Our response to the Children’s Social Care Strategy Consultation  

Children North East has responded to the government’s Children’s Social Care Strategy. In our response, we echoed our support for many of the ambitious proposals to put love and caring back at the heart of children’s social care. However, we also set out why we believe the government to properly resource the plan and have the courage to go further and faster in bringing more support to struggling families, in order to stem the tide of more and more children coming into care.   

Love Matters is the title, and overwhelming message, of the report by the Church of England’s Commission on Households and Families, published last month, which Children North East contributed to. The report is unequivocal in stating that strong, loving relationships within the home, family and community are essential for all of us to thrive.  

It is encouraging that this priority is echoed in the draft Children’s Social Care strategy – Stable Homes, Built on Love. The strategy clearly commits to re-orientating Children’s Social Care to put stable, secure, loving attachments for all babies, children and young people at its heart. This is a vital component of a happy and healthy childhood and should be our overriding aim for all babies, children and young people. 

In particular, the strategy commits to:  

  • Establishing a new Family Help model to support families when they need it to overcome barriers which prevent them from providing the safe, secure, loving homes children need 
  • A greater focus on the role extended family can play when primary carers are struggling, including kinship care  
  • Exploring how care-experienced young people can have a lifelong bond with another person which provides the emotional and practical support they need as they navigate adulthood  

All of these are hugely important if we are to create a social care system which above all enables children to grow up in loving homes, with strong attachments to consistent caregivers, and have the best possible chance to grow up happy and healthy and to go on to thrive as adults. The challenge is making it happen.  

In our response, we have highlighted a number of practical considerations for making policy change a reality for children and their families, in particular championing the role the charity sector can play in delivering these priorities. However, we have also strongly stated that to have an impact, the strategy needs to be properly resourced and rolled out nationally as soon as possible. The funding committed falls far short of what is needed, and without adequate funding, it will be impossible to achieve the vision set out, and our social care system will continue to fail some of the most vulnerable children in our society.   

Family Help 

The best outcome for any child is that they are loved and cared for by their birth family in a safe, stable home. Supporting the family at the earliest opportunity to overcome difficulties and maintain that safe, loving home, should always be the priority. Support for families has been eroded in recent years by squeezed budgets and soaring costs. Without it, families are struggling for longer, children are not getting the love and care they need, and we are missing opportunities to intervene earlier and prevent children entering the care system. The number of looked after children is continuing to rise, and proper investment in early intervention provision is critical to stem the tide.  

Family Help should be available to all families who need it. There needs to be clear expectations and accountability for Directors of Children’s Social Care about what Family Help should include, and thresholds for intervention to create a consistent offer nationally. We also need clear guidance for how Family Help interfaces with Family Hubs to create a seamless continuum of support, without families being bounced around or falling through the gaps.  

Strong local leadership and culture change will be critical to unpick risk averse practices that make families feel they are being monitored rather than helped, and achieve the vision of families and services working together to care for children, without fear, stigma or judgement. Specifically, we need a better approach to families affected by domestic abuse, protecting the victim and their children as a unit, rather than making victims responsible for protecting children from the abuser.  

There needs to a clear expectation on Social Care Directors to work with the Voluntary and Community Sector to design and deliver Family Help. This would build on the strength of the VCS in existing relationships of trust with communities, which can break down some of the fear families have of social care involvement, to enable families and services to work together to protect children.  

Friends and Family 

Family and friends who already have bonds of love, affection and trust with children, are often the best placed to care for them if they can’t remain in the family home. We welcome the commitment to involving the wider family network earlier via family-group decision making, and strengthening policy on kinship care. A kinship care placement must always be the best option for that family, not just a way of saving costs.  

The redoubled focus on the role of friends and family needs to be backed up with the resources to support them. Kinship carers are often hit by increased living costs and loss of earnings because of reducing paid work in order to care for children. We need a clear and fair system to kinship carers are able to live comfortably and not pushed into poverty. There also needs to be long-term practical support for kinship carers as they navigate the twists and turns of raising the children in their care.  

Loving Support for Young Adults 

Most young people continue to rely on their parents well into adulthood, and it is unsurprising care leavers who don’t have a secure long-term attachment they can rely on experience poor outcomes around homelessness, unemployment and crime. We are pleased the Care Strategy is seriously considering ways to address this, but know it is a complex problem to solve. Providing a way for care-experienced children to form lifelong bonds could make a big difference to their journey into independence.  

The biggest issue facing many care leavers is the lack of accommodation, which is safe, welcoming and offers the kind of support most young people living alone for the first time receive from their families. The government must urgently review the scale of need for regulated placements for care leavers, and commit to funding proper, well-designed, regulated provision across the country, to ensure all care leavers have a safe place to live when they move out of their placement.  

The Elephant in the Room  

Our biggest concern with the strategy is that funding committed falls far short of what is needed to achieve the ambitions and vision. Given the scale of need in Children’s Social Care, small-scale short-term Family Help pathfinders is the wrong approach.  Wholesale reform of Family Help is needed now provide reliable and effective support to families when they need it and reverse the flow of more children coming into local authority care. The government should go much further and much faster in implementing reform, with sufficient funding for it to have the impact needed.  

Realising the reform of Children’s Social Care is a hugely complex piece of system change, but it is immeasurably important for every single child who finds him or herself in need of its protection. Morally, socially and economically, we have a duty to the most vulnerable children in our communities to get this right, and the whole of society will benefit if we do.