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Children on a see-saw

Mark Easton | 09:20 UK time, Tuesday, 10 May 2011

When the government asked Eileen Munro to review child protection procedures, her terms of reference contained a paradox.

Professor Eileen Munro

Prof Munro

On the one hand ministers said they wanted social workers to be free from unnecessary bureaucracy and regulation - to make decisions based on their professional judgement, not simply following procedures.

On the other, they said they wanted social workers to be clear about their responsibilities and to be accountable - lessons must be learned. Errors exposed. Names named. While the former is about the system being hands-off, the second requires it to be hands on.

Of course, it is not a simple either/or. There is a balance to be found between a tick-box approach that blinds professionals to the subtleties of individual cases and a laissez-faire model that sees vulnerable children slipping tragically through the net. Professor Munro reflects this tension when she points out that timescales for assessing children at risk were introduced because of legitimate concerns about "drift". But now, she claims there's "an over-preoccupation" with such targets.

In a way, this see-sawing between demands for tighter structural control followed by calls for greater professional autonomy sums up the last decade of child protection reforms. Lord Laming's landmark report into the death of 8-year-old Victoria Climbie in 2003 found "a gross failure of the system", bad practice and organizational malaise. New bureaucratic architecture was put in place.

Just four years later the nation was shocked by two cases of extreme abuse: Child B - a four-year-old little girl with cerebral palsy tortured by her parents and Baby P - the horrifying death of 17-month-old Peter Connolly. After both tragedies, questions were asked as to whether the system itself had become part of the problem: that the detailed protocols saw professionals going by the book rather than their gut.

Now, Lord Laming emphasises the need for "respectful uncertainty" and "critical mindsets". The government talks of "trusting professionals and removing bureaucracy".

The trouble is that sometimes trust will prove to be misplaced. Sometimes bureaucratic shortcoming will leave a child exposed. Sometimes, despite people's very best efforts, things will still go wrong.

So when that next tragedy hits the headlines, with the inevitable calls for "something to be done" to ensure "it never happens again", the question is whether the see-saw will simply tilt back to where it used to be.


  • Comment number 1.

    I heard your piece on R4.

    At the end of it I wondered what the point was.

    Had it been on farming you might as well have said "Will he lift his potato crop or leave it in the ground to rot? We might as well suppose he will harvest them as he usually does".

  • Comment number 2.

    Of course "trusting professionals and removing bureaucracy" is motherhood and apple pie but most SS depts are mired in a mind set to the opposite. People slip through the net in every caring organisation but when it is a child the reaction is multiplied. One sure thing is that in a dept seriously understaffed there will be real difficulties in handling the workload and the dividing line between vicious and virtuous spirals is very thin. Coalition cuts will directly or indirectly exacerbate the problems of social services in virtually every authority.

  • Comment number 3.

    " Lessons will be learned ", " Measures will be put in place " etc.
    Yet it continues to happen on a regular basis; I fail to remember a single social worker being sacked or appearing in court charged with neglect leading to the death of a child. With the exception of the lady in Harringay who may have supposedly lost her job, nobody in the social services is ever found to be culpable. The time is long past when laws need to be in place to make certain that these highly paid people who are given the responsibility are truly accountable in law and pay the penalty for the incompetence which leads to the death or otherwise of someone designated to be in their care. The excuses of overwork and work pressures, do not wash, if the job is too much for the incumbent , then remaining in post is tantamount to neglect and should be treated as such.

  • Comment number 4.

    The social workers present a good example of 'defensive practice' - coming up with tick boxes in a misguided attempt to dodge blame when something goes wrong, with no real evidence that what they are doing has any positive effect on reducing the risk that it will go wrong.

    They need to understand a simple point: allow a small child to be tortured to death over several months whilst dozens of highly paid professionals do nothing and you WILL be criticised.

    Ticking boxes won't save you!

  • Comment number 5.

