UK-wide study shows huge postcode disparity in proportion of children in care

28 February 2017

Two young children overlooking community from hillside

A study involving Cardiff University has revealed significant inequalities in child welfare across the UK, with children in the poorest areas in Wales 16 times more likely than those in the least deprived to be in care.

‘Strong social gradients’

Researchers found ‘strong social gradients’ in the rates of intervention across the four countries, with each step increase in neighbourhood deprivation bringing a significant rise in the proportion of children either ‘looked after’ (in care) or on a child protection plan.

Academics from seven British universities were involved in the research - Coventry, Sheffield, Huddersfield, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Stirling and Queen’s University Belfast – and were funded by the Nuffield Foundation to investigate data on over 35,000 children who were either in care or on child protection plans on March 2015, when the study began.

In Wales all 22 local authorities (LAs) took part in the study. There were 2936 children on the child protection register (100% sample) and 5350 children in care (95% sample).

The Child Welfare Inequalities Project’s findings, which are revealed at a conference in London today, show that:

  • children in the most deprived 10% of neighbourhoods in Wales are 24 times more likely to be on the child protection register than children in the least deprived 10%;
  • across the UK, each step increase in deprivation brings a rise of around a third in a child’s chances of being in care;
  • in all of the four nations there are more children living in the most deprived 20% of neighbourhoods, particularly so in Northern Ireland.

‘Taken for granted’

Researchers also spoke with local authorities and frontline social work professionals in England and Scotland about how decisions around individual children and families were made. Poverty was often treated as a ‘taken for granted’ backdrop of practice, rather than a key focus of work to support families.

Many staff in the two countries reported feeling ‘overwhelmed’ by the complex level of need they encountered in families, and did not feel that they had the power to change the inequalities that they saw.

Professor Jonathan Scourfield from Cardiff University’s School of Social Sciences said: “We know that poverty and inequality have so many negative consequences..."

"Our research shows that one of the most toxic consequences of living in poverty can be harm to children. Of course this does not mean that all children in poor areas are at risk, but there is a connection between abuse, neglect and living in poverty."

Professor Jonathan Scourfield, Deputy Head of School

"In Wales we need child protection and poverty reduction to go hand in hand."

Lead investigator Professor Paul Bywaters from Coventry University said: “This is not about pointing the finger at local authorities or apportioning blame to anyone for a situation that is in critical need of attention..."

“What we’re doing is holding up a mirror to the child welfare sector, and to the UK’s governments, and saying ‘This is how it is – now what shall we do about it?’.”

Professor Paul Bywaters, Lead investigator, Coventry University

"Our ultimate aim is to make reducing inequalities in child welfare a key policy objective, in the same way that tackling inequalities in health and education have been prioritised in recent years.”

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