Record numbers of children are likely to be taken away from their families this year as parents struggle to cope with the effects of public-sector cuts and benefits changes, a senior child protection figure has warned.
Anthony Douglas, chief executive of Cafcass, which safeguards the welfare of children involved in family court proceedings, said he expected to see a leap in child neglect cases as thousands of struggling families were pushed over the financial edge in the coming months.
Mr Douglas warned that the number of cases could rise by up to eight per cent, involving hundreds of children, putting further strain on the already-stretched child protection system. Cases of "cumulative long-term neglect" are increasing with the removal of small but vital services, such as play schemes and new mothers' groups.
Last year Cafcass dealt with record numbers of care applications, including a total of 7,278 cases between April and November – an 8.3 per cent increase on the same period in 2011.
Mr Douglas said: "Given what we know about the association between poverty deprivation and care, the increase in economic difficulties can take away the margins of support for people who are just managing to keep things together.
"Often quite small amounts of support can make all the difference. So I think that there is a risk of underestimating the way in which this support can keep some families going."
His warning comes amid evidence that the Government's benefits squeeze is hitting public sector professionals just as hard as its professed target – the work-shy and "scroungers".
Figures produced by the Children's Society ahead of a vote in the House of Commons tomorrow over a below-inflation rise in benefits and tax credits show that nearly 500,000 nurses, soldiers and primary and nursery school teachers will see their income slashed by the changes.
The Coalition's Bill to cap increases in a catalogue of benefits, including child benefit and tax credits, at one per cent until 2015, will cost a lone-parent nurse with two children £424 a year and a junior Army NCO with three children, who earns £470 per week, a total of £552 per annum.
A coalition of 27 organisations, including the RNIB and Barnardo's, yesterday published an open letter condemning the up-rating Bill as a "hardship penalty" on millions of working families. It said: "Families already struggling to pay for food, fuel, rent and other basics will see their budgets further squeezed."
The evidence that government policy will bite hard on working families forms a backdrop to a sharpened debate on the links between poverty and neglect for those further on the margins of society. Amy Waddell, spokeswoman for Action for Children, said: "We do know that growing poverty and deterioration in parenting skills are some of the main concerns that professionals do have about the reasons for child neglect."
Mr Douglas said the increasing numbers of young people entering the care system will have significant "resource implications" for the child protection system.
He said: "This is the first time in the history of British childcare, certainly in the last 30 years, that there has been an unbroken increase. To some extent we can predict a four to eight per cent increase next year but we can't be sure. But we are pretty sure it will continue to be significant.
"Equally we think we will stay on top of it – which is important because there were fears that the system would creak or collapse."
The rise in neglect cases began in November 2008 as local authorities reacted to the death of Peter Connelly by intervening earlier in cases rather than risk leaving children in potentially harmful situations. Peter was a 17-month-old boy from north London who was killed despite being seen by childcare authorities.
Mr Douglas, who conceded that more needs to be done tackle an "unacceptable culture of delay" which can still leave children waiting more than a year for care proceedings to go through the courts, said prolonged neglect was now the predominant reason for children coming into the system.
He said: "There has been a permanent shift in the threshold. Previously children who were not doing very well but who were not in a critical state were left at home, were monitored and were given some early help services.
"But many of that group have now been in that situation for so long – several years in some cases – that local authorities have called time on neglect. They have reviewed them more strongly and decided that it's just not acceptable for children to go on living like that."
But he warned that the harsh economic climate and public service cuts were also fuelling the increase, arguing that struggling families could fall apart if benefits or public services were withdrawn.
Calling for greater recognition of the role played by modest amounts of support, he said: "Things like mums' clubs for new mothers, play schemes and community groups. There is a danger of just ignoring that universal level of provision."
Case study: Tom, 11, found in house with no food
When social workers visited the home that 11-year-old Tom shared with his mother and 13-year-old sister, they found a house without food. Checks in cupboards, the fridge and freezer revealed nothing for the children to eat or drink, not even teabags.
Volunteers from Action for Children, a charity which works with struggling families, said the situation was an extreme example of the growing cycle of deprivation and extreme poverty against a background of abuse and neglect are on the rise.
Tom had been referred to the charity by his family's GP last year following concerns about his behaviour at the family home in Wales. The charity said circumstances similar to those in which the he was found are increasingly common. A spokeswoman added: "Families are facing more severe needs, caused by deprivation and reduced incomes."