Troubled children are effectively nudged toward violent crime gangs by a social care system that focuses cash on a small number of serious cases, a new report warns.
The study, commissioned by England’s children’s tsar Anne Longfield, found that £4.3bn - around half of the children’s services budget - was spent on just 73,000 children last year.
In contrast, the other half of the £8.6bn funding was covering programmes for 11.7 million children.
The analysis, carried out by the respected think tank the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), is being published as a wave of street violence continues to sweep the capital, with London’s murder rate outstripping New York’s for the first time ever.
Public Spending on Children in England: 2000 to 2020, found that while the overall level of public spending on children has been maintained over the last two decades, almost three quarters (72%) of children’s services budgets were now focused on “those in severe need”.
It revealed that the number of emergency care cases, and money spent, rose sharply following the Baby P scandal in 2007.
“While every child should receive the support they need, the economic and social costs of this current strategy are unsustainable”
Baby P - Peter Connelly - died after months of abuse at the hands of his mother Tracey Connelly, her boyfriend Steven Barker, and his brother Jason Owen, despite being on the at-risk register and receiving 60 visits from social workers, police and health professionals over eight months.
The report found that because councils had a legal duty to run often high-cost “responsive” schemes at a time of local authority budget squeezes, funding for more preventative measures that were often optional had been cut.
Longfield said: “While every child should receive the support they need, the economic and social costs of this current strategy are unsustainable.
“The cost to the state is ultimately greater than it should be and the cost to those vulnerable children missing out on support will last a lifetime.
“Every day we are seeing the consequences of helping children too late - in pressures on the family courts system, special schools and the care system and in the spiralling numbers of school exclusions and the consequent increase in younger and younger children linked to violent street gangs.”
The report found that the number of looked after children (LAC) cases, those in residential or foster care, or being handled by adoption services, rose from 60,000 in 2008 to 73,000 last year.
Between the 2009-2010 and 2016-2017 financial year spending on LACs rose by 22%, the report found.
But at the same time, spending on Sure Start and “young people’s services” fell by about 60% over the same period, from £1.7 billion to £0.7 billion and £1.4 billion to £0.5 billion respectively.
The report said: “Existing evidence already suggests that children with the most complex needs tend to come into care at a later age, and subsequently have the most costly care pathways, whilst many preventative services tend to be lower cost in the long run.
“Thus, the reduction in spending on programmes such as Sure Start and young people’s services could push up costs in the long run.”
“This dangerous false economy is simply leading to more children who could have been protected, falling in to crisis”
Some 30% of children were deemed as living in poverty in 2016-2017, the report added, compared to 16% of pensioners.
On Monday, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan urged Home Secretary Sajid Javid to immediately make good on his pledge to secure extra funding for the police force.
The Metropolitan Police has launched 74 murder investigations since the beginning of 2018 - sparking fears that this could be the bloodiest year in the capital for more than a decade.
Sadiq Khan said waiting for the Government’s comprehensive spending review next year would be too late as the Met struggles with escalating gun and knife crime.
Angela Rayner, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, said: “Because of the gaps in provision, too often we can only intervene when a child is in crisis, leaving millions of children without access to the support they need.
“This dangerous false economy is simply leading to more children who could have been protected, falling in to crisis.”
Richard Watts, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, called for an urgent review of funding.
He said: “This report paints a stark picture of the reality facing councils, who cannot keep providing this standard of support without being forced to take difficult decisions and cut back on early intervention services which help to prevent children entering the care system in the first place.”