A ‘toxic trio’ of abuse, mental health and substance misuse has contributed to a huge increase in children in Lancaster being taken into care.
The number of children in care has more than tripled in the city over the last five years - new figures from Lancashire County Council have revealed.
High levels of poverty coupled with an increase in community awareness has caused the huge leap.
Nationally reported child abuse cases such as Peter Connelly (Baby P) and recent cases of child exploitation have also helped to raise public awareness.
The council warned of the “toxic trio of domestic violence or abuse, mental ill health and substance misuse” - which are common features in families where children are at risk from harm.
There is also a desperate shortage of foster carers in the county.
National charity the NSPCC said most children enter care as a result of abuse or neglect, but expressed concern that financial pressure on councils may result in cuts to children’s services.
Housing and homelessness charity Shelter has also seen a 28 per cent increase of callers to its helpline on the brink of homelessness, which further aggravates the problem.
The number of episodes of care in Lancaster was 20 in 2009/10, rising steadily to 72 in 2013/14.
“In care” includes looked after children, children removed under a voluntary agreement, or children placed with their parents but still under the responsibility of the local authority.
In Lancashire, the figure has almost doubled, from 343 to 617, with an upward trend in all but one of the county’s districts.
County wide figures also show a sharp increase in abuse or neglect, family dysfunction, and families in acute stress, although this is partly down to better categorisation of the causes.
Abuse or neglect is currently a priority for the Lancashire Safeguarding Children Board, and the county council said a number of initiatives are under way to improve awareness of neglect and speed up recognition and interventions for children and families affected.
Lancashire County Council said that the numbers of children coming into care have risen nationally over the past few years although the rate in Lancashire overall tends to be lower than regional and statistical neighbours.
Rates vary from one district to another due to a range of issues, and factors such as high levels of poverty and deprivation and an increased level of awareness inevitably play a part, the council said.
Some children remain placed with their parents but are still ‘in care’, i.e. Lancashire County Council retains parental responsibility.
Matthew Tomlinson, the county council’s cabinet member for children, young people and schools, said: “Using the government’s Troubled Families funding, we have helped more than 1,000 families with complex difficulties to take control of their lives and deal with their problems.
“Our aim is to tackle problems early to prevent them from escalating. We have created new ways of working with the voluntary and faith sectors to help stop problems developing in vulnerable families, and to prevent children from coming into care.
“Overall, we want to make sure that people are offered the right support at the right time with less chance of anyone slipping through the net.
“Placing social workers in some of our schools where the need is greatest, and having social workers and children’s centre colleagues alongside the police at our Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub, has resulted in more families getting help when they need it.”
The council said that locally, there has been significant work by the Lancashire Safeguarding Children Board and Lancashire County Council’s children’s services to highlight child protection issues, which in turn through training and other dissemination leads to higher awareness.
Tom Rahilly, Head of Strategy at the NSPCC for Looked After Children said: “Most children enter care as a result of abuse or neglect. A rise in the numbers entering should not be seen as a bad thing per se.
“What’s important is that the right decision is made for each individual child.
“However, we need to understand the reasons behind the change and identify how we can provide better early help for children and families to tackle this trend.
“Research shows that many of the recent rises in care have been the result of earlier identification of neglect, and an improved understanding of the impact it has on children.
“The increase could be an indication of members of the public or professionals becoming more aware and willing to report suspected harm. However, there is huge pressure on children’s services and a risk that important services are being cut.
“We need to see development of services that focus on early help and support to families and children.
“These services have potential to reduce the need for more expensive interventions when the child’s situation has got worse.
“Early help and support can lead to better outcomes for the children concerned.”
The Government’s Troubled Families funding has been used in Lancashire’s Working Together With Families programme, which has helped more than 1,000 families with complex difficulties to take control of their lives and deal with their problems.
Lancashire’s Prevention and Early Help Strategy, a county-wide approach within which all partners co-ordinate, prioritise and maximise their efforts in the areas of family support, domestic abuse, emotional health and wellbeing and parenting.
The idea is to tackle problems early to prevent them from escalating.
Creative new ways of investing in and working with the voluntary and faith sectors to help stop problems developing in vulnerable families, and to prevent children from coming into care using approaches such as ‘edge of care’ and family group conferences.
Successful placement of social workers in some of our schools where the need is greatest, and having social workers and children’s centre colleagues alongside the police at our Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub, which means that people are offered the right support at the right time with less chance of anyone slipping through the net.
FOSTER CARERS - BIG SHORTAGE IN LANCASHIRE
Emma Weaver, registered manager of Lancaster based charity Community Foster Care, said: “We set up locally in 2012 due to abig shortage of foster carers in Lancashire. We get lots of referrals every day.
“The drive is to match local families with local children, so they don’t have to change schools, lose friendships and move away from their families.
“Children can come from very challenging and complex backgrounds, but an awful lot of help is available for carers.
“There are a lot of problems with poverty, domestic violence, drugs and alcohol, there’s lots of factors contributing to the rise in figures.
“The figures would suggest that the situation is getting worse, but it’s also based on the judgement that social workers make. The pressure on families is ever increasing.”
Anyone interested in becoming a foster carer and finding out about the support on offer call 0800 0124287.
Eric Ollerenshaw, MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood, said: “I think there’s been a massive increase in awareness which is a good thing. The figures demonstrate the need for for bringing social services, health services, the police and schools together. In one sense you could argue that if the numbers have gone up, the county council is doing a much more thorough job.
“But in general terms it’s a sad comment on life. It also underlines the difficult jobs social workers have got, and they’re under fire whatever they do.
“There’s been extra government money to target specifically difficult families.”