The Child Protection Ship is Sinking: But everyone is too busy putting fires out to notice

With the recent imprisonment of the mother and step-father of Daniel Pelka, a four-year-old horribly mistreated and ultimately starved to death, child protection is yet again in the spot light.  However horrible these acts were, and they were, it is perhaps unsurprising to many social workers that again we see difficulties in the system of children protection.

Everyone knows the names by now: Victoria Climbie, Baby Peter and now Daniel Pelka.  They resonate both within social work and in the wider public domain as cases where the children could have been saved from maltreatment and then death.  Although in the inquiries of the former two “lessons had been learnt” and “things would change”, workers on the ground know that little has really changed and certainly over recent years deteriorated.

The ship that is child protection is both on fire and letting in water fast.  The passengers, made up of children, need help but the crew are badly managed, under represented and exhausted.  Is it not time to build something new and fit for purpose?

A child protection system?

There is much talk about a “child protection system” but unfortunately the system is less of a concrete pathway of joined up thinking and working and more crazy paving of competing budgets, targets and priorities.  Although there is always a willingness to do the right thing for children, the current systems (because there are so many different ones)  often do not allow or even condone collaborative working between disciplines.  This significantly increases the likelihood of children slipping though the gaps, and the gaps are getting bigger.

The idea of unified children’s departments has been floated for more years than I can remember, but still, apart from a few pilots, there is no progress on what appears on the face of it a no brainer of a concept.  With health, social work, police and teaching staff all in the same building and sharing the same budget there would be a unified purpose and an interdisciplinary respect.  Workers can really get to know children in the broader context rather than within their own discipline only. That can never be a bad thing,

Why hasn’t this been done as yet?   Big organisations are very protective of their budgets and the idea of sharing is not one that sits very comfortably with them. They also have a need to control what they are paying for.  So if staff work in a separate location with different disciplines it makes administrators and managers nervous. Lastly, there doesn’t seem to be any real government will to change things, preferring instead to tinker at the edges.  All this means the likelihood of unified services happening in any effective, national way is already bound to fail before it even gets off the ground.  The no brainer of an idea becomes the idea with no brain.  The piecemeal, gappy service continues with the certain outcome of more children slipping through the cracks.

Big organisations have big problems

We can see from recent, public “scandals” that large (and even some small) organisations have great difficulty in acting in a  socially thoughtful and altruistic way.  Whether it be the banks, Police, NHS, BBC, MPs, tax “avoiding” companies, religious institutions or media groups, there is ample evidence to know that organisations are innately selfish and  insular. This does not mean that the individuals within it are either of these things and the opposite is often true.  I note that both public and private bodies are equally prone to this.  This is particularly when they are under threat in some way or where theres money involved.  For public organisations this so  means budgets and the need to justify there own existence.  With targets so often linked to cash, the need to over manage everything has become prevalent.  Paperwork and systems have become everything and the user/client a statistic.

This is very unlikely to change and appears to be the way of things.  Even if the paperwork and targets are reduced there will continue to be the problem of the “selfish organisations” protecting its own interests.  Inspections seem to have been the answer in the past, but as we have seen with difficulties with inspectors (NHS and banks to name two), there are clearly flaws in this too.  Often understaffed but large institutions themselves, they have perpetuated the target driven culture; large organisations inspecting other large organisations.

In child protection this has come in to sharp focus.  The disappearance of almost all independent thought has left the scales heavily weighted in favour of large state organisations with little chance of independent action to stop poor organisational practice.

Independent Reviewing Officers are, as we all know, not at all independent, working for the very organisation that they are tasked with monitoring.  Judges are having their wings clipped by targets and mandates that reduce their ability to monitor and act on poor and sometimes unfair decision making.  The reduction of legal aid, for instance in Judicial Reviews, has further undermined the checks and balances in the family judiciary.  Heavy cuts in fees for lawyers has pushed them into squeezing time on each case and subsequently the attention they can give to it.  The sidelining of expert witness, and in particular the independent social worker, has meant the courts have to wholly rely on local authorities to not only pickup the slack but also have very little scrutiny of their actions.  The once independent Children’s Guardians are now part of another large institution with their remit reduced significantly.  The judicial part of child protection has always relied on good information and a variety of opinions to come to an informed decision.  It now has neither of these, which will in due course create further injustices and mistakes which cannot be undone.

Without some independent thought and ability to act within an overly bureacratic system , the likelihood of institutionally selfish misbehaviour becomes significantly increased.  Recent cover-up scandals have further evidenced the need for broader, individual monitoring rather than the monoliths that perpetuate a policy/target/budget driven idea of public service.  However the need for control by central and local government allows little hope for individuals or small groups to make a different without a complete re-think on who these organisations are there to serve. Although the answer to this is often, rightly “children and their families”, the reality is far from the this.

Ever reducing services, ever increasing referrals 

The reality of social work with children and families has change considerably over the years.  It has become increasingly a fire fighting service where the threshold for “child protection” has increased year on year.  Access to service and interventions have moved vastly up the scale so that now only cases where significant issues are identified can be allow through the gateway.

This has caused a number of problems. Social workers often have little of the “positive” work left anymore. That is getting alongside families and making a very real different.  Instead it is more often than not a never ending line of complex cases with considerable difficulties where outcomes are unlikely to be happy ones; thus reinforcing the preconception of social workers as child stealers.  This raising of the bar of access to services has coincided with a radical reduction in access to preventative services.

In the last 2 significant inquiries conducted by Lord Laming and more recently Professor Munrow, the need for considerable preventative services was a key plank of both their recommendations.  Not only were these recommendations ignored but the opposite has happened.  Children’s Centres are being closed or going part time. Social work assistants, who could take a softly softly, hands-on approach have all but disappeared and other services, such as psychological and treatment centres, have been signifcantly reduced.  This has not only reduced the social workers tool box but has almost obliterated early intervention for families in difficulty.  Even when social workers know there will be problems around the corner there is more often than not nothing that can be done until the difficulties increase to crisis point.

The reduction in services has also coincided with a significant increase in referrals over recent years following the Baby Peter coverage and subsequently the revelations of the historic abuse of children by “celebrities”.  However there has been very little if no increase in real funding to cover this.  In addition, although the right noises have been made about the recruitment and retention of social workers, there remains a crisis in this area with most teams running vacancies that they cannot fill.

The increase in referrals as well as the lack of funding for services and social workers has meant scarce resources have been focused to significant child protection whilst ignoring the lack of provision for families in difficulty or in need of assistance, which will build in to a child protection tidal wave of the very near future.

Building a new, well funded, well designed ship.

Although it is unlikely that the current child protection ship will sink, it is evidently not doing what it is supposed to do – protecting children with the gold standard service. At present it is a large, bloated vessel, on fire and letting in water. This floating wreck was built a long time ago and has just been added to rather than modernised. There are several engines and even more rudders going in their own direction with a committee of Captains. With few resources the crew are desperately fighting the fires on the deck with cups of water. Although they know there is water coming in below deck and a tidal wave coming, there is little time or energy to do anything. In the meantime other holes are being made in the hull much more quickly than the old ones are patched.

Its passengers, made up of vulnerable children need a new ship to safely take them into adulthood. One which is resilient, thoughtful, balanced, modern and well funded. It must have the passengers welfare as its priority rather than the running of the ship. It will take cooperation, hard work and money, as well as vision, to sit down and design something from scratch that will do the job well, both now and in the future. This is a job to be done by all of society. A society that cares about their children and believes that its worth spending the time and money on them.

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