Nuffield Foundation review finds there is an urgent need for reform in light of COVID-19
Incidents of serious harm to children under five years, where abuse or neglect is known or suspected increased during the early months of the pandemic, and many other children at risk may have been missed due to disruption in the usual pathways for referring children to services, an evidence review by the Nuffield Foundation has found.
The review found that children’s services already under pressure as a result of increasing rates of child protection interventions over the last decade, particularly for children living in the poorest areas are also battling in a time where support to families has been cut, and that many young children who are at risk of abuse or neglect do not come to the attention of services at all.
Although the Protecting young children at risk of abuse and neglect evidence review outlines changing patterns of abuse and neglect in early childhood in England and Wales over the last 20 years, the review has valuable insights for the Australian early childhood education and care landscape.
Central to the recommendations is a focus on how public services and agencies can adopt a holistic and collaborative approach to support young children at risk of abuse and neglect, prevent harm, and promote positive outcomes, which mirrors recent calls from the Close the Gap campaign.
“The time is right for such a re-evaluation, given the current independent review of children’s services, commissioned by the government as ‘a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform systems and services,” report authors said.
Children living in the poorest neighbourhoods are at least ten times more likely to be in care than children in the richest neighbourhoods, and this relationship is stronger for preschool children, the report found.
As such, authors describe “a natural consequence of blunt data, and variable practice and thresholds”, in that two children can have similar levels of need, but one will be in care and the other will not.
Conversely, two children in care who appear to be similar from the data can actually have very different lives and needs. The review concludes that the ongoing debate about whether too many or too few children are taken into state protection is not only impossible to answer given the inadequate data available, but is the wrong question to be posing.
Instead, they said, attention needs to be given to whether public services are intervening in the right way to prevent harm and promote positive outcomes for young children.
As in the Australian context, young children subject to child welfare interventions have poorer early language development and this gap persists as they start school.
Opportunities to address these gaps are being missed because too many children do not take up early education places.
“There is no national data on how many looked after children access early education, but analysis of selected local authority data suggests that amongst looked after children aged two to four years, 71 per cent are in early education compared to a national average of 85 per cent,” Carey Oppenheim, co-author of the review and Early Childhood Lead at the Nuffield Foundation said.
“The independent review of children’s social care services currently underway is recognition that our system of child protection and support needs to be re-evaluated. Over time, we have seen a shift away from provision of early support to help families who are struggling, towards later interventions that are more likely to separate families and which are more expensive to provide.
“Alongside this, there are young children at risk of abuse and neglect who need help and are not receiving it because they are not known to services. These concerns have been pulled into sharper focus by the pandemic, and its economic consequences are likely to mean more pressure on council budgets and services at exactly the point families need them most.
“At the same time, we cannot solve all the problems faced by young children through children’s social care services – social work and family justice are only one part of the solution. Poverty remains a significant risk factor for children and alleviating the financial pressure on families would make a difference in enabling young children to thrive, as would a more holistic and collaborative approach across public services and agencies.”
To access the report and findings in full, please see here.