by Kurt Barling
BBC London's Special Correspondent
Child protection is a matter fraught with risk. Social Workers are the professionals at the coal face of assessing that risk.
The reality is, however, that their key weapon is a form of “soft power”- negotiation.
Much of what they can achieve is done by collating information and sharing it with their team to reach a sensible assessments on what should be done to protect the best interests of a vulnerable child.
Compare this with the powers of the police. Social workers do not have the power to forcibly enter in the family home to remove children. They can only execute this power on the authority of the Court. They can then remove a child normally with the assistance of police officers on standby.
As one social worker put it to me this week this is another “sin” that social workers are accused of - “child snatching”.
The police, on the other hand, do have powers to enter premises and remove a child from parental care for up to 72 hours if an officer reasonably believes that the safety of the child is threatened.
BBC London's Kurt Barling
In the case of Baby P this remains a point of contention. At the moment, no individual has taken responsibility for the failure to remove the little boy from the family home, although social workers have been blamed.
Police accounts of the events surrounding Baby P’s last tragic days say that social workers over-ruled police officers over whether he should be placed in care. If this turns out to be the case then there is an argument that perhaps the police officers could have done more by exercising their statutory powers.
Of course, we do not yet know the full details of this particular exchange, but it illustrates the point that child protection is a difficult area for decision-takers.
In reality, police are less involved in child protection matters than they used to be according to many in social work practice.
In some London boroughs, for example, police officers only attend child protection conferences if there is already an investigation ongoing.
This means multi-agency assessments of the risks posed to a particular child often don’t benefit from an investigators insight.
Public policy was dramatically changed after the murder of Victoria Climbie. The Public Inquiry led by Lord Laming concluded with over a hundred recommendations. The vast majority of them were incorporated into what might be loosely called the “practice handbook” for social workers.
'quality of social work'
Now, Lord Laming has been asked to conduct a review into whether these practices are actually being implemented on the ground.
One key issue in the capital surrounds the quality of social work practice, in communities where social dislocation is prominent and the solutions are inevitably complex.
Senior social workers I have spoken with say they are working in traumatic times. They believe that the profession is hampered in attracting the calibre of recruit ideally suited for dealing with tough situations because social Work has become such a vilified profession.
"Police are less involved in child protection matters than they used to be according to many in social work practice"Kurt Barling
There is an emphasis on process over professional judgement of the coalface social worker. Some believe that emphasis on getting the process right has detracted from the need to improve decision making in difficult cases by delivering adequate training. For example, to ensure social workers can identify deceptive behaviour.
Every child that comes into contact with social services becomes the subject of a child plan. This is a plan which identifies the needs of the child and if necessary the protection measures that should be put in place if the child is at risk of abuse.
This process of gathering the information on an individual family and monitoring its progress should ultimately enable professionals to assess whether an individual child has reached a threshold for being taken into care.
The threshold is reached if they are likely to or already have suffered significant harm. Haringey Council have said that the lawyer who judged that Baby P had not reached this threshold has been formally disciplined.
Process needs paperwork and of course modern process needs modern technology. Social workers across the capital have been obliged to transfer their knowledge on individual families into a paperless world.
Current reports, however, suggest that the technology often fails and it is becoming difficult to share information between agencies. Some believe the current technological chaos in some London boroughs is making it more difficult to protect children at risk.
If all that wasn’t difficult enough the problems are compounded by the biggest ongoing issue in the capital; recruitment and retention of staff. In some local authorities one in three people involved in children’s social services are agency staff. Anecdotally this is higher in child protection where staff turnover is exceptionally high.
There is often a lack of continuity in the professional staff dealing with often highly volatile family situations. The process itself becomes dislocated.
Perhaps surprisingly to the outside observer, although centralised guidelines are laid down in terms of social work practice, each London Borough is able to run its own child protection service in the way it sees fit.
Poor management supervision in one borough can mean the service to Londoners who live streets apart can vary widely.
It’s almost inevitable that in the current climate there is a good deal of fear cum panic spreading across social work departments. Fear that more cases like Baby P could suddenly emerge, heaping opprobrium on them if tragedy were to strike.
Panic because there is a feeling that it is becoming more and more difficult for social workers to make these difficult judgments without getting blamed or punished.
Social workers have, for example, told me that whilst playing it safe and taking children into care isn’t always the best option for the child, if it means that a social Worker can protect themselves and their livelihood they may well do this.
Regular observers of social Work practice say those at the coalface fear being criticised for too much intervention at the same time as being criticised for doing too little, too late.
This gives them very little room for manoeuvre in which there is a constant fear of failure.
In the final analysis, social workers on the doorstep are society’s main weapon for protecting the most vulnerable children. There is no other profession charged with this responsibility.
Other people can help in identifying the symptoms of abuse; school teachers, police officers, GPs, health workers.
But few people realise that those with the responsibility to knock on the door and get into the homes where children are at risk can only do so by negotiation unless there is cast iron evidence of abuse.
Of course you can only get the evidence to make an assessment by nurturing relationships with some often vulnerable adults, some of whom occasionally turn out to be downright nasty types.
To ensure professionals who make mistakes are accountable is necessary. But we should not overlook the trauma they have to deal with most days of the week on our behalf whilst they try to balance the real risks with arguments for family support.
Senior managers have told me that they fear an exodus of highly qualified practitioners from child protection, because some feel they cannot take responsibility for vulnerable children if they have so little public support for the difficult job they do.
To blame the profession when a child is killed by sadistic individuals is hardly a way to protect all those other children who remain at risk.