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A child's chances of being taken into care depend on where they live in the UK

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A child growing up in the UK is much less likely to be doing so in care if they live in Northern Ireland rather than England, Scotland or Wales. That’s the finding of a new study from my colleagues and I working on the Child Welfare Inequalities Project, which highlights just how profoundly unequal children’s chances are of being in care or experiencing abuse or neglect.

Our research set out to identify inequalities in children’s chances of being on a child protection plan or register – essentially a confirmed case of abuse or neglect – or of being in care, or what’s called a looked after child. We analysed data for about 36,000 children in contact with child protection services in 55 local authorities or trusts in 2015 and examined the minutiae of what happened in eight of them. The four UK countries of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales create a kind of natural experiment in children’s social care with differing legal systems, structures and political leadership.

Our new paper points to a key factor influencing inequalities in children’s services: the country the child lives in. Children in Northern Ireland, despite the country’s higher level of deprivation, were much less likely to be in foster or residential care than elsewhere in the UK: 50% less likely than in England, 80% less than in Wales and a huge 130% less likely than in Scotland.

In every UK country, each step increase in deprivation was accompanied by a rise in a child’s chances of being in state care or on a protection plan. But inequalities between the four countries were greatest in the most deprived 40% of neighbourhoods in the UK, home to the parents of nearly four fifths of children in care. The proportion of children in residential or foster homes in these deprived areas of England and Wales was more than double that in Northern Ireland. In Scotland it was three times greater.

These findings build on studies we’ve already published that have identified three key factors influencing how likely a child is to be a subject of the child protection system. The most significant was the socio-economic circumstances of their parents. Nor is there any immediate evidence that children are less well protected in Northern Ireland: for example, the rates of child homicide or deaths by assault or undetermined intent are the lowest there of the four UK countries.

The second factor was that intervention rates are mostly much higher among white British children than other ethnic categories, not by a few percentage points but multiples in the case of children identified as Asian.

And the third influence was the level of expenditure on children’s services relative to demand. In England, central government funding cuts have affected more deprived local authorities, where demand for services are higher, much more deeply. As a result, in these deprived local authorities, service provision is even more tightly rationed than in better off areas. This means proportionately fewer children end up in care or on protection plans. We call this paradox the “inverse intervention law”: a structural relationship between funding levels and children’s services which is statistically significant.

Why Northern Ireland might be different

There is currently no measure for the “correct” or expected rate of how many children should to be in foster or residential care. But the degree of difference we found strongly suggests that all four countries cannot be getting it right. Nor is there any immediate evidence that children are less well protected in Northern Ireland: there aren’t more frequent child care scandals or child deaths.

Our team of researchers is currently working in Northern Ireland to try to explain the lower rates by examining a number of possibilities. One could be that the level of demand for services may be reduced by the existence of strong and relatively stable extended families and communities. Another could be that families and communities in Northern Ireland may be more resistant to official interventions in family life.

These factors may possibly be reinforced by a more extensive range of alternative support systems, many provided by church-based groups. Or it may be that services are responding to families differently. Social workers may have more resources to draw on to help families in practical, material ways, including money to bail out a family in crisis. Families’ socio-economic circumstances may be seen as core business for social work – something that has not usually been the case in England and Scotland. All these hypotheses need testing.

Around £9 billion is spent on children’s social care each year in England alone and over £4 billion on looked after children. If England had the equivalent rates of looked after children as Northern Ireland, adjusted for the different levels of deprivation, over £1.5 billion could be redirected.

But the challenge presented by Northern Ireland is not just how much is spent, but what it is spent on. It may be that what’s required elsewhere is a re-balancing of services, so that parents are treated as partners in keeping children safe, with the state’s primary task one of support to prevent both abuse and neglect and family separation.

The evidence of profound inequalities in children’s social care is raising fundamental questions about the purpose, practice and funding of the current child protection system and the role of the state in family life.

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