By Calum Webb
“The poorer you are in this country, the more likely you are to have social work intervention in your family life. Nobody is talking about challenging the government on poverty and the poverty that their policies have created, sustain, and are making worse.“
– Moraene Roberts, September 2019
In preparation for writing this blog, I reviewed thirteen of the top selling and top cited books on the topic of inequality, injustice, and its consequences, including four of the highest cited books on the public health consequences of inequality. None of these books had a dedicated chapter about child protection or social work. Three of the books mentioned social work an average of once per 100 pages or so. None of them reference ‘child protection’, and in all of the cases where social work was invoked it was as an unproblematic salve to inequality’s consequences, not a contributor.
This is despite racial and socioeconomic child protection inequalities being as large, or larger, than other inequalities in health, incarceration, education, employment, wealth, or social mobility. The same profit-making incentives also emerge for private industries looking to exploit the conditions of those at the sharp end of inequality, as they do with healthcare and other services using poverty premiums. In the sociological and social policy texts I read, social work is conspicuous in its absence. It is absent from our public sociological imagination, which can result in many activists uncritically advocating for ‘more social work’ as a response to injustice or an alternative to oppressive institutions like policing.
We usually do not consider that social work intervention can be just as oppressive as policing or incarceration. To paraphrase Dorothy Roberts, what act could be more violent than taking someone’s children away, often forever, and severing all contact between them, their family members, and their community? Many mothers and fathers, grandparents, aunts and uncles, would no doubt give away years of their life to poor health or imprisonment to avoid that fate, if such an exchange were possible. Parent activists who have lived in poverty will tell you that the threat of social services taking their children is a near constant and defining feature of living on a low-income in the 21st century. Poverty and inequality are eroding children’s rights to family life through the existing child protection system.
In response to this dearth of awareness within the wider inequalities literature, I outline six key findings from my own and my colleagues’ research on the Child Welfare Inequalities Project below, and encourage my fellow sociologists, educators and students, to make social work interventions a key dimension of your imagination.
Children from the poorest ten per cent of neighbourhoods are ten times more likely to be in foster or residential care than children from the least poor ten per cent of neighbourhoods.
This reflects an intense social gradient where intervention rates increase dramatically with levels of poverty. Poverty abuses both children and parents, and creates the conditions for children to be removed from their families. It usually leads to intervention in itself, it characterises ‘neglect’, such as where it causes a lack of the material goods required to support children to flourish; in rarer cases it can act as a stimulant for neglectful or abusive behaviour by increasing families’ stress and interpersonal conflicts; but universally it leads to an over-surveillance of poor families, exposing them to a level of scrutiny that few could withstand regardless of their means. Requests for help or claims to entitlements like unemployment benefits or mental health support are routinely logged as ‘risk factors’ on public databases and are later used to justify invasions of privacy, intervention, and child removal.
Black children are 1.2 times more likely to be on a child protection plan or living in care than White children. Mixed Heritage children are 1.6 times more likely, and Asian children are 0.4 times as likely.
This is despite the fact that victim surveys in the UK show that Black adults report lower incidence of historic psychological, sexual, and physical child abuse than White adults, even before controlling for different levels of exposure to poverty. Mixed Heritage children are 20 per cent more likely to report historic child abuse, but are involved in the child protection at a rate three times higher than this.
White families living in affluent neighbourhoods are between 3 and 4 times less likely to have their children living in foster or residential care than Black families living in equally affluent neighbourhoods. But White families living in poor neighbourhoods are between 2 and 3 times more likely to have their children living in care than Black families living in equally poor neighbourhoods.
Once these rates of intervention are broken down by deprivation, it becomes incredibly clear that the social gradient is intersectional in nature. In particular, Mixed Heritage children face the worst disadvantages of both systemic racism and class discrimination; they have both a statistically significant social gradient and different intervention rates when controlling for deprivation.
Local area income inequality exacerbates rates of children taken into care and the social gradient in child welfare interventions.
The social gradient is highly sensitive to local contexts. In high income inequality, low deprivation local authorities the social gradient is five times stronger than in low income inequality, high deprivation local authorities. Local authority level income inequality was associated with significantly higher rates of children looked after, but not higher rates of children on child protection plans or registers. This suggests that income inequality is getting ‘under the skin’ and influencing ‘downstream’ decisions, like those made in the family courts or in the decisions to issue care proceedings.
Around 75 per cent of the variation in rates of children in out-of-home care in England and Wales can be explained by underlying income deprivation and income inequality.
Government departments have had a consistent narrative that inequalities in child protection are a result of failures of leadership, local services, or individual social workers, and these failures require policy and practice changes. We find no support that the largest majority of inequalities in rates of children in care or in the child protection system are due to differences in practice, leadership, or organisational structure. If governments want to reduce the numbers of children being taken into care (at the cost of £7.3billion last year) they should address underlying poverty and inequality. The injustice of poor and ethnic minority children being overwhelmingly removed from their parents is structural in the making and must be structural in the unmaking.
The most deprived local authorities have seen the greatest cuts to their preventative spending, fuelling more disruptive and damaging forms of intervention.
The direction of travel is bleak. The spending on services required to alleviate poverty and provide early support under Section 17 of the Children’s Act 1989 have been cut by more than 50 per cent over the last ten years in local authorities on average. You can see just how much these have been cut in your area using the CWIP App. Reductions in spending for the most deprived 50 local authorities were around 1.5 times greater each year than reductions in the least deprived 50 local authorities.