A new research study by Queen's University Belfast launched today (Friday, 6 October 2017) in partnership with six other UK-based universities has found significant inequalities in child welfare across the UK, with children in the most deprived areas more likely than those in the least deprived to become involved in the child protection system.
Academics from Queen's University and the universities of Coventry, Sheffield, Huddersfield, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Stirling found 'strong social gradients' in the rates of intervention across Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, with each step increase in neighborhood deprivation bringing a significant rise in the proportion of children either 'looked after' in care (LAC) or on a child protection plan (CPP).
The study was funded by the Nuffield Foundation to investigate data on over 35,000 children who are either LAC or on CPPs - over 10 per cent of all such cases opened in March 2015, when the study began. In Northern Ireland, child protection data from all five Health and Social Care Trusts was used, including 1,845 on the Child Protection Register (CPR) and 2,882 LAC.
Dr Lisa Bunting, Lecturer in Social Work from the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work and Queen's Project Lead, said: "The study has highlighted the huge disparity in child welfare across the UK and enables a deeper understanding of the link between neglect and poverty and the intervening factors. The evidence demonstrates that a different approach to child welfare is required; one which recognizes the impact of poverty and connects social practice with anti-poverty policies and community development initiatives to help alleviate family stress."
The study found that in Northern Ireland children living in the most deprived areas are six times more likely to be put on the Child Protection Register (CPR) and four times more likely to be looked after by the state than those living in the least deprived areas.
Although these figures are high, they are lower in Northern Ireland than in other nations such as in England where children in the most deprived areas are ten times more likely to be placed on child protection plans or looked after than those in the least deprived areas.
There is evidence that more deprived local authorities receive higher numbers of referrals but they respond to these differently, screening more out, stepping down statutory plans more quickly and conducting less long term work with families. The fact that Northern Ireland has the highest referral rates across the UK may lead to higher thresholds for intervention, reducing the potential association with deprivation.
The presence of a strong community sector and important developments in integrating and co-ordinating family support services across the region, may also act to improve some of the impact of deprivation by better meeting the support needs of families without recourse to statutory intervention.
Dr Bunting, continued: "The fact that Northern Ireland has the lowest intervention rates in the most deprived areas presents an important opportunity to investigate what we are doing well here, as well as areas where we might improve."
Sean Holland, the Chief Social Work Officer for the Department of Health Northern Ireland welcomed the findings from the research, adding: "Professionals supporting families need to understand the stress that deprivation places families under. No family is going to function better because they are in poverty, struggling with debt or at risk of becoming homeless. We need to have a joined up approach across professions, agencies and government departments when working with families under pressure."
The outcomes of the study recommend greater recognition of the link between deprivation and child welfare interventions at both policy and practice levels. This should involve greater alignment between anti-poverty policies, child protection and family support policies as well as the development of services to help families maximise their income and address issues of debt relief and financial hardship.
The findings from the study were revealed today at a conference hosted by Queen's and sponsored by the Department of Health Northern Ireland and the Department for Communities Northern Ireland.