Austerity impacts children’s social care and practice

Photo by Nasrin Siege

This article was written in 2017 by Anna Gupta for the Social workers and service users against austerity campaign. Dr Gupta teaches social work at Royal Holloway, University of London, and is on the Board of Directors of ATD Fourth World.

Families in poverty have taken the brunt of austerity measures since the global economic crisis began, resulting in growing social and economic inequality. In Britain, stringent cuts in welfare and public services have led to significant hardship for vulnerable children and families.

The Child Poverty Action Group estimates that there were 3.9 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2014-15, 28 per cent of children, or 9 in a classroom of 30. The number of children in absolute poverty has increased by 0.5 million since 2010 ( Some families are at far greater risk, for example large families have been particularly adversely affected by the lowering of the cap on benefits (

Hunger, homelessness and poverty

Over recent years there has been a rapid growth in foodbanks with an estimated rise of 54% between 2012/2013 and 2013/2014 (Perry et al., 2014). The number of homeless families living in temporary accommodation also has risen, with a rise of more than 300% since 2014 in the number of families housed illegally (for more than the statutory maximum of six weeks)(Helm, 2017).

Pelton (2015) argues that poverty is the predominant context in which harm and endangerment to children thrive, and is multifaceted, involving direct and indirect relationships. Poverty undoubtedly makes parenting harder, and impacts differentially on individual families, with particularly serious consequences for more vulnerable individuals and those without formal or informal sources of support (Hooper et al., 2007).

Yet at the same time that many families are suffering increased hardship, severe reductions in local authority budgets are leading to significant cuts in family support services, such as children’s centres and youth services (Sammons et al., 2015).

Investigations lead to fear and alienation

Alongside the decrease in family support provision to address need, there has been an intensification of identifying risk. The national statistics show that child protection investigations increased by 79.4 % between 2009–10 and 2014–15 (DfE, 2015). Whilst there was an increase in children placed on a child protection plan (40.4 %) over this period, the much larger increase in investigations meant that the number of children who came under suspicion and were investigated but were not found to be significantly harmed more than doubled from 45,000 to 98,000 (DfE, 2015).

Devine and Parker‘s (2015) analysis of referral and assessment trends similarly found practices that were preoccupied with detecting abuse, ignored need and frequently left families alienated and frightened. In addition new applications to the family courts to remove children from the parents’ care have also court continued to rise over the past few years, with 12,758 applications between April 2015 and March 2016, which represented a 14% increase from the previous year (CAFCASS, 2016).

Although no official statistics are collected on the socio-economic background of children and families involved in the child protection system,

it is highly likely that increase in care proceedings are primarily affecting children from poor backgrounds.

A study by Bywaters (2015) provides recent evidence of a clear link between deprivation and a child’s life chances in relation to their ability to live with their family of origin. Similarly Hood et al. (2016) found that the overall system has become increasingly geared towards protective rather than supportive interventions, with deprivation levels continuing to be the key driver of referrals.

Poverty is woven into the fabric

Whilst most families in poverty do not maltreat their children, a review of the literature has reinforced the significance of poverty as a contributory causal factor in child abuse and neglect (Bywaters et al 2016). Poverty is most closely associated with neglect, the highest category for child protection plans, and acts both directly through the capacity of parents to maintain the basic conditions for healthy child development, such as food, shelter and warmth, or to buy a variety of forms of support, and indirectly through the stresses created by low income.

Poverty is not just incidental but woven into the fabric of people’s everyday lives; an influential factor in family relationships on a day-by-day, hour by hour basis, in its own right and interacting with other forces such as parental mental health, substance use and domestic violence (Bywaters et al 2016), and compounded by increasing levels of inequality in society (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009).

The ‘othering’ of people in poverty

Despite evidence linking material deprivation and parenting difficulties, Conservative Government ministers and policy advisors have strongly repudiated the view that social injustice and inequality are factors that need to be considered when trying to understand and deal with the harms that children and their families experience (Featherstone, 2016).

The neoliberal individualizing of blame and the ‘othering’ of people in poverty is the dominant policy discourse (Warner, 2015),

as clearly exemplified by the statement by the then Secretary for Education, Michael Gove (2012) when he spoke about needing to rescue children from ‘a life of soiled nappies and scummy baths, chaos and hunger, hopelessness and despair’.

