A crying shame…?

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By Ruth Hawkins

A report published this week by the Children’s Commissioner for England, suggests there are 15,800 babies under the age of one year considered by local authorities to be vulnerable or highly vulnerable and at risk of harm, but still living at home with their parents.

This comes at a time when many local authorities are struggling with financial pressures that are putting increasing strain on children’s services and support.

The report, ‘A Crying Shame’ looks at how many babies might be vulnerable to harm. It states that according to data available in March 2017, that there were 19,640 babies under a year old identified by local authorities as being children ‘in need’, largely due to risk factors in the family home. 3,820 of these babies under one were being looked after by local authorities, with a further 640 babies under one placed with someone other than their parents and a further 300 adopted over the year. This leaves 15,800 babies under one considered by local authorities to be vulnerable or highly vulnerable but still living at home in March 2017, a figure that is unlikely to be very different  today. This is thought to be 100 babies per local authority area in England.

The Children’s Commissioner’s research also shows:

  • 50,000 children aged 0-5, including 8,300 babies under 1 are living in households where all three of the so-called ‘toxic trio’ are present: domestic violence, alcohol or substance abuse and severe mental ill-health. Children in such households are known to be at high risk of severe harm. Figures suggest there are likely to be over 30,000 young children (0-5) living in extremely high-risk households but not on child protection plans, including 3,300 babies under 1.
  • A further 160,000 children aged 0-5 – including 25,000 babies under 1 – live in a household where two of these three risk factors are present.
  • The numbers of newborn babies made subject to care proceedings has increased 2.5 times in 8 years. More than 13,000 babies were made subject to care proceedings within the first year of the lives between April 2007 and March 2014. The report also highlights though that many of the mothers whose babies are removed in this way and not returned, continue to have subsequent pregnancies with the same cycle repeating, often more than once.

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said:

“This important research shows hundreds of the most vulnerable young children are at risk of harm. As children’s services budgets come under increased pressure, we cannot just cross our fingers and hope for the best. Babies are too vulnerable and deserve better.  The Government has an opportunity in the Budget and next year’s spending review to make sure the funds are in place ensure that they are properly protected.”

It’s all pretty depressing.  Many of us who are working within the family justice system have witnessed over the past number of years cuts in services designed to support families going through difficulties in the hope that children can remain in their families. We have seen cuts to Children Centres, mental health services, social services, drug and alcohol supports services, domestic abuse services and so on.  And at the same time, there is an increase in the numbers of children and babies who are at risk.
The Children’s Commissioner recommends that the multi-disciplinary teams, in Oxfordshire known as MASH, consider the likely levels of need amongst children in their area, and to draw up strategies designed to help those children.  The report states “It is clear that local authority children’s services departments at present are not sufficiently well resourced to offer help to all children who need it. This urgently needs to be addressed by the Government in the budget this autumn and in next year’s spending review.”
There is a recommendation to increase the number of mandatory Health Visitor visits for families where known risk factors are present.  It recommends better communication between health visitors and children’s services, and also that adult services working with domestic abuse victims, in mental health services and health and substance abuse, should automatically ask whether there are children in the household and information about those children. My experience though, is that generally this is happening already.  What is really needed, is more resources for children centres, and health support services.

Ruth Hawkins

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