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Mykola Komarovskyy/

On the precipice of further austerity, councils are failing vulnerable children

Despite being formed as a means of protecting children, the “care system” has always failed too many of them. New figures released by Ofsted have highlighted the local authority departments that provide poor quality services to children and families.

They show that of 74 council children’s services inspected between November 2013 and November 2015, 19 – a quarter – were found to be inadequate, with a further 38, or 50% requiring improvement. In a sector that has seen a continuing rise in demand alongside the introduction of austerity measures, only 17 councils were judged good and none were outstanding. Overall, 77% were not doing enough to protect children.

But we cannot mitigate such widespread failure by publicly shaming individual councils. Prime minister David Cameron has outlined plans to intervene in failing children’s services, which will be taken over by new managers including experts, charities and high-performing authorities. Although some authorities may indeed benefit from this external intervention, such a policy cannot be assumed to immediately fix the problems in the system.

A shameful legacy

The public are appalled when the media report the tragic death of children such as Dennis O’Neill (1945), Maria Colwell (1973), Jasmine Beckford (1984), Victoria Climbié (2000), Peter Connolly – known as Baby P – (2007), and Daniel Pelka (2012).

But many more children whose deaths we haven’t heard about, die each year. Statistics collated in 2008 and reported by the NSPCC reflect that in England, the deaths of up to three children each week are attributable to abuse or neglect. While many of these children are not known to children’s services, each of their deaths must weigh heavily on all of us.

Across the years, British governments have responded to the public outrage at children’s deaths, commissioning multiple inquiries, which have resulted in changes to legislation and social policy. A decade ago, following Lord Laming’s inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié, the discourse that Every Child Matters rang out as a cornerstone of good practice and saw huge investment in welfare and community provision.

Now austerity measures are rapidly eroding these improvements and financial cuts are threatening even the provision of core services.

In 2010, social policy researcher Eileen Munro conducted an independent review of child protection in England and called for a move from compliance to a learning culture. A key aspect of Munro’s approach to change was inclusivity – this meant working with children, families and communities to safeguard children and develop preventative rather than reactive strategies.

She also took an inclusive attitude to issues of leadership, asserting its importance in the construction and maintenance of cultural change. Despite Munro’s assertions of the cost effectiveness of prevention, council budgets have been slashed since 2008, while simultaneously the number of children in need of more expensive care provision rose by 12% between 2010 and 2013.

It is no surprise that many councils are in crisis and we should expect more to follow. Similar and unprecedented concerns are also being raised by the police, who report being nearly overwhelmed by the increase of incidents of domestic abuse.

Red alert: a perfect storm

If an external force such as terrorism or the weather threatens us, we have a warning system that guides our planning and response. Unfortunately, we do not have the same for those challenges internally imposed by the government. Policies of austerity are eroding the provision and quality of children’s services. This is not the anticipation of a storm: the floodwaters are here and the damage to our children, families and the services that support them is evident.

David Cameron has outlined plans for the takeover of failing children’s services. Kirsty Wigglesworth / PA Wire

There is no doubt that we need to ensure that councils do their best everyday to safeguard children and ideally, that best should be outstanding. Therefore, any plan for intervention in poorly performing councils should uphold a critical view of the factors contributing to their strengths and failures. These could be internal factors, such as poor or inefficient management and lack of training, as well as external factors including the increase in need of the population at a time of austerity and the difficulties of having to then improve performance against this backdrop.

The government’s new proposals intend to form trusts to take over failing children’s services led by what it terms high-performing councils, child protection experts and charities. Yet this response assumes the failures are contained within the council rather than accepting responsibility for the austerity landscape that these councils are struggling to survive in. There is also a risk here of distorting the role and function of the state as corporate parent – important if we are to feel confident in our capacity to have accountability for public interventions into family life.

If we allow political rhetoric to veil the complexity of this crisis then we run the risk of trying to evade the storm in a leaky boat. We already see that commissioned teams who have moved in to reform authorities with a history of missing severe abuse such as Doncaster and Rotherham take much longer to bring about effective change than the six-month window Cameron now expects. To present a solution, without putting the wider complexity of the issues causing the problem into context is unacceptable, especially when children’s lives are at stake.

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