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A perfect storm is brewing in children’s social care - by Javed Khan

Release Date: 27 Sep 2018

152 years. That’s how long Barnardo’s has been helping vulnerable children and young people, starting with Dr Barnardo’s himself on the troubled streets of Victorian London.

In Thomas Barnardo‘s time the problems facing children were severe, and clear for all to see - children without parents, in poor health and out of school, sleeping on rooftops and in alleyways.

There have been some huge improvements since then – especially in health and education. But the problems facing children today are real, urgent, complex and – dangerously - less visible.

Childhood should be a magical time, filled with happy memories. But sadly too many childhoods today are being lost to exploitation, abuse and neglect.

Across the UK, more and more young people are ending up in the care system and being entrapped by violent crime and drug trafficking. But the challenges aren’t just limited to the unlucky few. Around 1 in 20 children experience some form of sexual abuse before they reach 18. And three children in every classroom are thought to have a diagnosable mental health problem – which is approaching epidemic proportions.

Take ‘Billy’. Billy’s earliest memory is being picked up in a police car after no-one noticed that he’d wandered off. When he was 13 his dad died, and he was placed in a children’s home. Struggling at school and with no-one to turn to, he made friends with an older guy online and they hung out together.  He enjoyed feeling trusted and received gifts (wouldn’t you?) but it soon turned sour. Billy was being forced to sell drugs, and he was sexually abused. He started carrying a knife for protection but when it was discovered at school he was expelled.

With Barnardo’s help Billy was able to go back into education and find a safe place to live. He got support to recover from what he’d been through and help to prepare for a brighter future.

But there are too many Billys out there, and the numbers are growing.

Emerging evidence from our frontline services suggests a growing number of young people are facing multiple and overlapping dangers from early trauma and neglect, to grooming and sexual abuse, through to criminal exploitation, drugs and gangs.

And our survey of police, teachers and social workers, unveiled today, provides further evidence that increasing numbers of the most vulnerable children are coming into contact with services that are struggling to meet their needs.

Official figures show the number of children needing urgent and substantial support from local authority children’s services has grown significantly. Having risen steadily for nine years, there are now over 70,000 children going into the care system every year. The demand for children’s services and growing complexity of need are simply outstripping the resources available to local authorities.

As a result, many councils have had to concentrate their limited resources on help for children with the highest level of need. And too often this is at the expense of preventative services – such as children’s centres, family hubs and youth work – creating a vicious cycle where too many children reach crisis point before they can access support.

But beyond all this, there’s a whole new dimension to the challenge facing children today. The nature of ‘vulnerability’ itself is changing, and it doesn’t respect class or privilege. Across the country, there are children living in comfortable homes with their parents, who seem safe and secure, but the moment they switch on their smart phone, tablet or computer, they enter a whole new realm, where the usual rules, regulations and safeguards do not apply. From cyber-bullying to gaming addiction to online grooming, the risks are all too real – and they apply to everyone.

The added risks connected with the online world, in addition to rising demand for children’s services, and limited resource, is creating a perfect storm.

And the current commissioning environment only compounds pressures on services, by encouraging competition over collaboration, which means charities are forced to spend donors’ money chasing contracts, even when they don’t win. This just isn’t sustainable, and I’m really pleased that in the new Civil Society Strategy, the Government points to more progressive approaches, such as grant funding.  

So I’m absolutely clear that the scale and complexity of challenges facing children today demand a radical new approach.

At Barnardo’s we believe part of the answer is to develop radical new approaches to delivering children’s services, forming long-term strategic partnerships with councils, the police, NHS, and other charities, to co-design and deliver the services children, families and communities really need.

The aim isn’t just to solve the problems of today, but to think ahead to tomorrow – so we can step in early, long before children like Billy reach crisis point. Barnardo’s is already working in this radically new way, including in Norfolk, Newport and Redbridge, where early evaluations are encouraging.

Children’s lives are changing at a pace we can barely comprehend. Just as society as a whole is becoming more diverse, and digital technology is transforming how we work, learn and socialize, so childhood today is constantly evolving, creating some fantastic new opportunities, but some deeply worrying risks too.

We must keep one step ahead, investing in long-term partnerships, sharing knowledge, testing new approaches, and above all, listening to what young people really need. That’s the only way to achieve our ultimate goal - of better outcomes for more children.

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