Pivotal

Author

Dr Ernest Purvis

Dr Ernest Purvis

Published

The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care Services in Northern Ireland highlights significant rising demand for statutory support, but flattening the curve and preventing more children entering care will require investment in the innovative and non–stigmatising initiatives of Community and Voluntary Sector organisations working directly with vulnerable families. 

Early intervention, prevention, and tackling inequalities have, quite rightly, become an essential part of the political lexicon concerning health and social care reform. However, in order to stem the rising tide of children in need of statutory social services, this rhetoric must be matched by enhanced, strategic investment in services and support designed to provide practical help for families.

In April 2024, there were 3,994 children in care in Northern Ireland – the highest number recorded since the introduction of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. This number has risen by 35% in the last ten years and by 64% since 1999. The Independent Review, published in June 2023, found that there were more than 4,000 children on waiting lists for assessments and help from Children’s Social Care Services, with many waiting for over a year and with the longest wait being over two years. 

The Review highlighted structural deficiencies, a high turnover of social workers, the impact of poverty, and the absence of an Executive and Assembly as key factors. In May 2024, social workers in the Belfast Health Trust went on strike for 48 hours in response to what they called a ‘staffing crisis’ in family and children’s services. One social worker told BBC News NI, “we have unprecedented numbers of looked after children, alongside a decrease in the workforce, alongside a decrease in resources and services so we need to highlight that this is no longer safe.”

The decision by the Department of Health, back in 2011, to reduce the number of social work places from 300 to 260, has been cited as a contributing factor in the significant shortage of staff. However, in addition to workforce challenges, it is clear that policymakers must also address the issue of rising demand for services. 

One of the central recommendations of the Independent Review is the need to re–set and re–focus Children’s Social Care Services to give a greater focus and attention to family support. In practice, that could mean many things, but at the very least it should include fully resourcing those Community and Voluntary Organisations to do the work that they are currently doing (e.g. sufficient uplift in contracts, full cost recovery) and less stringent gatekeeping so that they can support those children and families with complex needs in partnership with colleagues in the statutory sector. 

However, in terms of transformative potential, policymakers should pay much closer attention to how government can properly harness the power of the community–based infrastructure that delivers non–stigmatising, life–changing support to children, young people and families. The business case for this is already laid out clearly in a plethora of robust academic research, highlighting the cost–benefits of tackling problems sooner. 

Longitudinal studies of children’s outcomes consistently show strong associations between maltreatment (e.g. abuse and neglect) and economic inactivity later in life. Research demonstrates that care–experienced young people are more likely to die younger, more likely to require hospital treatment, and more likely to be prescribed medication compared to other children. Other studies highlight how the early years of child’s life can shape their likelihood of developing obesity, heart disease, and severe mental health conditions. 

Analysis of the impact of Sure Start conducted by the Institute for Fiscal Studies indicates that community provision prevented over 13,000 hospitalisations of young people each year at its peak in England, and the benefits were particularly long–lasting for children from disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Public Health England have also examined the returns on some public health interventions and found cost–benefit ratios of those programmes targeted at babies, children, and young people, such as mental health support, nursing services and multisystemic therapies of between £2.97 and £6.55 for every £1 spent.

As part of the £47 million transformation funding available to the Northern Ireland Executive this year, it would seem perfectly logical to develop a new Early Intervention Fund – open to applications from Community and Voluntary Sector organisations working directly with children, young people and families – that is targeted towards innovative, evidence–based initiatives and services that solve problems sooner, keep families together, and provide a solid foundation for our most disadvantaged children and young people to live long, happy, healthy lives. 

Key learning from the Early Intervention Transformation Programme, a £30 million joint investment between the NI Executive and Atlantic Philanthropies, should form the basis for a new scheme. The wide range of work that it supported between 2015–2020 included new models and ways of working that became embedded into mainstream practice. However, there is still much to do to realise the potential of more broadly implementing early intervention knowledge and applying evidence–based approaches to how services are commissioned and delivered. 

The Public Sector Transformation Board, when established, must give serious consideration to a new Fund that pilots specific targeted family support and early years services until 2028–29, comprehensively evaluates their effectiveness, and assesses their long–term viability in the context of the Department of Health’s Children’s Social Care Strategic Reform Programme. There is a strong case for greater investment in family support, and a Fund like this would have the potential to radically shift the dial with regard to the current crisis in children’s services and improve the lives of the most vulnerable children and young people across Northern Ireland. 

Dr Ernest Purvis is the Policy Officer for Children in Northern Ireland (CiNI), the regional umbrella organisation for the children’s sector, and Chair of the Children’s Policy Forum. 

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