, or for an investigation.
“I suppose we have learned over the years, particularly following enquiries and tragedies, that work does have to be accountable, it does have to be recorded properly.
“Organisations have to find the safe minimum level of recording compatible with accountability. But there is still too much duplication of paperwork. We are looking at that all the time to try to reduce it.”
Anthony Douglas changed career in order “to do something he thought would make a difference,” and while he has never regretted that for one day the real challenges ahead are tough.
People are increasingly demanding explanations, asking for reasons, and expecting evidence and results. But this will only stretch resources as budgets are tightened – and children’s lives are not as easy to mend as pot holes in the road.