In a sense, Josh MacAlister’s independent review of children’s social care was always going to disappoint. Billed as a “wide-ranging, independent review”, “a wholesale independent review of children’s social care” and “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform systems and services”, its remit was also to look at how the children’s social care system responded to all children who are referred to the system. Except that its terms of reference more or less left disabled children out; “The review will give due regard to the SEND Review, which will consider the main questions relevant to children with special educational needs and disability.”
The review was problematic in another sense too – arguably hiving off disabled children’s social care to a “closed” government SEND review while leaving the rest of children’s social care to an independent review was discriminatory because it potentially treats disabled children and their families less favourably than others, and potentially was in breach of Article 4(3) of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) which is concerned with closely consulting and actively involving people with disabilities when a government develops and implements legislation.
That’s not to say disabled children have been entirely left out, but, true to its word, there is little of substance in the final review to help disabled children and their families. That is disappointing as one of the issues we had identified in our casework and research was that the way disabled children and their families are dealt with by local authorities is heavily influenced by the way local authorities treat the majority of children in the social care system
Disabled children are often seen, inappropriately, through a safeguarding or child protection lens, resulting in social workers making unannounced visits, asking to see bedrooms, insisting on speaking to the child alone, sending families on parenting courses and, ultimately, delaying or not providing the right support to families. We call this institutionalising parent-carer blame. Cerebra, along with partner organisations, submitted a joint response to the review, which can be read here, which goes into more detail about this and other issues.
The review was an opportunity for Josh MacAlistair to make a clear and unequivocal call for that to change, for there to be a clear separation between the two groups. He has not done so. Instead he proposes to keep disabled children within “Family Help”, provide additional support “flexibly” and without necessarily relying on individual assessments, which is concerning, as without carrying out an assessment, it is not possible to understand what a child and family’s needs are. He has also recommended the removal of statutory timescales for assessment.
The review does, though, go some way to recognize that disabled children should be assessed differently (p39):
“Assessments should be flexible and tailored to the family’s individual problem. This is particularly important for families of disabled children where we have heard time and again from both social workers and families that one size fits all assessments are overly intrusive for families, are not tailored enough to the needs of families, and do not align well with the framework for adult social care”.
The review makes three main recommendations regarding disabled children (p59). The first is that it calls for greater transparency around what support is available to children and their families. The second is that transition into adult services needs to be improved. The third is that social care should be better integrated into the SEND system, citing the creation of a Designated Social Care Officer as a way of achieving this (as per the SEND Green paper). These recommendations are not backed by detailed proposals about how they can be achieved.
It makes a fourth recommendation, which isn’t given the status of a recommendation in its own right, but may be the most significant of all, and that is it calls for the Law Commission to review the “patchwork” of social care legislation with a view to making it more coherent. This, arguably, will have the greatest impact, involving potentially wholesale legislative change.
The SEND Review is supposed to be dealing with the main questions about social care, but it is worryingly light on details. We will be submitting a consultation response to that review in due course and hope that the Department for Education puts significantly more thinking into disabled children’s social care before coming up with legislative proposals.