Written evidence from Home for Good (CPM0018)

 

Home for Good is a UK-wide fostering and adoption charity whose vision is a home for every child who needs one. We are delighted to have the opportunity to make our submission to the Committee to feed into their inquiry into child poverty.

 

The impact of child poverty

The impact of child poverty is wide-reaching and complex. According to the Children’s Society, five million children are set to be living in poverty in 2021.[i] This is a challenge that needs urgent attention and action. We know that at a primary level, child poverty increases the likelihood of children experiencing malnourishment or a lack of basic material provision. However, there is also compelling evidence that the impact of child poverty is not only significant for a child’s immediate wellbeing but can also have a lifelong impact on their experience of stability, which dramatically affects both their trajectory and their future. One of the most significant impacts of child poverty is demonstrated through the increasing body of evidence which links poverty with children entering the care system. One study has shown that “children in the most deprived 10% of small neighbourhoods in the UK are over ten times more likely to be in foster or residential care or on protection plans than children in the least deprived 10%.[ii]

Becoming looked after by the state is a monumental shift for any child to experience. While recent headlines on child poverty have rightly identified the injustice of a rising number of children who are unable to access sufficient food and are thus reliant on free school meals, it is vital that the broader and longer-term implications of poverty are recognised and acknowledged. While child poverty rates consistently declined between 1998 and 2010, since then they have levelled and subsequently increased again, with the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicting that the sharp upward trajectory will only continue.[iii] Correspondingly, England has seen a steep increase in the number of children entering the care system, rising by 24% since 2010, with more than 80,000 children currently looked after by the state.[iv] The Government has recently launched the independent ‘Children’s Social Care Review’ in England, which aims to address “the sharp increase in recent years in the number of looked after children.”[v]

For too long, child poverty and the care system have been considered in siloed ways, despite prolific research evidencing the link between them. This inquiry by the Committee and the launch of the independent Children’s Social Care Review are both significant opportunities to consider the relationship between child poverty and child welfare intervention, and to develop solutions that address the root causes of the issue.

We identify that poverty plays a significant role in exacerbating and contributing to the vulnerability of families which increases the likelihood of engagement with the children’s social care system. This submission will explore these connections.

 

The relationship between child poverty and the care system

Firstly, there is strong evidence that shows a clear link between poverty and harmful behaviours:

These statistics demonstrate a clear link between the acute stress experienced by those struggling with poverty and the likelihood of engagement in harmful practices. Financial hardship unsurprisingly causes high levels of stress and anxiety, and while many individuals will demonstrate resilience in finding constructive ways to manage the strain, many others will sadly engage in harmful practices and behaviour as a means of coping with severe stress.[ix] This could include substance misuse, domestic abuse, or other harmful behaviours, many of which demonstrate a cyclical relationship with poverty.

Research clearly shows the prevalence of these harmful behaviours among parents whose children are taken into care: 

It is important to recognise that there is rarely one single factor that determines the likelihood of a child entering the care system. Instead, there are usually multiple causal factors at play, which increase the likelihood of reduced parental capacity and therefore of an intervention by social services. Though the presence of financial poverty alone will be unlikely to result in a child being removed from their family, the presence of financial poverty greatly increases the likelihood of other elements of poverty occurring (including a family entering crisis, substance misuse, mental ill health, etc.) that could lead to a child entering the care system.

Moreover, the seminal work of Professor Paul Bywaters and the Childhood Welfare Inequalities Project has identified another way that poverty intersects with these challenges whereby families who are in crisis due to substance abuse are more likely to have social services’ involvement if they are living in deprivation than those who are more financially stable:

“Parental substance use accompanied by poverty is more likely to lead to contact with child protection services than substance use in a position of affluence.”[xiii]

This recognises that not only can poverty increase the likelihood of adults turning to harmful practices which may impact on their ability to keep their child safe, but where harmful behaviours are displayed, deprivation hampers the ability of families to overcome these challenges and therefore increases the likelihood of escalation and social services’ involvement.

