Experts have told BuzzFeed News that families in the north of England are being torn apart because higher levels of deprivation and a lack of support services have created an environment in which children there are far more likely to be taken into care than their southern counterparts.
Analysis of government figures by BuzzFeed News has found that children in the most deprived areas of the country are more likely to be taken into care, with health inequalities and unemployment having a particular impact on children's outcomes.
The figures, released at the end of last month, show that in the North East of England, with a rate of 92 per 10,000, the number of looked-after children is almost double that in London, where there are just 50 per 10,000. The region with the next highest number of children in care was the North West with 86 per 10,000, while the South East had just 51 per 10,000.
Experts told us the statistics expose underlying inequalities that result in children being subject to care proceedings in the first place, such as a lack of support services for parents, and higher levels of drug and alcohol abuse in the north of the country.
A separate academic study, carried out by Lancaster University’s Centre for Child and Family Justice Research, and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, has found evidence of a stark north-south divide, in which northern children were 70% more likely to face care proceedings.
The research, which will be released in full this autumn but has been outlined in a conference paper in July, found that while just 27% of children in the country live in the North East or North West, they accounted for more than a third of care proceedings.
Patrick* lives in the North West of England and is now caring for his grandson Theo* under a supervision order, after a legal battle to keep the child within the family. Theo was removed from his parents, who have drug problems, when he was a baby. He says that the parents have some supervised contact with Theo, which is going well.
Their first child, Daisy*, was also taken into care, and later adopted, against the wishes of the extended family. Nobody in Patrick’s family currently has contact with Daisy, including her brother Theo.
Patrick told BuzzFeed News that he understands why the court made the decision to remove the children from the care of their parents. However, he believes a lot more support work could have been done with them, and that social workers did the “bare minimum”, failing to explore ways of keeping Daisy within the family.
Patrick said the parents were offered no support in terms of their drug problems when social services were first involved, and he believes that had they been better supported sooner, they may have been able to care for Theo themselves.
He said: “Initially with Daisy, as far as I know, I don’t think anything was done, to say to them, ‘You need to go to this class, to go and see these people to deal with these issues.' With Theo they sent them to drug rehabilitation courses, anger management with [Theo’s dad].”
Patrick believes that if they had been offered earlier intervention, they “absolutely” might have been able to retain custody of Theo. “It could have been so much better," he said. “From what I remember they didn’t do that at all.”
And he said more could have been done to place Daisy within the family before she was adopted: “I don’t think they investigated fully who could have looked after Daisy. They do as little as possible. I thought they would have investigated everyone in the family.”
Explaining the impact the care proceedings had on the whole family, he added: “At the time it was quite traumatic really, to think that Daisy had gone into care and that none of us would see her again, unless she wanted to see us at 16 or 18. I was quite devastated by that at the time, and obviously other people in the family were as well. It made me more determined that I wouldn’t let that happen to Theo.
“The system does seem weighted in favour of social services – once a child is in their care it seems quite difficult to get it back. It wasn’t very nice at all, I must admit. I obviously still think about [Daisy] and hope that one day we might meet her.”
An analysis of IMD (indices of multiple deprivation) data and government statistics on looked-after children by BuzzFeed News found that, in line with the Lancaster University research, there was indeed a link between deprivation and numbers of children taken into care.
IMD scores (overall) and children taken into care
Note: Children looked-after rate is per 10,000 children in authority area, and covers the 12 months ending 31 March 2017. IMD scores are from 2015, the most recent year results are available.
Wokingham, in the South East, had the lowest score on the IMD and also the smallest number of looked-after children, while Blackpool in the North West had by far the highest numbers of looked-after children, and was also the most deprived place in England, according to IMD scores.
Further analysis of the seven domains of deprivation – income, employment, health, education, crime, living environment, and barriers to housing and services – found that health and employment had the greatest bearing on numbers of children taken into care.
Alison Michalska is the president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, a membership organisation for people who hold leadership roles in children’s services departments in local authorities in England. She told BuzzFeed News that austerity is leading to rising numbers of children being taken into care in the most deprived areas as loss of funding "severely diminishes our ability to step in and prevent problems from escalating to crisis point".
IMD score (employment) and children taken into care
“The impact of seven years of austerity on children and families cannot be underestimated," she said, highlighting research led by Professor Paul Bywaters from Coventry University that she said found that "where children live is a central factor in inequality – those living in the most deprived areas in England were 10 times more likely to be on a child protection plan or come into care than their peers from more affluent areas."
By looking at data on more than 35,000 children in the care system, Bywaters and other researchers working on the Child Welfare Inequalities Project found that roughly 1 in every 60 children in the most deprived areas were in care, compared to just 1 in every 660 in the least deprived.
