FoI investigation reveals thousands of 'missed opportunities' to help children

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Tens of thousands of children a year are missing out on vital early help support, only to be referred again to social care within 12 months, Freedom of Information requests have revealed.

The investigation by charity Action for Children highlights at least 320,000 “missed opportunities” to provide early help to children between 2015/16 and 2019/20 – an average of 64,000 children a year.

Nine in 10 local authorities report cutting spending on early intervention services between 2015 and 2020.

When children are referred to social services for an assessment but do not meet the threshold for social care support, social workers have the option to close the assessment and make a “step down” referral to early help.

Based on its Freedom of Information request to local authorities across England, Action for Children estimates there were 1.26 million occasions where a closed assessment did not lead to an early help referral.

In 25% of these cases, the child in question was re-referred to social care within 12 months, suggesting there were 320,000 missed opportunities to offer early help in this period.

The charity says this is the first time that national data of this kind on the number of children getting early help has been collected. It has been published in a new report entitled Too little, too late, which puts forward a new metric – the prevention ratio – that would compare the numbers of children getting early help compared to those receiving costly social care interventions further down the line.

Currently, the report says that the prevention ratio is 2:3 – for every two children that receive targeted early help support, there are up to three children receiving more costly social care interventions.

The number of children not meeting thresholds for support comes as little surprise given the cuts in funding that we have seen in recent years. Early intervention spending covers early help, and a range of other preventative services such as children’s centres, family support, and youth work.

Some local authorities – such as Medway, Northamptonshire and Sunderland – have cut spending on early intervention by more than 70% since 2015.

In March 2021, there were 80,850 children in care in England, a 1% rise on the year before and the highest on record. This figure is more than 10,000 higher than in 2013.

Action for Children also points to research showing that local authorities now spend more than 80% of their children’s services budgets on later intervention and crisis management (Williams & Franklin, 2021).

The government’s on-going children’s social care review, which began work in March last year, has highlighted the importance of early help. As we await the review’s findings, the Action for Children report calls for three specific interventions from the government to help improve early help services:

  • A legal duty on councils to deliver early help for children.
  • Increasing funding for early intervention.
  • Collecting data on early help provision and outcomes.

Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, said: “We should not be waiting for children to be in harm’s way before we help them. Despite the evidence that early help services reduce harm to our children and save money on more costly crisis intervention, the last decade has seen significant budget cuts to these services.

“The funding and the incentives in the system are working in the wrong way. The lack of early help leaves children vulnerable, and means we are only intervening when it’s too late. This leads to more children going into costly care later down the road. This is morally and economically nonsensical. There is nothing more costly than a missed opportunity.”

Action for Children is a charity that exists to protect and support vulnerable children and young people via practical and emotional care and support.


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