One in FIVE children are now being referred to social services before school age as authorities fear missing the next Ayeeshia Smith or Baby P
22.5% of children born in 2009-10 were referred to social services by 2015
Equates to one in every five and illustrates child protection officer anxiety
Report links steep rise in reports to high-profile case of child abuse
Those working with children now worry about missing next Baby P, Ayeeshia Smith or Keegan Downer
By Euan McLelland 25 May 2016
Panicked child protection officers are referring one in every five children to social services anxious that they could be the next Ayeeshia Smith (pictured)
Panicked child protection officers are referring one in every five children to social services for fear that they could be the next Baby P or Ayeeshia Smith.
Recent high-profile cases of toddler abuse have caused a ‘climate of fear’ to fester among those working with young children, leaving care agencies terrified another death will be reported on their watch.
To that accord, more children than ever before are being flagged up to local councils by midwives, nursery workers, health visitors and even members of the public worried that they are at risk.
An investigation by researchers at the University of Central Lancashire found 115,000 of the more than 500,000 children born in 2009-10 had been referred to social services by 2015.
That equates to one in every five and illustrates the nervousness amongst child protection agencies that is forcing social workers to investigate almost every complaint made.
Professor Andy Bilson, lead researcher and Associate Director of UCLan’s Centre for Children and Young People’s Participation, described the situation as being ‘toxic’.
He said: ‘The tragic deaths of children like Ayeeshia Smith, and desperation not to be the one who misses the early signs next time, have led to a climate of suspicion with increasing numbers of children in care and adopted, and child protection investigations spiralling.
‘Children’s services are under considerable pressure to investigate more mainly because of government, media and public responses to child deaths and an Ofsted inspection regime that is covering its back.
‘The introduction of Early Help [a Government scheme to help at risk children] against the current background of fear of blame for another tragic death creates a toxic mix in which schools, NHS staff, and police are all trying to defend themselves by passing on even the smallest concern to children’s services leading to an 80 per cent increase in investigations in the last five years.
‘Social workers are swamped by this growing tide of investigative work leaving little time to support victims and help families overcome the problems leading to referral.’
Professor Bilson stressed that the increase in investigations did not lead to a rise in the number of children being significantly harmed.
In the latter’s case, social services were accused of failing the 21-month-old who was murdered by her mother stamping on her chest.
The report links the surge in reports to the public exposure given to the shocking deaths of toddlers Baby P (left), Keegan Downer (right) and Ayeeshia Jane Smith. More children than ever before are being flagged up to local councils by people worried that they are at risk
Ayeeshia was handed back to her violent drug-addicted mother Kathryn Smith despite grave concerns about her care. Her biological father twice reported injuries she had suffered to social workers but claimed they ‘weren’t interested’.
The toddler, who weighed just 20lbs when she died, was attacked with such force she suffered a fatal heart injury, three broken ribs and bit through her own tongue.
Experts said her injuries were so severe she resembled a high-speed car crash victim.
Social services had been supervising Ayeeshia and she was taken away from Smith for five months and placed with foster carers, during which time she gained weight and her health improved. But she was given back to her mother seven months before her death following a ‘positive risk assessment’.
Campaigners say it was one of a series of missed opportunities by social services to save the little girl. Social workers discussed taking Ayeeshia into care again three weeks before she died, then held another meeting just 24 hours before she was killed – but did not remove the child.
That case bears striking resemblances to that of Baby P, who died in London in 2007 after suffering more than fifty injuries over an eight-month period, during which he was repeatedly seen by the London Borough of Haringey Children’s services and National Health Service (NHS).
Andy Pithouse, Professor of Social Research from the School of Social Sciences at the University of Cardiff, commented:
‘This exceptional landmark study puts into sharp relief the extraordinary scale of child protection referrals and investigations in England and the worrying absence of family support services for the very many children and parents whose circumstances do not warrant intervention but who nonetheless have significant needs. This picture of social work in a spiralling net-widening climate of fear, suspicion and all too often unfounded concerns over child harm, is unlikely to be confined to England. It demands a response by governments across the UK to ensure that children and families get early, caring, durable support they can trust.‘
One in five of all children born in a single year in England was referred to social services before they reached age five, research suggests.
A study of children born in 2009-10 suggests up to 150,000 pre-school children were reported over fears of abuse or neglect, most unnecessarily.
Only 25% of referrals were formally investigated while 10% led to protection plans, the study said. The University of Central Lancashire report said staff were wasting time. The researchers said while public and professional vigilance was welcome, the number of alerts received by social services meant staff were wasting their time on innocent families, and making it harder to find the children who are at risk.
It follows a series of high profile cases where serious child abuse was missed by social workers.
The researchers used data from Freedom of Information Act requests to 150 councils, with 114 responding.
They found half a million children were born in those areas and 115,735 were referred to social services by last year.
When that was extrapolated across England, it suggested more than 150,000 children born that year had been brought to the attention of child protection teams by the age of five.
The report said its findings show the full extent of children’s involvement in children’s social care before the age of five.
Social workers are under intense pressure to make sure they do not miss any child at risk, and end up checking up more of the warnings they receive than is necessary, the research suggests. It said:
“Whilst some children needed to be protected, there is little evidence to support this scale of statutory involvement or the growing focus on early, and increasingly investigative, interventions alongside increases in removal of children from families into long-term care, special guardianship and adoption.”
Lead researcher Professor Andy Bilson said other data showed how much time referrals took up.
‘Needle in haystack’
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme that the majority of these concerns probably were not ones that were founded.
One example of a referral that did not make it beyond an initial assessment included a call from a neighbour who said a father was yelling at his children and might be taking drugs.
“Many of these lead to nothing,” he said. “We have this mantra that says it’s everybody’s job to safeguard children but what we are doing doesn’t actually safeguard children. Creating these huge numbers of referrals of concern is like creating a huge, extra big haystack in which we are trying to find the needle of the children who are really at risk.” He added: “If you are a parent and someone has logged a complaint about you, it doesn’t matter if you aren’t formally investigated, you will still feel that you are under threat.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said:
“Ensuring children are safe and well looked after is our top priority – where there are concerns about a child’s safety or welfare, it is only right that the appropriate people are informed and where needed, action is taken. We have introduced a new Social Care Bill that will continue to reform the care system so that we increase the quality of our social workers and ensure children receive the highest quality care and support. We are also enabling councils to look at innovative ways in caring for vulnerable children, backed by £100m of government funding.”