Research overwhelmingly shows that the majority of children who enter the care system come from disadvantaged backgrounds. One study in the UK has identified a systematic association between a child’s chances of being subject to a child protection plan or entering the care system with the level of deprivation in their neighbourhood.[xiv] A paper commissioned by the Department for Education in 2017 highlights:

“Evidence suggests that the direct and indirect impacts of poverty interact in a complex manner with other factors that affect parenting and can increase the risk of child abuse and neglect.”[xv]

Furthermore, a study in Wales in 2020 highlights that the increase in entries to care in Wales following an infamous child protection case were concentrated in the poorest neighbourhoods. In these areas, rates of entry into care doubled within a year.[xvi] Children in the most deprived neighbourhoods within this study were found to be nearly twelve times more likely to enter care than those in the least deprived areas.[xvii] The study goes on to provide further evidence of a ‘social gradient’ at play in the rates at which children experience child welfare interventions, which results in a “systematic pattern where there is a concentration of intervention in the lives of children and their families in the most deprived areas[xviii].

For two-thirds of children who enter the care system every year, the primary reason provided is ‘parental abuse’ or ‘parental neglect’.[xix] It is clear that poverty is a significant factor in causing families to experience difficulties which may reduce their capacity to care for their children adequately.

There is a significant risk that despite some efforts, children in poverty and children in care are addressed in a siloed manner and yet there is clearly a huge overlap in their experiences. Recognising the significant impact that entering the care system can have on a child’s life should fuel a determination to tackle child poverty in a holistic manner to prevent the need for escalation further down the line. Similarly, the challenge of rising numbers of children entering the care system cannot be tackled robustly without recognising the significant role that poverty plays in the lives and experiences of children who enter the care system.

 

Measuring the impact

Robust measurement of the relationship between child poverty and the care system is vital for providing a clearer picture of the long-term impact of poverty and for assessing the impact of policies which affect poverty levels, both nationally and locally.

To measure the impact of child poverty, research studies can help to evidence the overall historical patterns of families living in deprivation and engagement with the care system, but there is a substantial and unacceptable lack of robust data available on the family circumstances of children who are entering the care system on a daily basis. Thus, there is a need to vastly improve the recording of data on children who engage with social services and the degree to which deprivation is a contributory factor. One recent survey showed that social workers identified that most families they were working with were living in poverty and were experiencing homelessness, food insecurity and stress associated with debt issues as a result. 94% of these social workers stated that they felt the prevalence and severity of poverty experienced by families connected to them had increased over the last few years. While such anecdotal and reflective feedback is helpful, there are currently inadequate mechanisms in place within the social care system to gather this data consistently. We are missing opportunities to build a full picture of the true impact of poverty on children entering the care system.

While the category of ‘low income’ is included within the primary need list for children entering care, it is only applied in a very low number of cases because it is unlikely to ever be the sole reason for a child to be removed from their birth family. Whilst low income can be a significant factor in exacerbating family stress and can increase the likelihood of a child experiencing abuse and neglect in their home, unless it is the primary reason, it will not be recorded. A recent report highlighted the significant and worrying dearth of information gathered around the socioeconomic status of families who receive support from social services:

“Even now, English data on factors identified in assessments of children in need includes no socio-economic information (such as poverty, debt, unemployment, and housing) nor details about the demographic characteristics of parents (age, marital status, history). The ‘low income’ category within the primary need list has fallen into disuse as the definition is too narrowly drawn to be valuable and was almost never identified as a single most important need.”[xx]

RECOMMENDATION

The committee should recommend to the Department for Work and Pensions that they consider how the socioeconomic status of families where children are taken into care can be recorded in a systematic and consistent way. The Department should work with the Department for Education to identify where existing data gathering mechanisms can be extended to include the socioeconomic status of families more routinely. This data collection should aim to provide better data on the correlation between poverty and the children’s social care system and enable a more holistic understanding of the experiences of children in care and mitigate the risk that their lived experience is overlooked when they enter the care system.

 

Child poverty and poor outcomes

As demonstrated above, there is a charted link between child poverty and engagement with the care system. Therefore, an examination of the outcomes of children in the care system is helpful in providing a fuller picture of links between financial hardship and poor educational and employment outcomes, as well as family breakdown. Sadly, it is well-documented that children with experience of the care system are overwhelmingly more likely to experience poor outcomes both in their childhood and into their adult life. These outcomes are a direct result of the legacy of trauma in their lives as well as the instability and familial separation experienced as part of entering the care system.

