Thursday, 18 February 2016

When child protection agencies are under too much pressure

The British (Conservative) government is making swingeing financial cuts to local authorities (which are responsible for child protection) and often talks as if cutting funding is a spur to innovation – take money away and it concentrates the mind! Only recently Children’s Minister, Edward Timpson, opined that that there is no “correlation between spend and quality” in children’s social care. 

The case of the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services seems to provide evidence (if any were required) that once spending falls below a certain level, there is an inevitable knock-on effect on quality.

An article in the Advocate describes a situation in which Louisiana’s funding for child protection has fallen steadily since 2007-8, when the budget was nearly $300 million, to approximately $240 million in 2014-5. As a consequence the number of child protection workers has fallen from nearly 1,350 in 2007 to 1,125 in 2015. At the same time caseloads have been rising, reportedly by 18% according to a report prepared for Louisana’s Governor.

The results is a looming under-funding crisis for the department, with a staff turnover rate of nearly 25% and, according to another report, front-line workers finding themselves pressurised into completing tasks in unrealistically short periods, with consequent implications for the quality and safety of service that children and young people receive.

There are three different approaches to public spending. The first is to ‘spend, spend, spend’; to let rip and fund the system generously (some may say too generously). The second is to ‘cut, cut, cut’ and precipitate a funding crisis. The third, which is my preference is the ‘Lean, Lean, Lean’ approach to public spending. Activities that add value (to the benefit of the service user or the public good) should be funded without stinting, but unnecessary spending (on overhead, waste, the costs of poor quality etc.) should be rigorously reduced at every opportunity.

Perhaps in both Louisiana and Great Britain people in children’s services will eventually realise that Lean is the way forward.