Pelka, Williams and Khan – a time for a soul searching rethink

Three cases in close succession, 2 today, have rightly left right minded people asking themselves how this could happen. We have heard in response to the Williams serious case review, lessons will be learnt. Unfortunately we have heard this again and again. And yet the same issues seem to raise their head: lack of agency communication, lack of analysis from professionals, management failings, practice failings……the list is long and troubling.

Although it would be easy to blame individuals, certain agencies and of course the parents, the pattern of mistakes of these serious cases seem to note a pattern of agency failings that transgress simple explanation and/or blame. At some point the system itself, as a whole, should and must be looked at. People do not go into child protection to fail. They are there to help children and their families. The majority of time they do this to the best of their ability in the given situation. However too many in social work and other child protection agencies find themselves in situations where they are unable to give their best. If a system does not allow the very best from our child protection workers, then it cannot be fit for purpose.

Today we hear of management bullying where the opinions of social workers are overridden. Also of agencies who refuse to even sit in the same room together to discuss inter agency working. Also of a lack of any real independent oversight of child protection. These issues have been the same for many years and although some agencies have good practice in many of these ares patchy at best. More often than not local budgets and politics get in the way of looking after the welfare of our children. In the end lessons aren’t and cannot be learnt because the fragmented nature of child protection in the UK do not encourage it. The gaps both regionally and between agencies continues to fight against a shared goal of protecting children.

Almost all I meet who work in children protection share the view that there are numerous and longstanding issues in the system. If those working within he system do not have faith in it, it seems there must be something wrong. The public and media outrage and failings can only grow if the list of names of dead children who were not protected by professionals continues to grow. If you consider that scare mongering, as some have, then talk to any front line child protection worker in the UK. I can assure you that the answers you will get will be very similar and concerning.

If we were starting today with no child protection system and we’re planning one, would we plump for the one we have now? Almost certainly not. Then we should, as a society and our politicians specifically, seek to encourage a full debate on how we design the best system for caring for and protecting our children as well as supporting our families in need.

Time and time again researching and reporting say that early intervention, joined up services work not only in child protection but also with child welfare and development in general. However what we get is reactions to serious case reviews only and not the failing of a system as a whole. People working with children should be working together, should to shoulder. Then they are able to get a good sense of a child or family. Thus showing the patterns of difficulty that seems to be being missed. Sharing information would be so much easier when people work together. In this age of IT and information sharing, surely it is within us to be able to design a simple information sharing system. But this overarching, cross agency, cross region issues seem impossible to resolve. This is perhaps a good example of how this fractured system seems incapable in any consistent way to join up in a common cause.

We must acknowledge that there is some exceptional practice out there and that almost all people work with children because they care. However over a number of decades and particularly over recent months it has becomes apparent that a drastic rethink is needed.

This is an issue about how we treat and see our children as a society. We can and should be upset by poor practice and child deaths, but until we see a holistic, national approach as the way forward the likelihood is that the list of names will continue. This is certainly not about a panic as a result of high profile cases but instead a very real concern about how children are protected and their welfare (health, education, safety etc) is considered as a whole.


8 Comments on “Pelka, Williams and Khan – a time for a soul searching rethink”

  1. Zarathustra says:

    Great post, fully agree.

    I’m frequently dismayed at the level of dysfunctionality and misunderstanding between the various agencies. My current favourite saying is, “CAMHS are from Mars, Social Services are from Venus.” Ultimately we all need to pull together to keep children safe, and the inter-agency politics should go hang.

  2. The British are holding their heads in the sand on child protection. They are unable to come to terms with the fact that it is they, the British public, who are failing children, not the social workers and professionals, who work tirelessly for them.

    Having said that even some Ministers in the government are recognizing the need for deeper understandings, that go beyond accusations that social workers and other professionals should have picked up on things. According to Judy Cooper from Community Care Children’s Minister Edward Timpson government has demanded Coventry Safeguarding Children Board undertake a deeper analysis into why four social care assessments failed to pick up on the risks posed to murdered schoolboy Daniel Pelka.Timpson noted,

    ”The review suggests these failures could be related to the nature of management support and advice, efficiency of systems and processes, training, workload or organisational context. Its analysis, however, stops at that point… Such an analysis is essential to ensure local agencies take the action necessary to address the root causes of the specific failures. I ask that you set out by the end of this week how, and to what timescale, you will deepen the analysis begun by the SCR.”

    The serious case review found that teachers, health professionals, social workers and police officers had all had contact with Daniel and his family, and had come across signs and symptoms of the abuse he had suffered, but none had concluded that Daniel was being abused.

    Addressing the issue of why professionals chose to act in the way they did will provide us with better information on what can be done to improve professional practice, although it may be unpalatable for the authorities and politicians, who would rather the buck stopped with the professionals.

    Camille Pemberton, writing in Community Care, pointed out that in the last five years, “Referrals to social services have risen dramatically in that time, while the number of children with child protection plans has grown from 27,000 to 44,000. Local authorities also have expensive costs with the increased numbers of children in care. And yet the government is reducing the money it gives to local councils and children’s services. Indeed, the government is as guilty as anyone of creating the blame culture through the priority it gives to serious case reviews. They reduce the time that can be given to children and families by managers and social workers who are distracted by the serious case review processes.”

