What’s in the Children’s social care review for disabled children?

Children who are looked after by the state (CLA) are undeniably among the most vulnerable in the country, and those who are both looked after and have SEND (a large proportion thereof) are at the sharp end of this. So naturally, CLA are the main focus of the newly-published Independent Children’s Social Care Review (ICSCR) and rightly so, when these children are too often catastrophically failed sometimes losing their lives, or are killed, as a result.

But CLA are not the only ones classed as “Children in Need” according to law. S17 of the Children’s Act 1989 includes disabled children too.

The review is in depth and wide-ranging, but we are only focusing on its findings and recommendations for disabled children. For responses to the review as a whole, see an initial statement from the charity, Article 39, that you can read here. Coram has a response here. The Local Government Association has a response here

Disabled children and social care

Disabled children usually require different things from social care than Looked After children. For example, disabled children should be able to access an assessment for social care support, whether that be funded care support, overnight respite care, or short breaks activities. Their parents should be able to access a carer’s assessment and the support that stems from that. The Children and Families Act 2014 includes a social care assessment as part of an Education, Health and Care needs assessment. 

However, local authority criteria for these do not always align with the law. Many a parent, this one included, have been told that their child cannot have a social care assessment as part of their EHC Needs Assessment as they “are not known to social services”. This immediately precludes access to any services that only come after an assessment. 

Meanwhile, other families who have asked for help find themselves subject to an assessment of the type they did not expect – one that calls into question their parenting and raises unfounded safeguarding questions. Other families who have asked for help have even found themselves, incredibly, being faced with having their children removed from their care. As the SEND Review noted: 

“Some families with disabled children tell us they are put off seeking support from children’s social care because of fear they will be blamed for challenges their children face and treated as a safeguarding concern rather than receive the support they need. The difficulty faced in navigating children’s social care assessments, and the lack of consistency in the offer among local authorities, can mean that support is often only provided once families reach crisis point.“

SEND Review Green Paper

We’ve run a few articles expressing concern that the ICSCR included no disabled children or their families as “Experts By Experience”. Every update we’ve seen heretofore did not fill us with an expectation that they would be a priority for Josh McAlister's review. 

However, the SEND Review Green Paper was clearly expecting some vital input from the ICSCR, but as it turns out, there is as much about social care in the SEND Review than there is in the Independent Review on Children’s Social Care report. And that’s not saying much.

“There is significant overlap between the cohort with SEND and those who interact with the care system. It is therefore important that the education, health, and care systems work together effectively to support children, young people and their families. We will consider the response to this consultation in parallel to the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care to ensure the cumulative implications of reform deliver for children with the most complex needs. “

SEND Review Green paper


“We will explore opportunities for streamlining EHC and social care assessments following publication of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care.”

SEND Review Green Paper
front covers of review

So what does it say about disabled children?

Children with disabilities get their own extensive 1.5 pages, reiterating just how unspecial the ISCR finds them. There are many main recommendations in the report but when it comes to disabled children, there is just one:

Recommendation: Government should ensure alignment in how the proposals in the SEND and Alternative Provision Green Paper and this review are implemented. The government should ask the Law Commission to review the current patchwork of legislation that exists to support disabled children and their families. 

Points relating to disabled children amount to:

  • It needs to be “clearer and more transparent for families what support is available to them where their children have different levels of need.”
  • While not specifically for disabled children, the review’s Family Help recommendations, “if properly implemented”, will provide “a step-change in how disabled children and their families experience children’s social care - reducing the stigma of asking for help; increasing the intensity of support provided for families; setting clearer more transparent eligibility for support; and reducing the number of handovers families experience between services.” (More on family help later)
  • Citing the SEND Review Green Paper, the ICSCR says it’s “critical that the government looks at the interplay between both sets of recommendations to make sure they align, and that families and disabled children are engaged about how they are implemented."
  • Any new statutory requirements for social care input into EHCP assessments should also be aligned with the “review’s proposals on Family Help”.
  • It agrees with the Green Paper’s plans to look streamlining the EHC assessment process care assessment processes
  • Recommends that the Law Commission undertakes a review of the “patchwork” of the “outdated legal framework” for the social care of disabled children, “to bring more coherence“ (more on this below)
  • Wants improvement in disabled young people’s experiences of transitions to adulthood, so that adult services support planning well in advance of transitions. “Age 0-25 disabled children’s teams are an area of positive practice that we have seen in some local authorities and should be promoted”.
  • As part of a new EHCP “national format and process” the government should ensure that local authorities complete and record in good time how children will transition to adult social care services. (This is not new, but it just doesn’t often happen in a holistic manner)
  • Wants to see an improvement in the strategic integration of children’s social care with the SEND system. To do this it includes creating Designated Social Care Officer, in the same way that there is already a dedicated medical officer. But this is already a proposal in the Green paper and is already being piloted. The ISCR notes, “This is a positive step forward and the government should continue to consider how it can embed this role.”

Throughout the review, we have heard consistently from families of disabled children about their struggle to access support and their frustration navigating services… Disabled children are also more likely to be re-referred to children’s social care than other children (Troncoso, 2017).”


That's everything?

SEND legal charity, IPSEA, challenged the Review on Twitter that there was nothing in it that mentioned how disabled children can access the social care support they're entitled to, and that neither the Green Paper, not the Social Care Review says much about social care for disabled children. The ISCR reponded, “Our major recommendation on Family Help Teams applies to all children who are in need, including disabled children. You can read more about how our recommendations will support children with disabilities on pages 59-60.” (That’s the 1.5 pages)

“But the flaw here is that neither report contains much in the way of recommendations on social care for disabled children at all! Each has said that the other will deal with the detail – and neither has.”

