Section 47 and The Rise in Social Services Interventions

Fiona Thornton Family Solicitor

The rise of Child Protection Plans and Section 47 Investigations

In November 2018 the BBC reported on the rise of Child Protection Plans and Section 47 Investigations into Children at risk from harm. Stories such as these appear in the headlines intermittently, raising awareness for a period of time, before the next big social issue comes to the fore, and it again slips under the radar.

As a lawyer working for Parents and Children who are subject to these processes for the last 11 years, it is clear to me that this is not a new phenomenon, and it is not one which is likely to disappear over time. Over the years there has been a consistent upward trend in the number of Care Proceedings being issued which has put Social Services, Courts and the Legal system under increasing pressure in their efforts to aid the most vulnerable families and children.

So what is a Section 47 investigation, and what does it mean?

Many people will have heard of a Child Protection Plan, where Social Services have identified that a child is at risk of or has suffered harm of some description, and they feel the need to put in a plan of support in place to address those concerns and to try and keep the family together. Sometimes even with such plans in place it is not possible to make the improvements needed, and the Local Authority has to consider whether the circumstances are serious enough to warrant them taking more serious steps, such as applying to Court for a Care Order. The duty to undertake such investigations comes from Section 47 of the Children Act 1989, which is where the name comes from.

Why is there an increase in these investigations?

Part of the increase in these investigations may tie in with the increase in calls to Social Services from members of the public, which have increased by 78% in the last 10 years. This may be due to an increased social consciousness of the risks to vulnerable children, the reporting of serious cases in the news which lead people to report families where they feel things are not quite right.

It may also be due to the fact that families are under increasing pressures as they struggle to make ends meet. The concerns about the move to Universal Credit and the confusion that this often causes are widely reported on and as more areas move to this new benefit more and more people are affected by those hardships. It is noted that one of the most common reasons for placing children on Child Protection Plans is concern that they are being neglected and their basic needs are not being met. Parents struggling financially will often do their best but will struggle to buy enough food, to pay the rent and the bills in order to provide a safe, warm home for their children. There is a need for these families to be signposted to support services to avoid things reaching a stage where the children need to be removed for their own welfare, but the services are all also stretched to the limit and working hard to meet a high demand.

What is important is that we do not forget that there is an ongoing need to support and provide for the most vulnerable in society, and that the current ‘crisis’ is not a new or startling phenomenon but one which has been building over many years and which needs to be addressed. How that is to happen is a matter for debate, but as ever more funding and increased service provision would seem to be the most obvious immediate response.

 

Fiona Thornton is a Family Law Solicitor, and a member of the Law Society’s Children’s Panel.

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