Number of referrals for ‘episode of need’ for children highest since 2014

The number of referrals of children in England to social services who are assessed as in need of help is at its highest level for eight years, figures show.

Some 413,320 ‘episodes of need’ began in the year ending March 2022 – the highest since 2014, according to figures from the Department for Education (DfE).

These are recorded when a child is referred to social services and assessed as in need of their services, with some children having more than one episode of need per year.

Overall, there were 650,270 referrals, up 8.8% from 2021 and 1.1% from 2020.

The latest annual increase was driven by a 59.0% increase in school dismissals, which the DFE data release said “could have been expected” given that attendance restrictions are no longer in place at the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.

The number of school referrals – 129,090 – was the highest since 2014.

It follows a drop in school dismissals in the year to March 2021 as Covid-19 swept through England and disrupted education, with many pupils being home-schooled.

More than a third of referrals in 2022 resulted in no further action after initial review or were later assessed as not necessary.

Overall, 404,310 children were assessed as needy, up 4.1% from the previous year and the highest number since 2018.

This is the equivalent of one in 30 children.

Of these, more than half (230,830) had abuse or neglect identified as their main need during the assessment.

The number of children for whom abuse or neglect was identified as the main factor increased by 5% between 2021 and 2022.

The most common additional factors identified at the end of the assessment included concern about a parent’s mental health (158,330) or alcohol abuse (70,310), a parent being a victim of domestic violence (160,690) and child mental health (87,750).

Data was collected on criminal child exploitation for the first time in 2022 and was identified as a factor in 10,140 episodes.

Just over half of children in need were boys (54%), seven in 10 were white, and children aged 10 and over made up the majority.

The figures also show that there has been an increase in Section 47 inquiries, which are carried out when the local authority identifies that there is reasonable cause to suspect that the child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm.

There were 217,800 Section 47 investigations in the past year – an increase from 2021 and 2020 and the highest figure ever.

If the concerns are justified and the child is deemed to be at continued risk of harm, an initial child protection conference should be convened.

A child is subject to a child protection plan if they are subsequently assessed as being at risk of harm, with 50,920 children subject to such plans in 2022.

Clare Kelly, associate policy officer at the NSPCC, said: “It is concerning to see an increase in the number of children in need of help, particularly for abuse and neglect, when we know the system is struggling to face and that the cost of living crisis will likely leave more families in need.

“Today’s figures should serve as a reminder to the government to make child protection a national priority and release its action plan in response to the review of the tragic death of Arthur Labinjo -Hughes and Star Hobson as soon as possible.

“New Prime Minister Rishi Sunak could also signal his intention to act by appointing a Minister for Children today, as recommended by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse last week.”

The Children’s Society has warned that data on the criminal exploitation of children is only the “tip of the iceberg”.

Sarah Wayman, head of policy and impact at the charity, said: “More needs to be done to protect children, including identifying risks earlier such as exploitation to commit crimes, sexual abuse, mental health issues and domestic violence.

“But this requires significant investment. Councils’ spending on early support for families has halved over the past decade following government budget cuts and they need urgent funding to turn the tide. It is essential that they receive, at the absolute minimum, the £2.6billion recommended by the recent Child Welfare Review to get early support in place before children and families are harmed and need more costly crisis support.

“It would be a false economy for the government to turn away from this investment amid pressure for public spending cuts. In the long term, this will cost taxpayers more and jeopardize the safety and future of children.

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