IMD score (health) and children taken into care
One barrister working in the family courts, dealing specifically with care proceedings, told BuzzFeed News how her experience of circuits in the north and in the south had differed.
The barrister, who previously worked in the north of England but recently moved to London, acts on behalf of the local authority, and said she had seen a difference in the way cases were dealt with in the two different areas.
“We’re certainly placing a lot of children at home with supervision orders in London," she said. "There’s a trend down south until very recently that we would be placing the family under a supervision order.”
Under a care order, the local authority has legal responsibility for the child, even if they are still living with the parents, but under a supervision order the authority only has the legal power to monitor the child’s needs and progress. She said that while in the south children “tend to be placed with supervision order or special guardianship”, in the north she had seen more care orders used.
However, she said that there were advantages to both orders, and that supervision orders were not necessarily better in her opinion. “It can be very distressing for parents to lose their children a second time," she said, referring to when a supervision order is initially granted but parents have to go back to court a second time when the local authority seeks a care order.
“As a care lawyer I get very nervous putting a child in a placement that’s not tested. Use of supervision orders in the south isn’t confined to parents,” she added, explaining that they could also be used to place children within the extended family, and that a care order is often viewed as the safer option as it allows the local authority to intervene more quickly in case of problems.
She also pointed out that the different statutory instruments could be used to achieve the same outcome: A child could be placed at home under a care order or under a supervision order, but the end result would still be that the child was placed in the family home.
The barrister said in her opinion it was unlikely that courts were more lenient in the south, rather that the cases they are confronted with are different, and that different cultures in different circuits meant one order may be favoured over another. “I don’t think we’re more wishy-washy and more keen to give parents a chance in the south," she said.
“I think because we have a policy particularly in the London borough I work in of where possible putting families into residential assessment units, they have more of an opportunity to demonstrate their caring skills,” she added, explaining that she had also found that more services were available to families in London.
She said such units are typically used to accommodate “young parents who come from disruptive backgrounds, who have by and large been known to social services themselves”, and that the parents are sometimes placed there under an interim care order.
According to the barrister, the residential units are “not only to assess them but also assist them”. "Depending on what the concerns are," she said, “the level of supervision can be from up to 24-hour CCTV to they have to go to certain groups, this is how you bath a baby.
“In the north, it’s less common to use a residential unit. What I’ve found in the south is there’s a tendency to have in-house services. In the north, independent services that are brought in can be extremely expensive – £4,000 or £5,000 a week."
The most recent figures available, dating back to 2013, show that while inner London boroughs used residential assessments 36 times, there were none in the North East and only three in the North West.
The barrister also said that in her experience the reasons children were taken into care differed in different areas of the country, with parents in the north often having serious and enduring addiction issues.
“There’s more mental health in the south, more drugs and alcohol in the north,” she said. “If it’s longstanding drug and alcohol issues, that’s a lot more difficult to correct, where the children can be safe. Drugs and alcohol, where there’s longstanding issues, that will take a long time to sort out.”
The barrister said the residential assessment units that she had seen favoured in the south could be less suitable for parents with longstanding substance abuse issues.
“There’s no point having your own in-house service if you don’t have [demand] for it,” she said. “A heroin addict, nobody is going to take them in, and they’re unable to care for the child where they’ve had a hit.”
Matt Hughes, a former children's social worker who now runs One Stop Social, an online hub for social care professionals, said he had seen the impact of austerity, with multi-agency approaches and early intervention scaled back as local authorities were forced to divert all their resources to reactive, frontline work.
He told BuzzFeed News: "From my background, there's been significant cuts to frontline services. Frontline services are fantastic but because of the fewer staff available there's a higher threshold. They're not able to deliver the interventions that they used to be able to do.
"Staff are still safeguarding and doing their utmost, but cuts have had a significant impact on the way that services are delivered."
Sir Tony Hawkhead, CEO of Action for Children, said the charity had also found that early intervention was being cut, and that social workers were often only intervening when families had reached crisis point.
"We know from social workers that financial considerations are a factor when deciding on whether or not to offer early help to a child – this is a situation that urgently needs to be addressed," he said. "More money spent on early intervention, helping children and families before they reach crisis point, will over time reduce the demand for higher cost services and decrease benefit payments in the long run, leading to significant cost savings."
Hughes said that while families in the north may have more complex drug and alcohol issues, this could also be due to less opportunity for early intervention, and cuts to services. "Rather than being able to work with them on a preventative basis, services are reactive and based on crisis need," he said.
"There's a whole systematic issue where if you've got children looked after, you want to work with the family. But because of frontline service cuts, multiagency services are being pulled back. Councils are only sticking to their mandatory responsibilities because they don't have the funding."
