There is no doubt that the earlier we work with children and families to help them overcome the issues they face, the less impact these challenges will have on their lives but also on society as a whole. The problem is there is currently not enough funding in the system to enable this approach in all local authorities.
Before the pandemic, a decade of austerity left local government funding in a parlous state and children’s services teetering on the edge of becoming a ‘blue light’ service. Tough decisions have had to be made about how funding is allocated and often the services most at risk are those addressing the root causes of problems children and their families face before they reach crisis point. This does nothing to reduce future demand, is more expensive in the long term and leads to poorer outcomes.
COVID-19 has exacerbated these cost pressures for local authorities and children’s services is yet to reach its peak of demand. This peak will likely arrive when schools fully open in September and throughout the following months. We anticipate that the ‘hidden harms’ to children over the past six months will be uncovered. During this period we expect to see an exponential surge in demand for children’s services when we anticipate the need to support more families, and the severity of need to increase. This will create real and significant funding pressures, both in-year and into 2021/22. Therefore, we need an urgent and transparent discussion about funding for children’s services and local government.
During lockdown referrals to children’s services initially reduced, however, we are now seeing a cohort of newly vulnerable families that we have not previously worked with who are experiencing domestic abuse, neglect and financial hardship, and families who were already facing challenges presenting with additional needs. Emergency funding from central government has helped, but we are concerned that when the peak of activity arrives in children’s services there will be no emergency funding left.
It’s clear to us that we will be dealing with the long-term impacts of the virus on children and the services they rely on for many months to come – longer if further peaks of infection or local lockdowns are necessary. We urgently need the certainty of an equitable, long-term, funding settlement to reflect that. The Government has the opportunity to use the Spending Review to invest bravely and substantially in children’s futures – they deserve more than just the bare minimum levels of resourcing and support
Jenny Coles is president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and director of children’s services at Hertfordshire CC