Submission to UN highlights poverty discrimination in child services

  • Date

    Tue 28 Feb 23

Portrait photo of Koldo Casla

Poverty-stricken families in the UK are at high risk of “harsh interventions” and even forms of discrimination by child services, researchers from the University of Essex have found.

New evidence submitted to the United Nation’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural has revealed concerns about a social care system run on a culture of “fear and risk aversion”, with the removal of children from the home seemingly prioritised over offering families additional support.

The team behind the Human Rights Local project at Essex have worked with the anti-poverty organization, ATD Fourth World, to put forward evidence to the UN.

Researchers suggest social services are too focused on “avoiding catastrophe” and the risk to a child, rather than trying to protect and assist families, particularly those in need.

This means families who ask for support and advice for caring for children are often evaluated on a safeguarding basis, and don’t actually receive much support if there are no concerns raised. As part of their work, the team conducted interviews with social workers, young adults and dozens of families across the UK, particularly mothers in poverty.

They found those parents or guardians in poverty were more likely to be referred to child services because of their socio-economic background.

Among the examples identified in interviews were referrals made by a nursery on three different occasions in a year due to a child having bruising.

Investigations into each incident concluded the bruising was due to “rambunctious” play with friends, with the child’s parents insisting referrals were partly made because they were in poverty. In another scenario, one parent in poverty was reported because their child, who was aged four, was wearing underwear for children aged five to six.

Other concerns raised in interviews included the way poor families with disabilities were treated, with one parent being accused of neglect by a teacher because their child, who has autism, was wearing odd socks.

Project lead and director of Human Rights Local, Dr Koldo Casla, said: “Research has shown state intervention is actually having the opposite effect on children and families in need of support by causing further trauma.

“Separation is the most severe form of interference with the right to family life. The UK must realise the right to protection and assistance to the family to ensure the best interests of the child while assisting families to escape the poverty trap.”

The report outlining the findings adds austerity measures in the 2010s, along with the Covid-19 pandemic and inflation, has led to a drop in resources and services available to local authorities to comply with their statutory duties to protect children and support vulnerable families.

This has increasingly led to a sort of postcode lottery when it comes to separating children from their families.

A previous study by the University of Coventry showed one in 60 children in deprived areas of the UK are in care, compared to one in 660 in the least deprived.

Dr Casla added: "There are more than 80,000 children in care in England, a third more than a decade ago. At the current rate, this number will only go up in the years to come.

“England is an outlier of continental proportions; there are more children in institutions and foster care than in most other European nations, forceful family separations are used regularly affecting families in poverty disproportionately, and the child protection system is heavily privatised while local authorities remain cash strapped.”

Researchers at Essex and ATD Fourth World urge the UN to raise a number of issues in its dialogue with the UK Government in relation to poverty and social rights.

This includes whether the Government will consider revising the Equality Act 2010 to prevent all forms of socio-economic discrimination, as well as asking whether measures will be installed to prevent families in poverty being harshly judged by social services.

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights will consider the eight questions proposed by Human Rights Local and ATD Fourth World, as well as other stakeholders in several other submissions, for the List of Issues, which will be presented to the UK Government for their response.

The UN Committee’s report is expected in early 2024.