    The first step in the solution would be simple: more social workers, lower caseloads and time for reflective practice. Once we have resolved the issue of resources then we can start looking at competency.

  3. DH83 says:

    I have chosen to comment on here as I am a first year social work student and recently attended a lecture by Professor Harry Ferguson who has many years experience in child protection. He told of when he shadowed many social workers out in the community. Many failed to engage with children and only spoke with the parent/carer even when children were in the room. When challenged many said they “hadn’t noticed” the child or “didn’t know what to say” which saddened and surprised me.

    It’s obvious that some workers had become so tied down with bureaucracy that they had forgotten how to be ‘human’. How can a worker ensure that a child is safe when they do not get close enough to know? We need to find time to interact effectively with children at their level to promote trusting, caring relationships although I understand these findings may not reflect social work practice as a whole. The issue of inter-agency working was raised too and seems difficult and fraught with tension.

    I attend lectures with other health professionals and there is an obvious divide, partly due to the fact that they use a medical model for service users and we use a social model to better understand individuals. There is a lack of communication even at this level and I feel that sometimes the health students view child protection as social workers responsibility.
    We should work together and communicate effectively to prevent failings. It is not the job of a single person or profession to ensure a child’s safety as the Scottish Government’s audit explained………” It’s everyone job to make sure I’m alright” (

  4. bal7765 says:

    Dear Lonleychild2013
    If social workers are not talking to children alone it is because their time, i.e. having no time does not allow them to do that. A social worker will know their case inside out unless it has just been handed to them that day, they will know if the child is at risk of harm. You could have case where the dangerous parent has been removed from the family home for example and that parent is only is allowed to see the child in supervised contact. Athough you can never eliminate the risk of the dangerous parent turning up at the house, however the risk is reduced.

    In that case if the child appears happy and talkative in front of the non abusing parent, and especially if the non abusing parent has pressed charges against her violent partner, the social worker may make the decision not to speak to the child alone every time if they are for example seeing them every 10 to 12 days. The risk is no longer there. The social worker who will be rushed off their feet may make then make a quick decision to leave early and not speak to the child alone to get on with more pressing work such as a court report for example that may be required in the next two days for example.

    If the child is not seen alone in a CP visit, the visit must be recorded as such, you can say the child was observed to be happy and give descriptions of what, “happy” looks like and but the social worker must state the reason why they did not see them alone. However my view is that if you get in to routine of speaking to the child alone they will initiate the routine when they see you, ” are we going to draw in the bedroom now”.

    If a parent does not allow a social worker to see a child alone the social worker must inform their manager and make arrangements to see them alone at school or nursery. A child on a CP plan should always be spoken to on their own.

    CP social workers should be following the CP plan with the family in regular meetings with other key professionals so there should be no need for the social worker to put themselves in danger by challenging the parents in their home unless there is an urgent need i.e. parent smoking heroin in front of the social worker and child. Even in that scenario, the social worker should take advice from their manager first. Usually the parent will be on their best behavior when they see the social worker due to the power imbalance in the relationship that inevitably means the parent will always see the social worker as someone who can remove their children if if the social worker has no plans to do so.

    When a social worker makes a CP visit it is primarily to see the child and check on their welfare.

    CP Social workers have confided in me that they are so frustrated that visits to children have become tick box exercises and they do not have the time to carry out ” direct work ” of any real meaning. Sadly with high case loads the only social workers who actually have relationships with the children in their cases are ones who are literally going far beyond their hours of their working week and sadly heading for a fast burn out.

    It is very bad practice not to talk to a child alone and you would hope that it doesn’t happen.

    However the case of the social worker who made up her communication with a child shows you the type of pressures children and families social workers are under. Child protection is in a league of its own though the more competent worker the worse their working life becomes, being burried under a CP case load too high for anyone to cope with only serves to produce long term sick leave due to stress and breakdowns. In the end it’s the families and children who lose out due to continual change of worker and they ultimately end up with an a less caring, more aggressive agency worker who is there for the money so they have an incentive for the stress.

    There majority of CP social workers do make time to talk to children even after hours. So they will visit the risky families in the day time where they will have support from their colleagues and managers and less risky after work. The same social workers will never be seen without their laptops, they will be continually be catching up with their report writing at evenings and weekends especially if the case loads are high. They will forget the birthdays of loved ones, they will miss family events, not make time to see friends, not do the housework or cook any meals or generally have a life outside of work. They will look begin to physically unwell and work through times of illness instead of going to the GP. They will ultimately neglect their own needs most of the time as they are forced to choose between themselves and their job.

    They will continually think about their cases only because the are always behind with their write ups, and if they can sleep, they will wake up feeling guilty about how much they have to catch up on due to the fact there is an unreasonable demand put upon social workers.

    The majotity of CP social workers are not only talking to children, but are trying to keep up with the enormous amounts of pressure to of simply doing their job. Each and every one of them will have to make a personal sacrifices in order to continue in this way, live with high levels of stress.

    Cuts from central government have made front line CP more risky for children ultimately as social workers are unable to have time to do any reflection let alone build relationships with children.

  5. Aaron Manor says:

    The government is as guilty as anyone of creating the blame culture through the priority it gives to serious case reviews. They reduce the time that can be given to children and families by managers and social workers who are distracted by the serious case review processes.

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