He added: "The differences in the regions that we go to are primarily centred around funding and service availability. There's an increase in reliance on third-sector and charity organisations [in the north]."
Prof Judith Harwin, who co-led the Lancaster University research alongside Prof Karen Broadhurst, also said deprivation may go some way to explaining the discrepancies in the numbers of children being taken into care in different areas of the country, as demonstrated in her research.
Harwin told BuzzFeed News: “Research is urgently needed to get behind the figures so that we can understand the part that deprivation may be playing. The areas in the North West and North East are consistently coming up among the most deprived areas in the indices of multiple deprivation.”
However, she said that this was not necessarily the “whole story”, and that more research needed to be done to assess exactly why more northern children were ending up in care.
Like the barrister, Harwin said that the the discrepancies may also be in part down to different court cultures, and a reluctance to use what they may perceive as a more ‘risky’ order when there is limited history of doing so. “There may be more scepticism about the value of supervision orders," she said.
She explained that her research for the Nuffield Foundation, investigating professional views on supervision orders and tracking their outcomes for children for the first time, found that there is a 20% chance of children placed on supervision orders returning to court within five years, a much higher rate than for care orders – potentially creating extra work for often already overstretched social workers.
But, she added, when a supervision order is made, children have the chance of living with their family, whereas most children placed on a care order do not return home.
Tracey Budd, programme head of family and youth justice at the Nuffield Foundation, said: “Deciding whether children can return home under a supervision order or are removed from their family under a care order is one of the most difficult decisions a court can make, and this evidence suggests that courts may be weighing up risk differently in different areas of the country.
“That’s why the Nuffield Foundation is funding this vital research and working with professionals in the system to understand what it means – we have to understand how the child protection system is operating across the country in order to inform local decision-making, understand why we are seeing such regional variations, and why the number of children subject to care proceedings continues to increase.”
Over the past five years, the total number of looked-after children has increased by almost 7%, but councils are predicted to face a £2 billion funding gap by 2020.
According to analysis from the Local Government Association, in 2015/16 councils surpassed their children’s social care budgets by £605 million in order to protect children at immediate risk of harm.
The organisation said that more than 170,000 children were subject to child protection enquiries in 2015/16, compared to just 71,800 10 years before – an increase of 140%.
Councillor Richard Watts, chair of the LGA’s children and young people board, said: “Services caring for and protecting vulnerable children are now, in many areas, being pushed to breaking point.
“Councils are committed to providing the best possible support to vulnerable children and their families, but the demand for children’s social care services has more than doubled and is stretching local authority resources."
He also stressed the role that early intervention can play in "limit[ing] the need for children to enter the social care system, lay[ing] the groundwork for improved performance at school and even help[ing] to ease future pressure on adult social care by reducing the pressure on services for vulnerable adults."
“It’s no coincidence that councils where there are high levels of deprivation are on the end of the more extreme version of government cuts," a spokesperson for the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) said, describing "the devastating impact austerity has in not only further marginalising certain sections of society, but also in creating divisions across the country".
“The impact of cuts is felt on many levels, and here we can see the effects in social care", they added. "All of the recent research, from the LGA warning of councils massively overspending past their budgets for children’s services to the National Children’s Bureau revealing the threshold for child protection is rising, in most part leads back to austerity."
They said social workers had also come forward to say "they are overwhelmed by the rising level of need seen in families, and in many cases, are overwhelmed themselves from the rising number of caseloads."
As numbers of looked-after children continue to rise and the impact of austerity still bites in the most deprived areas, professionals have warned of an impending crisis in social care, affecting both social workers and the families they work with.
The spokesperson said a recent BASW study, UK Social Workers: Working Conditions and Wellbeing, demonstrated that these overwhelming caseloads were one of the reasons a greater number of social workers were leaving the profession, prompting the BASW last month to launch Respect for Social Work: The Campaign for Professional Working Conditions.
The research found sickness had reached record-high levels and more than half of those surveyed said they intended to leave the profession early. Of the UK social workers surveyed, 52% said they intended to leave the profession within 15 months, increasing to 55% for social workers working specifically in children's services.
The government refused to answer direct questions about regional disparities and the impact loss of funding is having.
In a statement, children and families minister Robert Goodwill said: “It is vital that our most vulnerable children and families are protected from harm and that we understand what works best in supporting them.
“Councils will receive more than £200 billion for local services, including children’s social care, up to 2020. This is part of a historic four-year settlement which means councils can plan ahead with certainty.
“On top of this, we are committed to working with the social work profession to establish a new regulator, Social Work England. This new organisation will have a relentless focus on social work practice – from initial education and training, to continued professional development.”