Group of kids playing in forest

Child Referrals to Social Work

Marion Macleod

A few years ago, in 2019, I assisted Andy Bilson, Emeritus Professor of Social Work at the University of Central Lancashire, in gathering data from Scottish local authorities. We were trying to find out the numbers of children who had been referred to and involved with public social services in Scotland before the age of five. Andy had carried out a similar study in England in 2017, which uncovered the disturbing information that one in five children had been referred to social work services prior to their fifth birthday. Of course, the English figures had to be considered against a backdrop of a Conservative government pursuing an austerity agenda, with consequent impact on public services and family poverty. We were therefore interested to see how Scotland, under an SNP government which had both adopted an economic strategy apparently aimed at mitigating the impact of austerity and stated its commitment to give children the ‘best start in life’, compared.

We obtained the figures directly from individual local authorities through Freedom of Information requests, so can reasonably assume their reliability. At the time we asked for the data there were no significant external circumstances that might have resulted in atypical numbers. Of course, at that point we had no idea that the coronavirus pandemic was about to unfold, which inevitably changed the patterns of referral to social work services and the ways these services were provided. We could therefore be certain that the figures did not represent any kind of temporary ‘blip’ because of the impact of the pandemic. 

What we were shocked to find was that the figures in Scotland were even worse than those in England. One in every four children in Scotland had been referred to social work before the age of five. Despite these alarming statistics, some might consider it a ‘job well done’ if we were identifying children who were being harmed more effectively and offering them and their families appropriate and effective services. We had therefore asked for a number of other figures, aimed at finding out how many children were eventually made subject to compulsory measures of care. We found that child protection investigations were carried out on 5.9%, one in seventeen of all children, 3.8% were placed on the child protection register and 2.6% placed on compulsory measures of care. These last two groups of children would have received the vast majority of social work attention with a focus on investigating individual blame and changing parental behaviour with little done to support families in need or reduce pressures in communities that lead to future harm.

So why are so many of our young children being referred? Firstly, there is undoubtedly an element of ‘back-covering’. There have been several high-profile tragedies where public services failed to protect children adequately. No practitioner or agency wants to take the risk of getting it wrong, so the safe thing to do is to escalate any concern. Secondly, pressures on universal services mean that there is insufficient time, and, in the cases of some services, insufficient knowledge, to feel confident about both assessment of risk and about providing the right kind of support to diminish the risk of harm. Many health visitors, for example, are carrying caseloads of in excess of 200 children, so the time available for more detailed fact finding and provision of support is limited only to the most critical cases. Social work is the agency of last resort and holds statutory powers and duties in relation to the protection of children. Agencies referring children may therefore be assuming that a referral will always generate a practical response. Of course, referring onwards also has the effect of shifting the responsibility for responding to concerns, thus reducing the extent of anxiety among referring agencies about possibly making a fatal error.

What these figures mean, even if we assume that all the compulsory measures that ended up being taken were both entirely justifiable and the most effective way of addressing concerns (which is debateable), is that only a very small proportion of those referred was, in the end of the day, thought to meet the threshold for compulsory intervention. The questions we need to be asking are, firstly, why referrals are so high and where are they coming from, secondly, can we assume that the families where no compulsory interventions are thought necessary do not need help, thirdly, what are the actual risks that children are facing which generates compulsory involvement, fourthly, whether the child protection system in Scotland really should be based more on identifying of risk of harm than on the promotion of the wellbeing of children and, fifthly, whether the possibility of being investigated serves to increase stress and anxiety in families who are already struggling . 

If we really want to address these matters, we need to understand better the factors that underlie these concerns about children’s welfare. Nationally, the overwhelming majority of children referred are in the materially poorest families in the community (Bywaters et al, Child Welfare Inequalities Project, 2020). Interestingly, however, we find variation in patterns of referral and response across local authorities which did not correlate with levels of deprivation. In authorities with fewer deprived families, rates of intervention were higher in their deprived communities than in similar communities in authorities with higher proportions of deprived families. Many of the challenges facing the families whose children are referred directly stem from their economic circumstances. Family poverty, as well as being a serious problem in its own right, is strongly correlated with other difficulties that affect capacity to parent effectively such as mental and physical ill-health, addiction and violence. Coupled with this there has been an erosion, over many years, of community based, accessible services that promote wellbeing and reduce risk. At the same time, successive cuts to local authority budgets have constrained the capacity of social work services to offer the sustained support that families need to give their children the kind of early life experiences that provide a firm foundation for healthy development, growth and learning. 

All these circumstances mean that, until the threshold for compulsory intervention is met, social work does little to offer practical help or social support, and when it is met the focus is instead mainly on detecting individual blame and monitoring parents’ efforts to change. Until this is actively addressed at government level, the aspiration for Scotland to be ‘the best place in the world to grow up’ will remain a distant dream.

1 thought on “Child Referrals to Social Work”

  1. I worked in a Family Centre and also for Sure Start before retiring 9 years ago. I delivered group-based parenting courses, and some on-going support groups, including families with under 5’s, those with children in Primary school, for for parents with teenagers, as well as developing courses for families with children on the autistic spectrum and those with children with ADHD. I also developed courses for fathers. I have found group-based interventions more effective (they were researched for effectiveness for a PHD and found that parental self-efficacy and confidence improved. I think investment in this sort of intervention is cost effective, and can take the strain off conventional 1-1 work with families. Parents learn a lot from each other, and provide workers with a lot of learning as well.

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