Social work educators have been criticized for focusing too much on poverty and inequality and teaching students to excuse parents in poverty for their ‘bad choices’ (Narey, 2014).

Approaching a tipping point

High caseloads and frequent staff turnover, scarce support services, and an increasingly narrow, time-limited and risk averse focus characterise much of children’s social work in local authorities. Recently, Dave Hill, President of the ADCS, warned that because of the funding crisis the system was approaching a “tipping point” and the effects of six years of austerity on services could not be understated (Stevenson, 2016).

This context makes it much harder for social workers, despite their best intentions, to reconcile practices with the primary values of the profession: the promotion of human rights and social justice.  Developing effective relationships with families is made more difficult for both practitioners and service users. There is much research on how alienated families become by systems that convert their need for help into evidence of risk (Featherstone et al., 2016).

Poverty corrodes human dignity

Poverty is undoubtedly about material disadvantage, but it must also be understood in terms of relational and symbolic injustices in a deeply unequal society. Lister (2013, p.112) refers to poverty as:
a shameful social relation, corrosive of human dignity and flourishing, which is experienced in interactions with the wider society and in the way people in poverty are talked about and treated by politicians, officials, professional, the media, and sometimes academics.

Families living in poverty have spoken about how poverty-related shame and stigma is compounded by a child protection system that is inherently shaming (Gibson, 2015) and unjustly blaming by failing to address poverty and other social adversities that frame their lives (Gupta & ATD Fourth World, 2015).

Feelings of powerlessness and voicelessness characterises many families’ experiences of child protection processes and were linked to subsequent feelings of shameful inadequacy, as a parent explains about her experiences of a child protection conference:

“So you are sat there observing what everyone else is doing with your life, and your children’s life (who potentially have no rights) on the basis of strangers around the table. It is degrading, humiliating. Everything is taken away from you”. (Gupta and ATD Fourth World, 2015: 137)

Nowhere to turn

The shift in local authority social work services from support to policing in a highly risk-averse context fosters fear and distrust in many families. As a result, families in need feel they have “nowhere to turn to” and are too scared to approach children’s social care services for fear of punitive responses (Morris et al., 2015; Gupta et al., 2016).

Service users have also described being judged without reference to the socio-economic contexts of their lives and viewed as if they were entirely responsible for their problems. Without an adequate understanding of the reality of poverty, the assessments made about the family or quality of parenting may be subjective and inflected by middle class presumptions or prejudice.

A key message that comes from service user perspectives as well as academic research is that poverty matters, and attention to the effects in relation to families’ lives, as well as social workers’ judgements and interventions is necessary, as one ATD Fourth World activist explains:

“I am supporting a couple of families where, being aware of social work practice, it’s clear that there is material deprivation, but there’s also severe depression from the mother and that is raising questions over whether she can look after the children. So it’s not clear cut what the issues are at play there. If the child is taken away, no one will say because of material deprivation, but that the mother can’t cope because of mental health.

“But it’s not that simple, there are many factors building up and material deprivation can play a huge role. Parents are judged because of the way they are suffering for things sparked by material deprivation”.

What’s required now

Mason and Bywaters (2016) have concluded, poverty and allegations of neglect are so interlinked that prioritising context-blind, policing-type investigations over supportive measures to address poverty, will likely prove both ineffective and financially inefficient.

What is required is a reversal of austerity policies that are so damaging to the lives of families stuggling in contexts of poverty and rising inequalities, and a fundamental shift in children’s social care provision away from investigation and risk assessment towards early help and family support, whilst still recognizing that some children will require protective action from local authority.

However, it is also essential that individual practitioners critically reflect on their use of power, on the influence of dominant discourses on how families’ problems are framed, and on the subsequent judgements made. Finally, coming together and building alliances is recommended in order to truly promote the best interests of our society’s most vulnerable children, as one ATD Fourth World family member explains:

“When families and social workers can work collaboratively in the best interests of the children, it builds a better knowledge base for both parties and the outcomes are likely to be better for the children. As you work together, you learn from each other.”



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