A storm is brewing, it seems, on the frontline of child protection. Anthony Douglas, the Chief Executive of Cafcass, has issued a stark and gloomy warning about the likely impact of the government’s continuing benefit and spending cuts on the most vulnerable sector in society.
He expects the number of child neglect to soar as government cuts really begin to bite over the coming months and ever greater numbers of families fall over a financial cliff.
Mr Douglas said:
“Given what we know about the association between poverty deprivation and care, the increase in economic difficulties can take away the margins of support for people who are just managing to keep things together. Often quite small amounts of support can make all the difference.”
According to the Cafcass chief, even the closure of seemingly peripheral services like play schemes and groups for new mothers is having a significant impact on hard-pressed families, even encouraging serious cases of long-term child neglect.
Charity Action for Children seems to have takes a similar view, with a spokesman quoted in the Independent saying: “We do know that growing poverty and deterioration in parenting skills are some of the main concerns that professionals do have about the reasons for child neglect.”
Prolonged child neglect – a year or more – is now the number one reason for children being into care, says Cafcass, with social workers more likely to intervene at an early stage.
A spike in the numbers of neglected children being taken into care would follow an already record year for Cafcass, which looks after the welfare of children involved in family law proceedings. It dealt with more than 7,200 care applications between April and November last year – a jump of more than eight per cent over the same period last year.
Mr Douglas seems reasonably confident that Cafcass can cope with this tumult of care applications, although he admits that “there were fears that the system would creak or collapse.”
Nevertheless it is a grim picture. Of course, struggling families face more than benefit cuts and public service rollbacks – inflation continues all the while to erode the purchasing power of those scarcer pounds in emptier pockets, creating, if I may use that old political cliché, a double whammy.
No wonder so charities and social services anticipate serious problems ahead. A coalition of no less than 27 organisations yesterday called on the government to rethink plans to cap benefit rises to one per cent a year until 2016.
Their open letter is bleak in its wording:
“If introduced, this hardship penalty will hurt millions of families across the country. Families already struggling to pay for food, fuel, rent and other basics, will see their budgets further squeezed. Many thousands have turned to food banks for help. Nearly half of teachers say they often see children going hungry.”
I do not see this as a political issue. I’m sure the government sincerely believes that tackling the deficit is vital to Britain’s long-term economic stability. Labour would be faced with similar dilemmas were it still in power. But how can we possibly justify making so many children pay such a price? Grinding poverty, broken families, childhoods spent in care – these are legacies that will last a lifetime.
Photo by Felix O via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence