No government hoping to level up can ignore the social care crisis harming England’s children

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E ven before Covid arrived, local authority children’s services were struggling to cope as children with more complex and expensive needs have entered the care system. As today’s Guardian investigation reveals, the bandages and sticking plasters that have held a creaking children’s social care system in place are now fraying under the strain of the pandemic, particularly in some of the most deprived parts of England.

The present system cannot financially support children already in its care, never mind those on the verge of crisis who are often not receiving any help at all. Resources are stretched, systems fragmented, and we have an early years system that is patchy and often failing to identify and help struggling families. Too many children start school with developmental problems with speech and language, or live in families with serious but hidden problems around domestic abuse, mental health or addiction. Many are living in poverty, with some even taken into care simply because their family is too poor to look after them – not because they are being abused or harmed.

These children need a joined-up system that offers them support throughout childhood, not just when everything goes wrong. Yet in many parts of the country, they and their families are largely left to fend for themselves.

Partly this is because children’s social care has long been the poor relation of adult social care, another fractured and unsustainable system in need of long-term financing. Yet while the government now accepts the need for urgent reform to improve care for elderly people, it has been far too slow to do the same for children. It says much about the priority children, particularly the most vulnerable, are given in our political system, that these problems have spent so long in the “too difficult” box.

That must change, starting with an acceptance of the scale of the problem and the need for early intervention, and a commitment to reduce child poverty, improve mental health services for children, tackle school exclusions and overhaul how we identify and help children in danger of slipping through the gaps. There are some quick, easy wins – such as banning under-18s in care from being housed in unregulated accommodation, and ensuring the universal credit uplift is maintained for all families with children.

But the whole system of how we care for and provide opportunities to the most vulnerable children needs an overhaul, particularly after Covid has amplified so many existing problems.

The government was right to keep schools open for vulnerable children during lockdown. However, the reality is many did not attend, and many were out of sight of the dedicated professionals who are often first to spot when children are at risk. The surge in referrals as the Covid restrictions are eased gives us some idea of the impact of lockdown on families where there are serious problems.

Add in the crippling rise in costs for councils, a fractured children’s home market, huge backlogs in the family court system and pressures on low income family finances, and we have a perfect storm brewing – one that many parts of the children’s services system will not be able to weather without help.

The outcomes can end up being disastrous and terrifying for those children who are most at risk of exploitation by the ruthless criminals who are so adept at scooping up the vulnerable. More of the same only makes it more likely that additional children end up as the victims of serious violence or sexual abuse.

Revealed: England’s pandemic crisis of child abuse, neglect and poverty Read more

The urgent task now for the government, councils, charities, and local health and police services is to develop solutions. There is no reason to expect this situation to improve without urgent intervention, thorough reform and a targeted increase in funding.

The government’s independent review into children’s care is a good place to start and I am confident its chair, Josh MacAlister, will produce recommendations that, if implemented, can improve the care system. But it is imperative that ministers act on what is proposed. This crisis cannot be solved on the cheap. Investment – and it is an investment against the higher cost of long-term failure – will be needed alongside a commitment to offer the same opportunities to the most vulnerable children as we would expect for our own. The alternative is an endless spiral of crises that grow ever more damaging, wasteful to children’s lives and expensive to solve.

There are already a lot of good ideas and good practice being tried out around the country, often with some success. Leeds city council’s ambitious city-wide focus on early intervention and support for vulnerable families and children is one example; North Yorkshire county council’s No Wrong Door, which provides new models of support for children on the edge of the care system, is another.

Next month I will launch my own year-long independent commission into how we can turn around the lives of teenagers at risk, hosted by the Oasis Charitable Trust, with the aim of offering government and councils practical, affordable solutions.

But first we need our politicians to wake up. A failed children’s social care system not only lets down children but also stores up expensive adult social problems that can last a lifetime. The over-representation of adults who grew up in care in our prisons, sleeping on our streets and struggling with addiction and mental health problems tells its own story of failure.

With help and support, every one of these children could have a brighter future ahead of them – opportunities that for many will be denied as long as we have a children’s social care system in crisis. No government hoping to level up opportunities in society can afford to ignore the issues facing thousands and thousands of vulnerable children. And no child should have to live with the risk of harm because of a lack of political will to fix a broken system.

  • Anne Longfield is the former children’s commissioner for England

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