Poverty, inequality and neglect: building strategic thinking

05 March 2019

Professor Brid Featherstone and Professor Kate MorrisProfessor Brid Featherstone and Professor Kate Morris

Ground-breaking research led by Professor Paul Bywaters is providing clear evidence of systemic inequities - in the scale of funding cuts to Children's Services, in child protection intervention rates and the relationship between poverty, inequality and child neglect.

In this blog, Brid Featherstone and Kate Morris reflect on headline messages from research and four Research in Practice workshops they delivered in Manchester, Bristol, London and York on this topic.

The poverty, inequality and neglect: building strategic thinking workshops built on the research findings from the Child Welfare Inequalities Project, a programme carried out by a team led by Professor Paul Bywaters. The team was drawn from the following universities: Cardiff, Coventry, Edinburgh, Huddersfield, Queen’s University, Belfast, Sheffield and Stirling.

The project carried out an extensive programme of research including:

  • An evidence review of the relationship between poverty, child abuse and neglect.
  • Quantitative studies of children who were being looked after in care or who were on a child protection plan in each UK country in 2015 and levels of deprivation.
  • Qualitative case studies in local authorities in England and Scotland examining how decisions about individual children and families are made and what factors influence decision making including professionals’ responses to family poverty.

Aim of the project:

  • To establish child welfare inequalities as a core concept in policy making, practice and research in the UK and internationally.

A key objective is:

  • To detail the relationship of deprivation, policy and other factors to inequalities in key child welfare intervention rates through separate and comparative studies in the four UK countries

Headline messages from the research

Key messages from the quantitative and qualitative research included:

  • Across English local authorities, children in the most deprived 10% of small neighbourhoods are over ten times more likely to be ‘looked after’ in care or on a child protection plan than children in the least deprived neighbourhoods.
  • However, central Government does not collect data on the family circumstances of children who become looked after and this systematic pattern in inequality between children has been invisible.
  • The invisibility of poverty was also reflected at the level of frontline practice.
  • Poor areas and poor families were routinely the sites of Children’s Services practice, but practitioners rarely talked about family poverty or the consequences of inequality unprompted.
  • Most social workers saw their core business as risk assessment, and regarded actions or services to address poverty (benefits advice, provision of food, advocacy) as services others should provide.
  • Systems and leadership do not give tackling poverty the necessary priority and practitioners, therefore, lack relevant knowledge and tools about tackling poverty and deprivation.

As part of the research plan, a detailed impact strategy was developed to identify the key audiences for this research and the range of methods needed to reach them. Making Research Count supported the conference held to publicise the key findings and this was accompanied by a media campaign resulting in coverage on major news outlets and a range of print outlets. Policy makers and senior managers in the four countries were reached through roundtable discussions and conference presentations. The British Association of Social Workers supported a number of dissemination exercises aimed at practising social workers.

Reflections on the Research in Practice workshops

Research in Practice ran four national workshops to support strategic thinking, practical learning and action planning informed by this research. The workshops attracted an audience comprising senior managers, commissioners, reviewing officers and frontline practitioners in safeguarding and early help.

The format included presentations and interactive exercises. Groups were mixed in order to give participants the opportunity to work with those from other local authorities. There was also a focus on action planning.

Some the key themes that emerged from the workshops included:

  • Poverty was recognised as a vital and increasingly relevant aspect of families’ lives and a key contributor to family troubles.
  • Most practice methodologies being used were focused on effecting changes in behaviours, especially on the part of parents, and insufficiently attuned to understanding the impacts of the contexts in which families were living.
  • There was agreement that anti-poverty understandings and strategies were of key importance in supporting children to remain safely within their families.
  • In order to achieve sustainable reductions in the numbers of children in care or need of protection it was important to integrate anti-poverty strategies at the level of data gathering, assessments and case planning.

Making a difference

Workshop leaders shared examples of actions that are being taken across the UK:

In Northern Ireland an Anti-Poverty Practice Framework for Social Work Practice has been developed and is being rolled out.

  • Income maximisation and welfare rights inputs are being integrated into practice at the point of referral or with families in family support hubs.
  • Data monitoring systems are being reviewed.
  • Independent Reviewing Officers are reviewing Initial Child Protection Conference and care plans to see if children’s socio-economic circumstances are being considered.
  • Routine practices are being reviewed to see if they inadvertently reinforce parents’ sense of shame in a number of local authorities.

Going forward

Action planning was a key element of the workshops. Numerous ideas were discussed and participants were invited to a follow on workshop in 2019 to share the results of plans, and to contact the workshop leaders in the meantime to discuss plans. Currently work is underway in a wide range of local authorities in the following areas:

  • Poverty awareness raising and training.
  • Auditing files and case conference reports.
  • Poverty proofing policies and procedures.
  • Exploring approaches to domestic abuse incorporating anti-poverty understandings and strategies.

The results of these will be shared after the follow-up workshop. In the meantime, if any local authority leaders would like to be involved in this work please contact:

Brid Featherstone: b.m.featherstone@hud.ac.uk

Kate Morris: kate.morris@sheffield.ac.uk

About the authors

Professor Brid Featherstone is Head of Department, Behavioural and Social Sciences at the University of Huddersfield.

Professor Kate Morris is Head of Department, Department of Sociological Studies at the University of Sheffield.

Related Research in Practice resources

Child neglect and its relationship to sexual harm and abuse: responding effectively to children's needs

Emotional abuse and neglect: Identifying and responding in practice with families: Frontline Briefing

Neglect: Mapping Resource (open access)

Poverty, inequality, neglect: building strategic thinking – Partners of Research in Practice can login to access the presentation slides from the workshops.


Bywaters P, Brady G, Sparks T, Bos E, Bunting L, Daniel B, Featherstone B, Morris K & Scourfield J (2015) Exploring inequities in child welfare and child protection services: explaining the ‘inverse intervention law’. Children and Youth Services Review 57 (October) 98-105.

Bywaters P, Bunting L , Davidson G , Hanratty J, Mason W , McCartan C and Steils N (2016) The relationship between poverty, child abuse and neglect: an evidence review. Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Available online: https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/relationship-between-poverty-child-abuse-and-neglect-evidence-review

Bywaters P, Kwhali J, Brady G, Sparks T and Bos E (2016) Out of sight, out of mind: ethnic inequalities in child protection and out-of-home care intervention rates. British Journal of Social Work. (December 2016).

Featherstone B, Gupta A, Morris K M & Warner J (2018) Let's stop feeding the risk monster: towards a social model of 'child protection'. Families, Relationships and Societies. Available online: 10.1332/204674316X14552878034622

Morris K M, Mason W, Bywaters P, Daniel B, Featherstone B, Mirza N, Webb C (2018) Social work, poverty, and child welfare interventions. Child and Family Social Work. Available online: 10.1111/cfs.12423

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