On my second day as a newly qualified social worker, I got a call from the receptionist. She told me there was a 16-year-old boy downstairs with a suitcase, and he was asking for somewhere to stay.
Armed with a pen, paper and some advice from a more experienced colleague that there “isn’t much of a process for this; just try to get him to go home”, I strode downstairs and introduced myself to Kieran.* He said he had been sofa surfing for the last few weeks after his mum, Chantelle, locked him out of the house.
Bearing my colleague’s advice in mind, I left Kieran at the office and drove to see Chantelle. Not best pleased to see me, she told me that she could not have him back in the house because he was in a gang, and rival gang members who knew their home address were making threats against him. Chantelle said that, although she wanted Kieran with her, she had to protect her younger daughter by putting him out the house. Children’s social care had shut their case a couple of months before, the council’s housing department had not replied to her emails asking to move, and she did not believe that we could do anything to help them.
I assured Chantelle that I would do my best to help get the right support so that they could move house and remain together as a family. In the meantime, a family friend agreed to take Kieran for a few nights.
The next day, in the absence of any proper process for families in this situation, a Google search yielded the name of an organisation offering intensive family therapy and mentoring for those at risk of imminent family breakdown. I also wrote a letter to the council’s housing department asking them to help the family move. Neither approach worked. The family therapy was declined by a senior manager who said this work needed to be done via the child and adolescent mental health service family therapy team (waiting time: nine months). And, despite working in the same local authority as the housing team, we had no contact point, so my letter had to go through the generic council email address like everyone else’s – to this day, it has never been answered.
When I updated Chantelle the following day, she said she was not surprised and hung up. I found Kieran in reception two hours later and, with nowhere else for him to go, we were left with no choice but to bring him into care. Instead of the family living together safely out of the area, Kieran lives in a ‘semi-independent’ placement which, given his additional needs and vulnerabilities, costs the local authority around £30,000 each month.
This kind of process and outcome is, unfortunately, typical of children’s social care. Practice is worryingly improvised and inconsistent: children in comparable situations receive entirely different responses depending on which local authority area they live in, which social worker they are allocated, and what that social worker happens to find on Google. The system is wasteful, reactive and fragmented: budgets for preventative services are too low and local agencies do not work together, meaning children like Kieran, who could have stayed with his mum and sister with the right interventions, end up in care at enormous personal cost to them and financial cost to the taxpayer. And social workers, with caseloads too high to do meaningful work with families, are burnt out and leaving the profession in droves.
Most agree that this is a grim state of affairs. Indeed, almost every study, review and inquiry for at least the last 30 years – the government’s current Stable Homes, Built on Love strategy being the most recent iteration – has concluded the same thing: we need a system focused on prevention, with better joined-up local services and good social workers with manageable caseloads.
The fact that these conclusions have remained unchanged for decades implies there is something wrong with the system as a whole. Although children’s social care falls under the Department for Education at a national level, it has always been overshadowed by the department’s primary focus: schools. In 2010, Michael Gove pointedly renamed the DfE – previously the Department for Children, Schools and Families – to signal the focus of the department would be specifically on schools and education, not fuzzy ideas about helping kids. In light of this relative lack of national interest, thinking around children’s social care has been subject to what might best be described as an accidental localism. Provided only with a highly generalised set of principles, underresourced officers in our messy and inconsistent local government system are largely left to their own devices to design and deliver effective children’s social care in their area. The result is a piecemeal approach where every local authority in the country starts virtually from scratch. With some notable exceptions, this does not end well.
Indeed, a comparison to our school system illustrates how strange this set-up really is. Imagine there was no national curriculum and staff at each school were responsible for designing and teaching a school-specific scheme of work, for each subject and age group, almost entirely from scratch. This would be an absurdly inefficient and ineffective way of running a nationwide service for millions of children. Nonetheless, it isn’t far off how things work in children’s social care with its current accidental and ill-defined system of local delivery.
This fuzzy localism explains many of the issues we saw in Kieran’s case. The improvised practice of social workers, like my googling of services for Kieran’s family, results from the lack of evidence-based policies and proper guidance beyond generalised threshold documents written by non-specialist council officers. Fragmented responses are explained by the chaotic and inconsistent set-up of local government and public services more widely. Kieran’s case – in theory coordinated by children’s social care from a single local authority – involved input from an NHS mental health trust that falls across three local authorities, a police basic command unit that covers two local authorities, the city-wide Mayor of London’s violence reduction unit, and a local authority housing department which is not linked to its own children’s social care department.
Finally, the unbelievable waste of £30,000 a month on a care placement – avoidable with relatively minimal upfront investment – is the result of a vicious cycle of underinvestment and poor local decision-making. Action for Children research has shown that the 29 per cent reduction in children’s services funding between 2010–18 resulted in a 49 per cent cut to early intervention budgets and a 12 per cent increase in late intervention crisis spending, as local authorities cut ‘unessential’ early spending. The subsequent rise in demand for care places, in combination with a procurement system in which local councils compete against each other for private care placements, corners individual authorities into paying extortionate rates for often poor provision.
Real change will require a government willing to commit to a bold reimagining of how public services are delivered. Specifically, we need to rethink the current model of accidental localism where local authorities, hollowed out and too small to have a realistic chance of success, are dumped with the vast majority of service design and delivery in areas like children’s social care.
Central to this will be a coherent plan for rebuilding our missing tier of governance: regional government. Rather than asking individual local authorities to do everything themselves, allowing councils to pool resources and key functions would give them a realistic prospect of delivering the changes that are so badly needed.
This could have a huge impact on children’s social care. First, it would increase the chances of making ‘multiagency working’ something more than a paper exercise by aligning high-level children’s services decision makers the other agencies already operating at a regional level, like NHS trusts and police basic command units. Second, it would allow the pooling of policymaking and delivery strategies into properly resourced teams with the capacity and expertise to translate national policy into excellent regional strategies, rather than fragmented individual local authority plans. Finally, regional cooperation would allow local authorities to benefit from economies of scale in the commissioning of local services, including care placements, instead of driving up prices by competing against each other.
This rebuilding of the ‘middle tier’ for children’s social care has already seen success in the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), where policymaking, commissioning and delivery have been more extensively pooled across the 10 local authorities. The GMCA’s complex safeguarding hub, for instance, has brought resources from the participating local authorities together to tackle exploitation and youth violence. It has created a centralised hub with Greater Manchester Police, NHS services, children’s social care, and voluntary groups where support is given to local community teams of a far higher standard than if this were done individually. The outcome of Kieran’s case could have been very different if there had been an ability to get NHS services, like CAMHS family therapy, involved early to avoid breakdown, or a proper regional gangs strategy with buy-in from different agencies which might have helped stop him getting into trouble in the first place.
Children’s social care is a cautionary tale of what happens when our messy system of local government gets stuck, and the devastating impact this can have on some of our most vulnerable children and families. But, with exciting examples like that of Manchester emerging, it is also a touchstone for what a renewed approach to regionalism could look like in practice.
Gordon Brown’s New Britain report is exciting in its vision for a more regionalised future, but now Labour needs to build on this framework. If the party is to deliver a transformational domestic policy agenda, making local and regional government work will be key. It would be all too easy for Labour to do what successive governments have done: focus on creating good ideas centrally without systematically changing the structures required to make them work in practice. A meaningful legacy of the next Labour government would be to break this cycle and deliver once-in-a-generation reform of our public services.
* Names have been changed
Image credit: Chris Devers via Flickr