    Just about the only comment that I've liked from Hilary Clinton is this one: It takes a village to raise a child." If we are not watching over children, our own and others, then we must share the guilt when something happens.
    Social workers need the freedom to respond to these village observations, and react accordingly. I agree that one-size simply cannot fit all.
    I'm not sure that the "tick box culture" is irrelevant. It is one way to keep the goals in sight, to keep the investigation relevant; that's not to say there may not be a better way, but if you think about free-flow reports would very likely take longer and not being uniform could actually make the system more complex.
    So when the boxes have been ticked off, the system should have the flexibility to allow more options - as seen by the social worker, and these justifications could be free-flow.
    Reducing forms may help; reducing procedure may help - but in the end there must be safeguards against false accusations and parental heartbreak.
    Guidance for social workers - 55 times longer than it was 40 years ago. Wow, this seems like social-worker creep and that's what these extra guidelines may be doing - making creeping social workers. Social workers, professionals, should get together, and reduce this creep.
    Government targets! You must be kidding. You should be happy when child abuse, etc. comes up at zero. I agree 100% that a Chief social worker should be appointed to work with the government, in the same way the chief medical officer does.
    He added that the government will respond to the report later this year. Like when? Is there something more important than the milieu of the village that is raising a child?

  • Comment number 6.

    "It takes a whole village to raise a child' was referred to by BluesBerry and this reflects the essence of the problem. Until our society genuinely believes its 'Everyone's Responsibility' to "Help our children learn to succeed (" we will continue to 'blame the parents, social workers or whoever we can. If the Scandinavian countries are studied, then a priority on early years development of the skills our childern need to succeed and be happy by the whole of society becomes clear and helping parents, carers, health workers etc. with this should be carefully monitored and supported by everyone from the birth of the child (if this is a 'nanny state' then I'd be delighted to be in one).

  • Comment number 7.

    Sheer genius…

    Following Professor Eileen Munro’s lead, I conducted my own straw poll. I asked my cleaner, gardener, builder, pool attendants, guys that wash my car, nanny and staff in my office the following simple question “What can I do to improve your working conditions?”

    Unsurprisingly they all replied “…pay me more, reduce my work load, everything does not have to be perfect and I should stop scrutinizing the work they do so much …”

    This exercise may only be anecdotal, much smaller scale and did not cost the UK tax payers anything like the amounts of Professor Eileen Munro’s review. But I got exactly the same response… In fact if you ask anyone what can be done to improve their working conditions they would all reply exactly the same.

    Unfortunately for Professor Eileen Munro, the possibility of reducing social workers work-loads and paying them more is not an option. Very alarming, what Professor Munro has suggested is to drastically reduce the scrutiny of the work they do and stipulate fewer guidelines... THIS IS DANGERIOUS, I sincerely hope Professor Eileen Munro is held accountable for all future disasters.

    What the UK media is clearly not fully aware of is the fact that it is not just Peter Connolly that sparked this review. In the past 12 months over 60 children know to social services have sadly died. Additionally during this same time several hundred serious case reviews which involved and or were instigated by OFSTED potentially save the lives of hundreds of children.

    Why did Professor Eileen Munro need to waste so much tax payers’ money, only to improve the working conditions of her peers and former students? Unfortunately for Eileen, she started this process as a professor at UCL, but now this report would suggest that she is merely a shop-steward for social workers…

    Very, very disapointing…

    Again, I sincerely hope Professor Eileen Munro is held accountable for all future disasters.

  • Comment number 8.

    The problem is that the response to incidents has always been "put more measures in place" which means more procedures, more rules, more departments and agencies - in other words, bureaucracy, partisan barriers between agencies (that are known not to share in any sensible way), extra layers of coordination. Tick boxes, procedures and rules are defensive. They allow a worker to ask "Have you followed the correct procedures?" "Yes." "Good, then we're covered."

    There's also the temptation to twist the problem (ie the fractured family) to fit a "standard" procedure.

    It never works - simply look at it: for all the measures put in place since the Social Services Act 1970, things have got worse. It needs Social Workers to be trained in collating evidence, making decisions in the knowledge they'll get complete support from their seniors in acting on those decisions. It needs judgement rather than procedures that are never as definitive and comprehensive as they portray themselves. And it needs fast lateral communication. If the Social Worker wants a doctor or police on the scene it should happen fast.

