Why does Josh’s review seem to think disabled children are “Not Known to Social Care”?

From what I can see, the independent review of children’s social care doesn't seem to be much interested in finding out about the experiences of disabled children and their families outside the care system. The review isn’t looking at whether disabled children get the social care support they need and what the short- and long-term consequences of that are. What else is there to conclude, after reading the terms of reference and seeing the Experts by Experience Board that’s been appointed to advise? 

While there is no argument about any of the individual experts by experience who have been recruited, if the review is going to look at how social care works for all children in need, the board should include at least one person who is described as having lived experience of social care for disabled children and their families.

Forgotten or not?

When the review’s terms of reference were first published, it was hard to see where and how disabled children would fit into it. But there were assurances from people with a hotline to the Department for Education that disabled children hadn’t been forgotten, and that this new review would work closely with the ongoing SEND Review, particularly for children with the most complex needs.

This really matters, because the social care system is currently failing disabled children. How can ministers set up a ‘wholesale’ review of social care that excludes them? It fits, though, with a wider tendency in government to forget the definition of ‘children in need’. This happened in 2018 when a DfE review of children in need focused almost entirely on protecting children at risk of harm.

Social care is integral to the wellbeing and safety of many children and young people with SEND who aren’t looked after within the care system, or considered to be ‘at risk’. These children depend on social care services to enable them to participate in their communities, live ‘normal’ lives and avoid social isolation – or they would depend on services, if they were available. As families, we also depend – or would if we could – on social care services for some respite from the pressure of providing constant care for our children.

What is a "child in need"?

The law, in the shape of section 17 of the Children Act 1989, considers every disabled child to be a ‘child in need’ as such, entitled to an assessment of their social care needs, and support to meet their needs. The Act defines disability quite broadly, and a disabled child should not be refused an assessment. 

The same piece of legislation also makes clear that local authorities have a duty to make a range of services available to support disabled children in their area – not just big things like permanent or temporary residential accommodation, but also social, cultural and recreational activities such as after-school clubs and holiday playschemes. In practice, these vital services are frequently not commissioned by local authorities, for whom the lives of disabled children are simply not a priority.

The SEND reforms introduced by the Children and Families Act 2014 recognised that many children with SEND have social care needs as well as educational needs. The idea of education, health and care plans is supposed to be that children’s needs would be looked at holistically, making it easier for families to access support across different services. If your child is undergoing an EHC needs assessment, they are entitled to an assessment of their social care needs – and it isn’t acceptable for children’s social care departments to dismiss a request for their input with ‘Not known to social care’.

The Social Care Review MUST look at unlawful barriers

What the review needs to address head-on is local authorities’ unlawful tendency to put barriers in the way of disabled children and their families receiving the social care support they need and to which they are entitled. Families often don’t know what social care services are available, or what their child should be able to access. They may not receive support for their child until they are at crisis point, and sometimes not even then. Parents say they fear being too persistent, in case their parenting is questioned or their child removed from their care. 

These are just some of the issues the independent children’s social care review should look at. It will be a huge mistake, and a missed opportunity, if the review progresses without considering the experiences of disabled children, the way the social care system currently treats them and the implications for their lives and futures. The call for advice is still open if you want to share your thoughts with the review team.

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Catriona Moore
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