A "HORRIFYING" rise in children at risk of significant harm has been highlighted in questions to council leaders.

Labour Councillor Nick Wallis asked about an increase in the number of children with child protection plans at a Darlington Borough Council meeting.

According to a council report, this rose from 87 in 2020-1 to 120 at the end of March this year.

"That’s a simple statistic but with horrifying implications," said Cllr Wallis, shadow cabinet member for stronger communities.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Cllr Nick Wallis. Picture: Stuart Boulton.Cllr Nick Wallis. Picture: Stuart Boulton.

"Child protection plans are made when a child is judged to be at risk of significant harm. They are made for the most vulnerable children in our midst, and are designed to prevent them suffering further significant harm.

"And the number of those children in Darlington has increased by 38 percent in a single year."

He asked Cllr Jon Clarke, cabinet member for children and young people, "why he believes the number of the number of the most at risk children in Darlington has increased so dramatically in a single year".

He added: "What is he doing to urgently address this grave situation?"

Cllr Clarke replied: "Referrals to children's services are never static."

He said fluctuations were normal and often led to peaks and troughs: "The numbers of children subject to child protection plans can quite dramatically, within the year and over the years, change."

He quoted figures since 2017 varying between 69 and 120, with pandemic restrictions and lockdown periods affecting referral and child protection numbers.

He added there had been "an increase in the complexity and challenges" with children deemed at risk of harm in January to March 2022.

He told how the council was working with families and supporting them, children at risk and children's services in an ongoing "Strengthening Families" programme.

He said: "We firmly believe that is the way forward, working with families to find their own solutions.

"Where children are deemed to be at risk of significant harm, every child has an allocated social worker who visits the children frequently.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Cllr Jon Clarke. Picture: Darlington Borough Council.Cllr Jon Clarke. Picture: Darlington Borough Council.

"A multi-agency child protection plan sets out concerns and plans to address and manage these, as well as an independent reviewing officer who scrutinses and oversees the plans for every child at risk.

"The most important thing is that children receive the right service to meet their needs and keep them safe, which I firmly believe we are doing."

Cllr Wallis said austerity had "engulfed children's services", the North East saw the biggest increase in demand for child protection services this year, enquiries were more than twice the national average and new child protection plans had almost doubled.

He argued cuts had prevented early support to families reaching crisis, following a 50 per cent drop in local government funding since 2010, and councils had to cut services which could have turned families around earlier.

"So when children and families come to the doors of Darlington children’s services their problems are much more complex and will have exacerbated pre-existing challenges such as poverty, hunger, parental ill health and domestic abuse," added Cllr Wallis.

"And I appreciate the ingenious work that Darlington children's services are performing at the moment, trying to put some small preventative measures back.

"They're sticking plasters, aren't they, Cllr Clarke?"

He suggested "substantially more funding" was needed, and asked whether Cllr Clarke would work with the cabinet to divert more resources to preventative schemes.

Cllr Clarke responded: "I will whole-heartedly work with cabinet and lobby ministers for extra funding for children's services.

"A case of seeking extra funding that we can plough into, especially the early door services, because that's where it makes a hell of a difference... if we can prevent children going into care."