For about a year now, social workers have been talking about the ‘Baby P effect’ – the rise in applications for children to be taken into care. While many thought it would be a temporary blip, which would die down when the furore over the case did, it is proving to be sustained.
Care demand from April to December 2009 was 46.1% higher than the same period in 2008, according to Cafcass, the organisation that represents children’s interests in the family courts. November 2009 saw 753 care applications – the third highest monthly figure since Cafcass records began in 2005.
Not only this, but Cafcass reports that applications are starting to stabilise at this higher level.
These figures can be viewed as something of a double-edged sword. On the plus side, it means more children are being protected and not left in potentially harmful situations.
Also, while this news could be grist to the mill of the anti-children’s social work brigade – those who perceive children’s social workers as child snatchers – a Cafcass survey also concluded that local authorities had taken the appropriate action in making the applications. While the survey did attribute the increases to the Baby P effect, it doesn’t mean that they are making spurious applications.
It also should be remembered that this still represents a tiny minority of the children who come into contact with social services.
But, as ever, there is a downside. And, as usual, it’s money, or the lack of it; the Local Government Association estimates that the cost of taking children into care will rise by £226 million this financial year.
With local authorities already tightening their budgets in anticipation of swingeing cuts in 2011, and also having to find £250 million in ‘efficiency savings’ to fund the government’s free personal care at home policy, this is extra expenditure they can literally ill afford.
Ironically, there is talk of early intervention schemes being cut to pay for the increase in children being taken into care – which could cause more problems than it solves, given that prevention is usually better (and cheaper) than cure.
However, what cannot be allowed to happen is social workers avoiding, or being discouraged from, making applications because of cost concerns. There was anecdotal talk of this happening in some local authorities pre-Baby P and it cannot happen again.
Child protection is paramount and local authorities – and government – need to find the resources to do this without impacting on other services. But whether they will, or can, is another matter.