Early Intervention – the unicorn of child protection.

Over the last month I have had occasion to appear on BBC Radio to give a social work viewpoint on a couple of child protection issues that had arisen in the news.  Both were completely unrelated (one on children in care running away and the other on sexual abuse failings by a local authority)  but both led to the same thoughts on the issues: early intervention and proactive social work.  Then I read today that a report on child protection in Guernsey concluded that early stage intervention stopped more significant problems arising in the future.  Job done then.  That’s all sorted.  We have the answer. Just turn of the lights on the way out.

Hold on a sec, just one small point that may throw a spanner in the works of this revelation. We’ve heard it before.  In fact we’ve heard it in nearly every report (national, and local), serious case review and “quick we better be seen to be doing something about this” review since I can remember.  Research evidence, on the ground outcomes and just a chat with any decent social worker will tell you without any doubt that early intervention works. Child protection workers have always been screaming out for more of it.  Just ask one.

So between the historical shouting, long sighs of “deja vu all over again” and the thud of your head hitting a brick wall,  it is worth noting that following the usual and deserved moral outrage from politicians and the media that follows yet another, all too regular child abuse revelation, the one thing that has proved to have worked has been incrementally removed. Early intervention is becoming the exception rather than the norm.  Yes indeed there are some excellent projects and  initiatives out there, but for the rank and file social worker, well funded, effective and readily available early intervention is the unicorn of child protection.  A mythical beast that is only ever seen in writing.

Child Protection, like many other publicly funded services, has never been resource heavy.  But for a while with initiatives like Sure Start, talk of Children’s Departments and a realisation that more workers were needed, things looked like they may be going in the right direction.  Over recent years with squeezes on local authority funds, child protection has regressed so far that is now becoming purely an emergency service.  Threshold criteria have now been raised so high, in order to “focus” services, that practically only the most serious and immediate of cases are given time and limited resources.  The result of this is the bumping along or even closing  of “low level cases” often to return months or years later when they have finally reached the required threshold. In the meantime there is little to no protection given.

On the BBC discussions on those 2 unrelated subjects it soon became apparent that the lack of “low level” intervention and/or proactive work enabled children to be groomed and increasingly concerning patterns of behaviour were not picked up.  Social workers were either too busy or criteria for services were not met,which would have certainly have had a negative impact upon the ability to protect those children. The personal knowledge of those children and their families and the building of those relationships, that perhaps happened in the past, was replaced with the firefighting of immediate problems only.  Like any good firefighter, todays child protection workers are desperately trying to put out the flames, giving them little time or resources to see what is smouldering.

Colleagues have told me of backlogs in even interviewing children who have disclosed abuse.  When child protection gets to a stage where even those firefighting services are stretched to breaking point, then it stands to reason that early intervention is so far down the list it appears to hardly register.

Child Protection done well has always been, and shall continue to be, resource and time heavy service.  But where referral rates are up and budgets are down, one does not need to think hard about the implications for front line services and the protection of children.  Moral outrage and urgent reviews are all well and good but again and again the lessons are not learnt.  The protection and well-being of our children should be the number one priority for any civilised society.  Perhaps it is time to stop, take a breath and realise that the slip into a place where the welfare of our most vulnerable children is seriously at risk is right on top of us.

It should be time for social work and those working in child protection to find a stronger voice.  To respond to those reports that say early intervention is needed and demand a fully functioning service. Child protection has strong public support but so often is only paid lip service to by politicians.  It is very easy to say the right things when needed but almost never is the right, and often obvious, action taken.  Early intervention remains the most obvious route to a more effective and protective service where proactive work will have a positive effect all the way down the line.  However that takes time, money and a belief that the lives of all our children are more important than the next headline or vote. Does anyone in power care enough to do what is right and necessary or is easier just to keep blaming the people who choose to do the difficult work that protects children? Previous experience suggests little will change and the march away from a service to protect all children to one that only intervenes at the point of utter crisis will continue to its inevitable conclusion.

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