The impact of child poverty and subsequent contact with the care system has huge lifelong impacts on a child’s future. The root of these poor outcomes can be traced back to their experience of poverty where so many of their needs were not met early enough.

There are also fiscal implications to child poverty. The Local Government Association estimates that in 2017/18, local authorities in England spent £8.84 billion on children’s social care. Such a figure is unsustainable as well as concerning, considering that outcomes for children and young people are appallingly poor given such a high fiscal investment. Coupled with this is the reality that there has been a 24% increase in the number of children entering care in the last decade[xxvi]. As a result, we now have a care system that is over-burdened, stretched, and unable to ensure that every child has the chance to thrive.

The Department for Education has recently announced the launch of the Children’s Social Care Review in England, which has been hailed as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to evaluate how our social care system is operating, where it is failing to meet children’s needs, and how it can be reimagined to operate more effectively and care for children well. One aspect of the review will focus on investigating what can be done to ensure that only the children who absolutely need to are entering the care system, with the Terms of Reference stating that the review “should consider the capacity and capability of the system to support and strengthen families in order to prevent children being taken into care unnecessarily”.[xxvii] Given the clear overlap between the Committee’s inquiry and the intentions of the review, there is an opportunity for the Committee to feed into the review and provide evidence as to the impact of child poverty on the social care system and what could be done to remedy this.

RECOMMENDATION

In recognition that poverty and the care system are inextricably linked, the Chair for the Committee for Work and Pensions should meet with the Chair of the Independent Children’s Social Care Review to discuss how the objectives of the review and inquiry might be aligned and where they can most helpfully feed into each other. The Committee should invite the Chair of the Review to give evidence to the Committee on the review’s intentions and progress. All findings from both reviews should be considered together.

 

Child poverty and racial disparity

It is particularly vital for the Committee to recognise the dimension of ethnicity when considering the impact of poverty and its contribution to poor outcomes, including family breakdown. Home for Good has identified the existence of racial disparity across the children’s social care system whereby:

In November 2020, Home for Good made a submission to the recently formed Commission for Race and Ethnic Disparities, whose aims are to understand and tackle the poor outcomes in education, employment, the criminal justice system, and health faced by certain ethnic groups. We would be pleased to send our submission to the Committee if helpful. Our submission urged the Commission to look further upstream, recognising that an overrepresentation of Black children in the care system, which we know is associated with poorer health, education, and employment outcomes, is likely to therefore produce an overrepresentation of Black individuals experiencing poor outcomes in wider society and later in life.

Given the association between families living in deprivation and interaction with the children’s social care system, higher levels of poverty among some ethnic groups are likely to be contributing to an overrepresentation of such groups in the care system. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlighted that Black individuals in the UK are more likely to be in poverty than individuals of other backgrounds.[xxxi] So too, one study showed that Black Caribbean children were nearly 40% more likely than White British children to be looked after, even in the most disadvantaged areas[xxxii].

When considering the wide-ranging impact of child poverty on children’s lives, attention must be also given to the particular impact on children who are more likely to live in poverty, including Black children. Efforts to tackle child poverty must pay particular attention to the dimension of ethnicity to ensure that no child is disadvantaged due to the colour of their skin. Furthermore, we are still lacking a robust analysis of the drivers of the overrepresentation of Black children in the care system and it must be a matter of urgency to find out exactly why this disparity exists and persists for Black children.

 

RECOMMENDATION

As part of the inquiry into child poverty, the Committee should consider the relationship between ethnicity and child poverty in a targeted way, given the overrepresentation of Black and ethnic minority individuals living in poverty. We would urge the committee to hear evidence on the overrepresentation and resulting experiences of Black and ethnic minority children living in poverty – and particularly of those in the care system - so that the Committee’s recommendations to address child poverty transform the lives of those children most deeply affected


[i]References

Children’s Society. Ending Child Poverty. Link here [Accessed February 2021].