    As a profession, social work seems exceedingy difficult, needing a special quality of person, compassionate yet objective in emotionally distressing situations; having courage in the face of hostility, perhaps violence; having a quick eye for evidence and the ability to think on their feet; and a thoroughness in such documentation that is required - not checklists, reports. It is NOT a profession that responds to procedures.

    So this latest thinking (that seems to revert to that espoused by Seebohm in his papers supporing the 1970 Act) is not before time. It's going to be expensive to train and protect Social Workers properly but if we're to get serious, it's necessary.

  • Comment number 9.

    @2 "Of course "trusting professionals and removing bureaucracy" is motherhood and apple pie but most SS depts are mired in a mind set to the opposite. "

    Yeah, this is the sort of trust that has led to the wonderful examples of professionals taking dozens of kids from families who were apparently all in an occult thing in the shetlands or whereever...
    I've also seen the bruises from 'restraint' used by social services on kids when they get upset if a parent yells at a child...
    SS, used to be an acronym used elsewhere, it fits with most social services quite well.

  • Comment number 10.

    @3. At 11:17am 10th May 2011, kaybraes wrote:
    I concur with this, those in charge take huge pay packets to cover their 'responsibilities' and then skirt around and claim it wasn't their fault when things go wrong.

  • Comment number 11.

    I find it startling that social workers "judgement" is to be given greater prominence with less accountability. What other profession, in such a serious area of life, is given such power? How will this leave the courts, who ultimately make the decisions around a child's care, if the eventual finding of facts does not have a comprehensive audit trail of actions and decisions?

  • Comment number 12.

    If we as a society want to make the protection of children a priority, we need to have in place a well-resourced system of supports to all parents, specialist resources for struggling parents, experienced professionals armed not with lists and tick boxes but trained in child development and risk assessment, and a legal system that doesn't take years to decide whether a child should be permanently separated from abusive, dangerous parents and adopted. With the current government's strategy for managing this recent recession, we have as much chance of achieving the above as we have of colonising Mars.
    Over the last 15 years the funding and development of services to the elderly and criminal justice have increased, the childcare section of social services has been left to struggle on as best it can. The elderly have votes, and family who vote, a public worried about crime has votes, children don't. Politicians of all shades have connived at under-funding childcare services, secure in the knowledge that if anything goes badly wrong they have an easy scapegoat in the terrible, inefficient, bloated public sector. Since this is not the best strategy for retaining experienced staff - or indeed anyone at all who has any other job alternative whatsoever - in many areas, especially some of the London boroughs, childcare staffing consists of the young and inexperienced just off a training course, or a rapid turnover of temporary workers, some from overseas.
    Baby P and the other child murders are the result. Whether this review tinkers with the present system, or ends up merely issuing vague verbal platitudes, the truth is that effective child protection costs, and unfortunately it costs an awful lot more than what's being spent on it now. Maybe we should decide if we can really afford it.

  • Comment number 13.

    The dilemma that child-care social workers face is that they must choose between leaving a child in what might be a dangerous or nasty home, or taking the child into care.

    They need a middle option: taking the whole family into a supervised home for problem families. Yes it sounds hellish - but it beats ousting the breadwinner or having the kid taken into care both for the parents and for society. Foster care is very expensive and the end results are not very good.

    The hostel would have live-in wardens and video sureveillance where needed, and arrangements for a disruptive parent to sleep elsewhere in the building, and regular visits by care workers and counsellors organising parentcraft and group therapy and playschemes for the children. It would be costly, but problem families could be expected to contribute wherever possible. Once there is confidence that the family can cope in a normal home, they return there.

    I gather that such places are in use in Ireland. Why not here?

  • Comment number 14.

    5. At 13:31pm 10th May 2011, BluesBerry wrote:

    "...Just about the only comment that I've liked from Hilary Clinton is this one: It takes a village to raise a child." ..."


    Quite so BB. I think HC was quoting an African saying, appropriately.

    The question for me is, how, in an on-your-bike-price-yourself-into-a-job-remortgage-the-folks'-home-to-pay-for-their-care set up, do we preserve anything remotely resembling a village?

  • Comment number 15.