Catriona Moore, SNJ Columnist and parent of a complex young person

Timescales and standards, leaning on Munro 

While the SEND Review Green Paper is all about national frameworks for standards, the ICSCR report shies away from national criteria for accessing “Family Help”, saying The Munro Review (of Child Protection in 2011) correctly identified the problems that come from an overly standardised framework that curtails professional judgement“

Another thing that’s important for disabled children is how long an assessment of need should take. These deadlines for EHC needs assessments and annual reviews are frequently breached, often by months. The ICSCR takes a different view. Leaning again on the 2011 Munro review, it thinks assessments at Family Help should be more flexible and “light touch”, tailored to the family’s individual problem. “This is particularly important for families of disabled children where we have heard time and again from both social workers and families that one size fits all assessments are overly intrusive for families, are not tailored enough to the needs of families, and do not align well with the framework for adult social care.”

While noting they should be timely, the review recommends timescales for assessment when it comes to social care should be removed from Working Together to Safeguard Children Statutory guidance and taken out of statutory data collections. It should instead be, “replaced by a more useful set of measures that should be developed as part of the suggested review of overall system data” unless a child is experiencing or is at risk of significant harm.

When it comes to EHC Needs Assessments, the Review doesn’t suggest that timescales are scrapped here, but the wording about “flexibility” and tailoring” is very similar. The problem with no timescales is that while well-performing LAs may feel they don’t need a deadline, how long will it be before children are left waiting for lengthy periods of time for which there is no longer any accountability? 

So if you think timescales for EHCP-related assessments and social care access are vital (as we do), this is something you may want to include in your own response to the Green Paper.

Legal patchwork

“An important part of making it clearer for families what support will be provided will be looking at the outdated legal framework for the social care of disabled children. At present there is a patchwork of duties that sit between the Children Act 1989, the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, and the Children and Families Act 2014; outdated definitions that exist in some legislation; and poor alignment with the Care Act 2014. All of this works together to make it hard for families and professionals to understand what support they should receive. We therefore recommend that the Law Commission undertakes a review of children’s social care disability legislation to bring more coherence to the existing patchwork of legislation. Government should work with parent carer forums and SEND stakeholders to inform the scope of the review. “

Children's Social Care Review

This point has been welcomed by the Disabled Children’s Partnership, which has called for this for a long time.

“We are really pleased that they have adopted this recommendation and we call on the Government to respond. …We were disappointed, however, that the review did not make more specific recommendations to ensure that families living with childhood disability can access the support they need from social care to be able to live a life which is as fulfilled as possible. This action is urgently needed – our research has revealed an annual funding gap of £573 million for disabled children’s social care, and 43% of families with disabled children have to wait over a year to get respite care.”

Disabled Children's Partnership

What is “A Revolution in Family Help” ?

The ICSCR advocates a "fundamental shift" in the response to families who need help, away from a “fragmented and complicated” process of assessing, referring and monitoring families, towards a “simplified service that is more responsive, respectful, and effective in helping families”. This, it says is central to improving lives, identifying risks early and, "preventing problems needlessly escalating for families until less dignified and more costly intervention is required later.”

 And who can disagree with that?

To do this, a central recommendation of this review is to bring together “Targeted Early Help” and Section 17 work, to form “a new single offer” of Family Help with a non-stigmatising “front door”. This, says the IC,SCR will reclaim the original intention of the Children Act 1989, keeping more families together and helping children to thrive. 

It offers this definition:

<!-- wp:paragraph --><p>“Family Help” is the support that aims to improve children’s lives through supporting the family unit and strengthening family relationships, to enable children to thrive and keep families together, helping them to provide the safe, nurturing environments that children need. Realising the rights of families is often the surest way to securing children’s own rights, which include the right to a family life. </p>
<!-- /wp:paragraph -->
<!-- wp:paragraph -->
<p>Family Help should be built in partnership with the families and communities it serves. It should start from the mindset that all families may need help at times, and that this does not necessarily mean that there is a child protection issue, whilst also being equipped to recognise when children might be at risk of significant harm. </p>
<!-- /wp:paragraph -->
<!-- wp:paragraph -->
<p>Family Help should be high quality and evidence led, whilst being grounded in the context of family life and flexible enough to meet children and families’ needs. “</p>
<!-- /wp:paragraph -->
Family Help in the ICSCR

How will this all work?

But the question remains – HOW is this really going to happen in practice? The review has costings, analysis and implementation ideas. It will take an estimated, £2.8 billion over four years for the entire plan. And that’s notwithstanding a massive change in culture, massive recruitment of trained, empathetic professionals, and a government that remains determined to continue this funding and staffing drive. 

The government’s plans for this include a new National Implementation Board of “sector experts and people with experience of leading transformational change and the care system.” It also aims to increase support for social workers including on leadership, recruitment and retention, and implement a new evidence-based framework for all the professionals working in children’s social care. It already has ongoing plans for “Sure Start Plus”-style Family Hubs of which funding for seven more areas was announced yesterday.

The vision is laudable but as with all things—see the many “CAMHS” transformations for example—the proof will be in the execution. We need this vision for looked after children to come true to stop young lives being ruined or ended too early. We need to ensure that every child matters and can reach their potential. This country is on its own now, and we cannot afford, morally or economically, to lose valuable lives to never-ending cycles of disadvantage. 

There are lots of wonderful words and many, many recommendations. But for disabled children, the ICSCR refers back to the SEND Review, which in turn, refers back to the Independent Children's Social Care Review. Disabled children shouldn't be pass the parcel. The clock is ticking with the SEND Green Paper and we need solid, workable proposals that will transform the lives of ALL children who need social care.

Also read:

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Tania Tirraoro

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