[ii] Bywaters, P and The Child Welfare Inequalities Project Team (et al.). (2020). The Child Welfare Inequalities Project: Final Report. Huddersfield: University of Huddersfield. Page 4.

[iii] Child Poverty Action Group; ‘Recent History of UK Child Poverty’; Link here [Accessed February 2021]

[iv] Department for Education. 2020. Children looked after in England including adoptions.

[v] Department for Education (2021) Terms of Reference for the Independent Children’s Social Care Review

[vi] Jones et al (2015) Understanding the alcohol harm paradox in order to focus the development of interventions. Liverpool, Centre for Public Health, Liverpool John Moores University; Bellis et al (2016) The alcohol harm paradox: using a national survey to explore how alcohol may disproportionately impact health in deprived individuals. BMC Public Health, 16, 1.

[vii] Walby, S and Allen, J (2004) Domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking: Findings from the British Crime Survey; Link here

[viii] National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (2012) cited on NSPCC website, Link here

[ix] Child Poverty Action Group (2021) ‘The Effects of Poverty’, Link here

[x] Devaney, J. (2009) Chronic child abuse: The characteristics and careers of children caught in the child protection system. The British Journal of Social Work, 39, 24-45; Ward, H., Brown, R., & Westlake, D (2012) Safeguarding babies and very young children from abuse and neglect. London; Jessica Kingsley

[xi] Harwin, J., Owen, M., Locke, R., & Forrester, D (2003) Making care orders work: A study of care plans and their implementation. London: TSO.; Masson, J.M et al (2008) Care profiling study. Ministry of Justice Research Series 4/08

[xii] Children’s Commissioner for England, cited in oral evidence given to Home Affairs Select Committee, 15 April 2020. Transcript available here.

[xiii] 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. Page 4.

[xiv] Featherstone, B., Morris, K., Daniel, B., Bywaters, P., Brady, G., Bunting, L., Mason, W. and Mirza, N.(2017). ‘Poverty, Inequality, Child Abuse and Neglect: Changing the Conversation across the UK in Child Protection?’ Children and Youth Services Review. Page 12.

[xv] Wilkinson, J & Bowyer, S (2017) The impacts of abuse and neglect on children; and comparison of different placement options; Department for Education

[xvi] Elliot, T (2020) Child Welfare Inequalities in a Time of Rising Numbers of Children Entering Out-of-Home Care

[xvii] Elliot, T (2020) Child Welfare Inequalities in a Time of Rising Numbers of Children Entering Out-of-Home Care; Abstract

[xviii] Elliot, T (2020) Child Welfare Inequalities in a Time of Rising Numbers of Children Entering Out-of-Home Care; page 11

[xix] Department for Education. 2020. Children looked after in England including adoptions.

[xx] Bywaters, P and The Child Welfare Inequalities Project Team (et al.). (2020). The Child Welfare Inequalities Project: Final Report. Huddersfield: University of Huddersfield. Page 14.

[xxi] National Audit Office (2015) Care leavers’ transition to adulthood

[xxii] Young & Homeless 2018 (2018) The Homeless Link Research Team; Link here

[xxiii] Timpson, E (2019) Timpson Review of School Exclusions

[xxiv] Murray, E.T et al (2020) Non-parental care in childhood and health up to 30 years later: ONS Longitudinal Study 1971–2011; European Journal of Public Health

[xxv] Department for Education. 2020. Children looked after in England including adoptions.

[xxvi] Department for Education. 2020. Children looked after in England including adoptions.

[xxvii] Department for Education (2021) Terms of Reference for the Children’s Social Care Review

[xxviii] Department for Education (2020) Adopted and Looked After Children, Link here

[xxix] Wijedasa, D (2015) Characteristics of children living with relatives in England: Part I; University of Bristol

[xxx] Department for Education (2020) Adopted and Looked After Children, Link here

[xxxi] Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2019) ‘We must turn the tide on inequality for all our children’, Link here

[xxxii] Bywaters, P., Kwhali, J., Brady, G., Sparks, T. & Bos, E. (2017). ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Ethnic Inequalities in Child Protection and Out-of-Home Care Intervention Rates.’ British Journal of Social Work, vol.47 (7), 1884–1902.

 

 

February 21