Austerity is a Barrier to ‘Child-Centred’ Child Protection Practice

This blog is based on article in the Journal of Social Policy by Ciarán Murphy. Click here to access the article.

The Munro Review of Child Protection asserted that the English child protection system had become overly ‘defensive’ (p.20), ‘bureaucratised’ and ‘standardised’ (p.38), meaning that social workers were not employing their discretion in the interests of the individual child. Moreover, Munro asserted that the needs of the organization (i.e. to appear compliant with national prescription and achieve a favourable inspection report) had become a greater focus than those of the children that the system purported to protect – limiting innovation and flexibility at the frontline, and increasing the risk that tragedies would occur. In this context Munro called for ‘radical reform’ (p.13) so as to cultivate a more ‘child-centred’ (p.1) and ‘effective’ (p.23) child protection system. At the centre of the reform agenda was that social workers would be provided with more space to employ their discretion in the best interests of the individual child. 

In this context, the research project set out to explore the extent to which Munro’s image of a ‘child-centred’ English child protection system had been realised, with a focus on examining social worker discretionary space. However, the research identified a series of continued obstacles to Munro’s ‘child-centred’ system, underpinned by the UK Government’s longstanding policy of austerity.

Specifically, the study found that from 2010, with the inception of austerity as a national policy, until 2016 (the point of ceasing data collection), the case study authority had experienced significant increases in: child protection referrals (+34%); children considered ‘in need’ of help and protection (+47%); child protection plans (+67%); applications to court to safeguard a child (+41%); and ultimately the local ‘looked after child’ population (+50%).

This had coincided with rising measures of ‘need’ within the local population. For example, increasing instances of poverty (with an 18% increase in applications for free school meals; and a 112% increase in use of the local foodbank); unemployment (a 13% increase in applications for the ‘Job Seekers Allowance’ benefit); and homelessness (with the number of recorded ‘rough sleepers’ up 240%). Furthermore, child protection records identified that there had been a 181% increase in children made subject to a child protection plan for instances of ‘neglect’ or ‘emotional abuse’ during this time, where it was also recorded that ‘alcohol/substance misuse’; ‘domestic violence’ or ‘familial breakdown’ (including divorce, separation or imprisonment) had been a contributing factor.

This is important as it had led to a sense amongst the participant social workers that they were ‘overstretched’ or ‘spread too thinly’ –  with statistical data highlighting a continued rise in the average size of caseloads since the inception of austerity (+55% from 2010 until 2016 despite a 30% increase in the number of social workers employed on the team during the same time period). Social workers explained that this was hindering their use of discretion as they were frequently unable to spend the requisite time with the child:

Before deciding whether I will use discretion I think about my knowledge of the child… and whether in that context I have enough, or the right type… to be willing to make a decision… but if I don’t have enough time to spend with the child, then I might not be able to get the type of knowledge that I need about [them and] their circumstances, to be confident to use discretion when the opportunity arises (Social Worker).

… if you can’t spend time with children, then how can you be sure what decision or action is in their best interests? … better just to follow the procedures, than use discretion, in that scenario’ (Social Worker).

The social workers asserted that the impact of austerity could be seen in the increasing size of their caseload, with the underpinning mechanism being the increasing numbers of families being pushed into crisis (and child protection) due to the closure of preventive services, as providers sought to make up the shortfall for reduced funding from national government. Certainly, the local children’s services department had ‘achieved’ a £25m saving between 2010 and 2016 – which actually constituted 83% of its 2009-2010 total budget (excluding school spending) – as it closed its ‘Family Support Team’; its Youth Service; and its provision for asylum-seeking families. It had also reduced the number of local children’s centres by 75%; its Youth Offending Team by 80%; and had temporarily disbanded its Children with Disabilities Team (ultimately, reintroducing it at 40% of its original size).

These changes were apportioned to the local authority’s efforts to save £65m between 2010 and 2016 (with a purported further £35m saving required by 2020) as it adjusted to a 53% reduction in funding received from national government. As one manager explained, such services were considered ‘luxuries’ and ‘non-essential’ in the context of ‘austerity’ and the need to make ‘immediate savings’ to service provision. 

Readers may have noted the omission from the recent ‘Case for Change’ report of any explicit consideration of the impact of austerity on the demand for child protection services throughout the country. Yet this study positions austerity and the ‘chronic’ longstanding underfunding of UK public service provision generally, as a most pressing challenge to achieving the aspirations of the Munro Review of Child Protection; especially, in terms of increasing social workers’ discretionary space to allow for bespoke decision-making and action-taking in the interests of the individual child. This is because, the study highlights that, if social workers are going to choose not to employ their discretion on the basis of a limited time with, and therefore knowledge of, the child, then the amount or type of discretionary space available becomes, to some extent, irrelevant.

Indeed, the study emphasises the importance of social workers having enough ‘space’ – not only in the sense of structural discretion, but in terms of visiting, building a relationship with, and gaining a knowledge of, a child – if they are going to engage in the type of discretionary behaviour advocated within the Munro Review. Concurrently, the findings add weight to the increasing focus on social justice, and calls for the English child protection system, and the wider public services that contribute to it, to be properly funded – as it is only in these terms that children are going to be adequately protected and have their individual needs met.


About the author

Ciarán Murphy is Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Edge Hill University.

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