Vulnerable children: Confusion over early help policy is hampering intervention

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

A lack of clear definitions of what constitutes early help and huge variation in thresholds for intervention mean that the huge potential of this policy is not yet being realised.

There is convincing evidence that the policy of early help “improves the lives of children and families, preventing unnecessary distress and harm”, researchers from the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) and University of Cambridge have found.

Early help is when social and other services focus on intervention before a challenge facing a family escalates to the point where statutory services are required.

An on-going five-year research project – entitled Living Assessments – is being funded by the Wellcome Trust and carried out by the NCB and the universities of Cambridge and Kent to “understand the experiences and impact of health and social care assessments on children and families”.

A report published this week – Supporting and strengthening families through provision of early help (Edwards et al, 2021) – finds that a lack of a clear shared definition of early help, including little agreement over the thresholds for stepping in to provide support, means that measuring what works is difficult. As a result, the risk is that policy will focus on what is “easy to measure”.

It means that it has been difficult for local and national policy-makers to make the case for early help, leading to an overemphasis on “late intervention” with families in the form of statutory social work investigations.

The report finds that from 2010/11 to 2018/19, local authorities shifted funding away from early intervention, with spending on early help services falling by 44 per cent. Over the same period, there was a 29 per cent increase in late intervention services (children in care, safeguarding and youth justice), and “a record number of looked after children”.

Researchers say that problems have been compounded by a decade of “severe cuts” to local authority budgets for children, as well as the reluctance of national government to tackle head-on issues including poverty and poor housing, which it says are often closely linked to family troubles.

The NCB wants to see a new legal duty on local authorities and statutory safeguarding partners to provide early help, including “a broad definition of early help” and a focus on alleviating the impact of poverty and poor housing.

It is also recommending that the DfE should seek to reduce variations in thresholds for early help by providing “clear guidance and training on assessing eligibility”.

Anna Feuchtwang, NCB chief executive, said: “If a doctor sees someone in pain, they step in immediately. Yet when it comes to vulnerable children and families, their suffering is allowed to fester. One of the central aims of the Children Act was to give a sense of urgency to authorities when they take action to protect the welfare of children. But progress has stalled, and funding cuts mean that services often let children and families’ lives spin out of control before doing anything. It’s time for a rethink of how we configure services – and that action starts with government lifting the pressures on struggling families, and not ignoring factors like poor quality, over-crowded housing and poverty.’

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