As the battle for No 10 rumbles on, we are faced with a policy vacuum amidst one of the worst cost of living crises ever seen. Yet again it is our nation’s children who will suffer – and above all those children in the most vulnerable, precarious situations. The care system already faces overwhelm and we are now staring down the barrel of a crisis which will have devastating and long-lasting consequences for those children who most need support and protection.
Child poverty has risen significantly over the last decade. The most recently available figures from 2019-20 show 4.3 million children living in poverty. That’s 30 per cent of children, and of course this does not take into account the crisis we currently face, predicted to tip millions more into deprivation.
Behind the numbers are of course real families, real children – going hungry, cold, unable to concentrate at school. It is well known that poverty impacts on children’s health & well-being. Less well known is the growing evidence that poverty is a major factor in child abuse and neglect – the leading reason for children entering the care system.
In England, children in the most deprived 10% of neighbourhoods are over ten times more likely to be in care or on a protection plan than those in the least deprived 10%. We also know that the rising cost of living has impacted on mothers’ ability to escape abusive partners, with nearly three quarters of domestic abuse victims saying it has stopped them escaping their abusive partner or made it harder for them to leave – this will result in yet more children at risk of entering care.
We already have record numbers of children in care– over 100, 000 in the UK – and a system at breaking point. There are simply not enough places for children to live – meaning high levels of instability, with some children moved multiple times each year, having to rebuild relationships, change schools, without a stable place to call home.
There has also been an increase of 17,000 children being placed away from their home area over the last ten years. We know from calls to our Care Advice Line just how distressing it can be for children to be moved away from everything and everyone they know. What’s more, it can put them at increased risk of harm including exploitation and abuse. More often than not, such moves are based not on the best interests of the child but on a lack of available homes.
The reality for growing numbers of children and young people is that the care system is exacerbating the instability they faced before entering care. This has a devastating impact on their ability to recover from the trauma they’ve been through, an impact which can last into adulthood.
And what of those young people leaving the care system – already facing a Care Cliff of support when they reach 18 and are expected to be financially independent, and now having to face the cost of living crisis on their own. utility bills, students struggling with university costs and debt, young parents struggling to cover their rent alongside caring for their children, individuals struggling with affording travel to get to work, and care leavers unable to buy essential appliances for their home.
Little wonder the statistics for young people leaving care are so grim – the links with homelessness, mental health and imprisonment are pronounced. We work with many amazing, inspiring young care leavers – but they often tell us that they are thriving in spite of the system, not because of it.
The truth is the care system is struggling to cope now, with years of underinvestment, extortionately high fees being charged by private providers of children’s homes, and staffing shortages. Local authorities are already predicting a children’s social care funding shortfall of £2.7bn by 2025 – how will they cope with spiraling costs and a decrease in council tax receipts?
Given this backdrop, it is hard to see how the care system will accommodate the likely increase in children being taken into care that will result from growing levels of poverty in the years ahead. This could leave tens of thousands more children in a broken care system that is not fit for purpose.
Much has rightly been made of the challenges facing our health service and adult social care. But this overlooked part of the welfare state is absolutely crucial in protecting some of our most vulnerable children. And frankly, its future looks precarious.
This year saw the publication of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care – which laid bare the scale of the challenge even before the economic crisis. Government must build on this momentum to consider the changes needed and crucially the investment required to ensure that every child has the love, support and stability they need to thrive.
We desperately need urgent action from the government to tackle the cost of living crisis – and in particular to ease the burden falling on the most at-risk families. But more fundamental reforms to the care system are needed to avoid failing a generation of children. Children in care simply cannot afford a Government that is asleep at the wheel.
Katharine Sacks-Jones, CEO at Become