Written evidence from Professor Paul Bywaters, Professor of Social Work University of Huddersfield and Dr Ruth Allen, CEO, British Association of Social Workers (CPM0005)


with input from:

Professor Andy Bilson, University of Central Lancashire, Dr Susannah Bowyer, Assistant Director, Research in Practice, Professor Karen Broadhurst, Centre for Child and Family Justice Research, Lancaster University, Professor Brid Featherstone, University of Huddersfield, Professor Leon Feinstein, Professor of Education and Children’s Social Care, University of Oxford, Professor Anna Gupta, Royal Holloway University of London, Dr Lisa Holmes, Associate Professor, Rees Centre, University of Oxford, Professor Rick Hood, University of Kingston and St. George’s, Professor Kate Morris, University of Sheffield, Professor June Thoburn, University of East Anglia, Dr. Calum Webb, University of Sheffield and Dinithi Wijedasa, School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol.


Addressing the Relationship between Child Poverty and Child Abuse and Neglect

This evidence is submitted by a number of university researchers, whose work includes studying the relationship between poverty and children’s social care, and colleagues in third sector organisations working in the fields of children’s social care and social work.

Our submission focuses on the two questions for which our work has relevance:


1.      What is the Impact of Child Poverty?

Child Abuse and Neglect: an under-recognised consequence of childhood poverty

Child poverty is associated with a wide range of negative outcomes both in childhood and in adult life. Poverty has an effect on educational attainment and children’s physical and mental health with consequences in adult life for employment, income and wealth, health and wellbeing. Less well known, and receiving much less policy attention, is the evidence that poverty is the leading contributory factor in child abuse and neglect (Bywaters et al., 2016).

It is estimated that between approximately 50-75% of the differences between local authorities in the proportion of children on child protection plans or who are ‘looked after’ in care can be explained by family socio-economic circumstances and income inequality (Webb et al., 2020a, 2020b).  Children in the most deprived 10% of neighbourhoods in England are over ten times more likely to be in care or on a protection plan than children in the least deprived 10% (Bywaters et al., 2018). The steep social gradient in child abuse and neglect is particularly acute for pre-school age groups (Bywaters, 2020).

In turn, experiencing child abuse and neglect has both short and long term consequences, affecting economic status, well-being, attainment and relationships (Bunting et al., 2018). Recent evidence has shown that children who have spent time in care can expect shorter lives with higher rates of ill-health 30 or 40 years into adulthood (Murray et al., 2020a, 2020b). Childhood experiences of abuse and neglect are not rare but widespread, with more than one child in five referred to children’s services by the age of five and one in nine assessed by social workers as subject to abuse or neglect by that age (Bilson and Martin, 2016).

Despite some growing recognition, for example, being included as an aspect of ‘complex needs’ in the recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation analysis of poverty in the UK (JRF, 2019), poverty is largely excluded from the Department for Education’s policies for child safeguarding, while child abuse and neglect is rarely mentioned in policies to address poverty.

Recommendation 1: Child abuse and neglect should be recognised as an outcome of child poverty of equivalent significance for policy making as addressing the impacts of poverty on education and health.

2.      What links can be established for children between financial hardship, educational under-achievement, family breakdown and worklessness?

The relationship between child poverty and child protection: the data gap

The study of the relationship between child poverty and child protection is severely hampered by the absence of any individual level data collection about the socio-economic circumstances of families in contact with children’s services (Bywaters et al., 2016). Neither the children in need census nor the looked after children return completed by local authorities and analysed by the Department for Education, require the reporting of any information about the economic circumstances of individual parents and children in contact with services. No large scale surveys of the demographic and economic circumstances of parents and children in contact with children’s services have been undertaken. Few longitudinal data sets identify children who have been in contact with children’s services, and where this has been done, for example the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, only a small proportion of cases are identified (Teyhan et al., 2019). Attempts have been made to extend the range and utility of children’s social care data by administrative data linkage but, as yet, no links have delivered parental or household level socio-economic data.

Researchers and analysts have therefore been driven to extrapolate evidence about parental circumstances and child poverty in one of two ways. First, studies have linked Index of Multiple Deprivation score for Lower Level Super Output Areas to the home postcode of individual children, risking the ecological fallacy – that the average characteristics of the neighbourhood are assumed to apply to each individual family. Second, the National Pupil Database allows researchers to identify children on Free School Meals, but this is also a poor quality proxy for current child poverty and, in any case, only effectively covers children of mainstream school age, not those under five or aged 16 -17, the peak ages for care entry and child protection and exploitation concerns.

This crucial gap in the evidence base means that policies on children’s social care are made without any systematic data about the parents, while policies about child poverty are made without adequate evidence about child abuse and neglect.

Recommendation 2: The Department of Work and Pensions and the Department for Education should urgently determine how to fill the gap in data about the socio-economic circumstances of families in contact with children’s services.


Bilson, A. and Martin, K. E. C. (2016) ‘Referrals and Child Protection in England: One in Five Children Referred to Children’s Services and One in Nineteen Investigated before the Age of Five’, British Journal of Social Work, (April), p. bcw054. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcw054.

Bunting, L., Davidson, G., McCartan, C., Hanratty, J., Bywaters, P., Mason, W. and Steils, N. (2018) The Association between Child Maltreatment and Adult Poverty – A Systematic Review of Longitudinal Research. Child Abuse and Neglect 77: 121-133.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2017.12.022

Bywaters, P (2020) Child Welfare Inequalities Project Final Report, University of Huddersfield https://pure.hud.ac.uk/ws/files/21398145/CWIP_Final_Report.pdf  

Bywaters, P., Bunting, L., Davidson, G., Hanratty, J., Mason, W., McCartan, C. and Steils, N. (2016) The relationship between poverty, child abuse and neglect: an evidence review. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation. https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/relationship-between-poverty-child-abuse-and-neglect-evidence-review

Bywaters, P., Brady, G., Bunting, L., Daniel, B., Featherstone, B., Jones, C., Morris, K, Scourfield, J., Sparks, T., Webb, C. (2018) Inequalities in English child protection practice under austerity: a universal challenge? Child and Family Social Work 23 (1): 53–61. https://doi.org/10.1111/cfs.12383

JRF (2019) UK Poverty: Causes, costs and solutions. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation. https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/uk-poverty-causes-costs-and-solutions

Murray, E. T. et al. (2020a) ‘Association of childhood out-of-home care status with all-cause mortality up to 42-years later: Office of National Statistics Longitudinal Study’, BMC Public Health. BMC Public Health, 20(1), pp. 1–10. doi: 10.1186/s12889-020-08867-3.

Murray, E. T. et al. (2020b) Non-parental care in childhood and health up to 30 years later: ONS Longitudinal Study 1971–2011, European Journal Of Public Health, pp. 1–7. doi: 10.1093/eurpub/ckaa113.

Teyhan, A. et al. (2019) ‘Early life adversity, contact with children’s social care services and educational outcomes at age 16 years: UK birth cohort study with linkage to national administrative records’, BMJ Open, 9(10), pp. 1–9. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2019-030213.

Webb, C., Bywaters, P., Elliott, M. & Scourfield, J. (2020) Income inequality and child welfare interventions in England and Wales. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

Webb, C., Bywaters, P. Scourfield, J., McCartan, C., Bunting, L., Davidson, G. and Morris, K. (2020) Untangling Child Welfare Inequalities and the ‘Inverse Intervention Law’ in England, Children and Youth Services Review online https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2020.104849.


February 2021