Data poses questions as well as answers, so what questions arise from Scotland's Child Protection 2021-2022 Statistics?

05 May 2023

Topic: Child protection, Local authority, COVID
Author: Dr Alex McTier

A toddler playing with an adult reading in the background
In this blog post, Dr Alex McTier, Evidence and Evaluation Specialist at CELCIS, takes a closer look at Scotland’s Child Protection 2021-2022 Statistics to uncover what the statistics tell us about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and longer-term trends.

The latest annual Children’s Social Work Statistics have been published this week by the Scottish Government. Covering the year from August 2021 to July 2022, the data provides important insights into the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children and families. Let’s remember that this was a year where schools and nurseries had reopened but face masks and restrictions on indoor gatherings remained and, in December 2021, we had the Omicron variant of COVID-19. In short, it was another year of uncertainty and instability.

To consider what the data tells us I’ve reviewed the data with two questions in mind: 1) what impact does the COVID-19 pandemic appear to have had?; and 2) what are the longer-term features from the data?

The continuing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

To look at the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s best to compare the (pre-pandemic) 2018-19 data to the latest 2021-22 data. In doing so, there appear to be three key findings.

  • Firstly, the number of children on the Child Protection Register has fallen by 21%, from 2,580 children on 31 July 2019 to 2,031 children on 31 July 2022. It would be wrong to assume from this that the pandemic reduced the level of need and risk. Instead, the view from people working to support children and their families was that children’s needs were real in terms of impacts on child and parental mental health, parental alcohol and substance use, domestic abuse, neglect, emotional abuse, poverty, and social isolation. However, on investigating concerns (many of which were complex and interrelated), the concerns were not found to meet child protection thresholds. Alternative Getting It Right For Every Child responses were therefore sought.
  • Secondly, a higher proportion of registrations in 2021-22 had domestic abuse (from 41% of registrations in 2018-19 to 46% in 2021-22), neglect (from 38% to 43%), and parental mental health (35% to 43%) recorded as concerns than registrations pre-pandemic. These increases arguably reflect the emotional and financial pressures brought about by the pandemic.
  • Thirdly, we also see that a lower proportion of registrations in 2021-22 had sexual abuse recorded as a concern (from 8% of registrations in 2018-19 to 5% in 2021-22). Given the pandemic led to increased use of the internet and coupled with rising concerns around online safety, it would be important to question to what extent the data is able to portray the true extent of the sexual abuse experienced by children.

Longer term trends

Turning to the longer-term features in the data, the headline finding is that the 2,031 children on the Child Protection Register on 31 July 2022 is the lowest for 20 years. Putting this in context, and using Chart 1 from the Scottish Government’s publication, we can see that the 20 years can be split into two periods: from 2002 to 2014 when there was a 43% increase in the number of children on the Child Protection Register; and from 2014 to 2022 when there was a 29% decrease.

Chart 1: Number of children on the Register by age, 2000-2022

A graph showing the number of children on the Register by age, 2000-2022

What can we learn from data relating to the under 5s?

The different trajectories of these two periods raise the question of what changed? Why was 2014 seemingly a watershed year? Answering these questions is a research study in itself but, from the data, the key age group to understand this change appears to be children under 5 years old.

  • In the pre-2014 period, the number of under 5s on the Child Protection Register (the red line) increased by 63% from 933 children in 2002 to 1,522 children in 2014; yet the number of over 5s largely remained unchanged.
  • Since 2014, the number of under 5s on the Child Protection Register decreased by 36%, while the number of over 5s decreased by 22%.

So, what could explain the change in the under 5s data? One contributory factor is the changing size of the under 5s population in Scotland, as this increased by 8% between 2002 and 2014, but decreased by 8% between 2014 and 2022. However, one possible explanation to rule out is the impact of registration of unborn children at risk as, given it only began to be recorded in the Scottish Government statistics from 2013, we know that hasn’t influenced the 2002-2014 set of data.

The explanation therefore seems to lie in the policy and practice environment. For the 2014 to 2022 period, we might ask whether the reduction in the number of under 5s on the Child Protection Register is a result of Getting It Right for Every Child practice and early intervention becoming more firmly embedded, and/or the investment in the Health Visiting workforce and the introduction of the Universal Health Visiting Pathway, and/or the investment in early learning and childcare?

As ever, the data probably throws up more questions than answers. A couple of questions particularly stand out:

  1. Do we anticipate the low number of children on the Child Protection Register to continue into future years?
  2. Why did the number of children under 5 registered on the Child Protection Register increase by 63% between 2002 and 2014?

If you have a role, remit and interest in data in Scotland, join the online Children's Care and Protection Data Community for Scotland that CELCIS hosts on the Knowledge Hub platform for the public sector to share good practice, ideas, and connect with Scotland’s data community.


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