We need to know more about the financial hardship experienced by families who are referred to children’s social care. Initial analysis suggests that linking children’s social care and benefits data may be the way forward.

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown a spotlight on social inequality in the UK. Not only are people from poor or minority backgrounds more likely to die or suffer severe illness from the disease, they have borne a disproportionate burden of its social and economic consequences. Children are particularly affected.

Around a quarter of the UK’s child population lives below the poverty line and these children are most likely to have experienced a deterioration in their home life, education, and mental health. Child welfare services that were already overstretched before the pandemic are worried about a potential surge in referrals over the coming years, with which they are ill-equipped to cope.

Given the importance of poverty and deprivation as a driver of demand for social care, the financial circumstances of families should be a key concern for policymakers and sector leaders. Yet children’s services do not routinely collect this kind of information.

We know how many children receive assessments and interventions. We also know the main needs and risks identified by social workers, such as domestic abuse or mental illness.

However, we do not know how many of these children live in low-income households, how many experience persistent poverty or which families are under acute financial strain.

This is an extraordinary gap in knowledge, which makes it harder to design and implement effective services.

Linking data sets to understand the role of poverty in children’s social care

One way to address the gap is to link information about household income held in one place to information held elsewhere about children’s social care. Since children’s services are generally run by local authorities, a potential source of information about household income is the benefits data held by the same local authorities.

Benefits data will not cover all children referred to children’s social care. However, it is reasonable to assume they would cover most households on low incomes. Connecting these separate but administratively related datasets could offer a unique insight into the relationship between poverty, financial hardship and the need for child welfare support.

In order to test this hypothesis Policy in Practice, in collaboration with Kingston University, recently carried out a small feasibility study of data linkage between benefits and children’s social care data.

The study was undertaken with a single London local authority, with whom Policy in Practice already has an arrangement to share data and carry out analysis.

After completing research ethics review and data governance procedures, a matching exercise was carried out with a limited extract from the government’s Children in Need Census, and records for households receiving council tax support or Housing Benefit.

The benefits data covered around 5,000 households with children and the children’s social care data covered 2,200 children who were referred to services within a single local authority over a twelve month period (2019-20).

The match was carried out on the basis of personal identifiers, that is name, address and date of birth. The extract did not include any information about the outcome of referral.

The results showed that about half (48%) of children referred to children’s social care lived in households receiving these means-tested benefits. This result is based on data covering just the two benefits that local governments administer.

There are many more households receiving central government benefits such as Universal Credit, but who are either not eligible for, or are eligible for but not claiming, local benefits. Therefore, the share of children referred to social care who live in households receiving means-tested benefits is likely to be higher than 48%.

Even so, 48% is much higher than the proportion of households receiving benefits in the general population, given that around 1 in 3 people in the UK claim benefits, and reflects the significance of low income, worklessness and poor housing conditions in the lives of children potentially needing social care support.

Data linked analysis shows that around 48% of children referred to children’s social care live in households receiving means-tested benefits. This is disproportionately high.

This initial analysis was just looking at referrals, not the services or interventions that might follow a referral. Research has shown that families receiving statutory services and children subject to protective interventions are especially likely to come from deprived neighbourhoods, so it is likely that the prevalence of households receiving benefits would be even higher among those groups.

Linking children’s social care and benefits data can help uncover the drivers for social care

So what are the implications of this work?

The preliminary findings suggest that it is feasible to link children’s social care and benefits data. Doing so would potentially give insight into a number of crucial questions.

For example, we could find out more about the mechanisms through which poverty drives demand for child welfare services, including the role of persistent poverty, financial precarity, reductions or disruptions to benefits payments, unemployment, overcrowding, rent increases, evictions, and so on.

Without this kind of detailed knowledge, the socio-economic circumstances of families are too easily overlooked by practitioners and dismissed by policymakers.

Of course, linking data does raise its own issues and challenges, particularly around anonymisation, security and consent.

There is a clear need for research to be conducted in line with data protection guidelines and in partnership with stakeholders. This is also the case in medicine and public health, where researchers have long had access to de-identified datasets for research with clear and direct public benefits, while minimising privacy risks.

Overcoming the barriers to undertaking such research in social care offers huge potential to contribute to this crucial public service. It can and should be done.

Find out more

To learn more about the data research carried out by Policy in Practice with Kingston University, and to propose questions for further research in this field, contact hello@policyinpractice.co.uk or call 0330 088 9242.

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