    I am very familiar with this tick box culture, I made a referral myself after becoming concerned about daughter who was showing signs of unexplained illness during contacts. The Child Protection Unit sent a form with boxes to tick to my daughters GP, who I had complained to the GMC after taking my wife of anti-depressants when she became pregnant which lead to a breakdown in our marriage. Despite my concerns that the GP was not objective they proceeded to follow protocol, the GP carried out the assessment by phoning my wife instead of seeing the child and merely filled in a box with comments relayed from my wife.
    It is worth adding that the same GP shared my medical records with my wife’s solicitors. The child protection unit then refused to carry out a detailed assessment, closing the referral without even speaking to me. I saw the report sent by the GP and it contained no mention of assessment of my daughter.
    Following this my daughter was hospitalised and required emergency care. I advised the unit of what happened and received a very aggressive phone call where they tried to shout me into accepting their adherence to protocol and how they had followed their procedures and that my daughter, though hospitalised and requiring emergency care was not considered to be under their responsibility.
    I can say with absolute certainty after months of obtaining medical records and making subject access requests that my daughter was put at risk by the tick box culture which exists in Child Protection units. The amount of effort that has since gone into defending there poorly judged decision versus the assessment is at least 100-1. I have the notes which are no longer than a sentence from the GP, which was the basis for the refusal. They refused to accept that the GP who is now under investigation by the GMC, the local primary care trust and the Information Commission might not be a legitimate source for refusal.

  • Comment number 16.

    This seems nothing more than arrant navel gazing. Looking at procedures in isolation and wondering whether one needs more or less tick boxes seems to miss the whole point.

    Has anybody thought to look at recruitment procedures, optimum skill sets in job applicants, training of staff and ongoing professional development, and management structures.

    From my experience the foot soldiers are invariably young, dedicated but credulous and lacking in an all round experience of life. Management, on the other hand, are the usual bunch of time serving local authority inadequates - proficient in that unique form of doublespeak that has no basis in the reality of ordinary peoples lives. They are one of life's born survivors who have no problem throwing junior staff to the wolf packs of the press in the name of self-preservation, proficient in the use of the metaphorical stiletto between the shoulder blades of less savvy colleagues, and seriously overpaid (yet unemployable in the private sector) - Haringey anyone.

    Change the profile of social work department's to include more front line staff who have actually lived a little, know of the ups and downs that life throws at us all, and have survived. Back this up with a mangement structure that is accountable, and doesn't hide behind that peculiar form of professional social work jargon designed to keep the rest of us off-balance and in the dark. May be then we'll have a social work profession fit for purpose.

  • Comment number 17.

    I do feel were a trying to achieve perfection when all we need to do is find something that works.

    The way the media go on about child abuse almost implies that it is the social workers who are doing it rather than the actual abusers. We have lost all objectivity. Bureaucratic superstructure is not going to protect a child as all it is designed for is to protect itself.

    A good social worker is worth their weight in gold and even then they will admit to not getting it right all the time. Poor work comes from social workers made insecure and lacking in confidence due to over-regulation and supervision. Of course, there have to be reports but these cannot substitute for the milk of human kindness, a careful, stern and caring assessement of a parent and a determination to achieve the right outcome.

    Social work is a profession. The role of professionals is to take instruction and give advice. They are not drones to follow orders. The bureaucrats need to butt out!

  • Comment number 18.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 19.

    To follow on from #5 bluesberry, and #6 supersocrates, it is sad to see a culture developing in the UK which is so sharp at identifying blame without ever touching upon responsibility. There are, and always have been, good and bad social workers, often wrapped up in the same human shell. Sometimes an important clue is missed which, had the event replayed on another day, would have been spotted. I am not sure how a tick box of any kind could help to solve such a conundrum. If we are serious about child protection, intervention of the separation kind will become ever more prevalent, as regular as it was in the "bad old days". And that costs which was, perhaps, why we threw it away in the first place.

    There are so many potential reasons why we have so many suffering children it is hard for me to criticise social workers without, at the same time, criticising everyone else including myself. It may make some people feel better to have a scapegoat around whenever a horror story emerges, but I am too sensitive for that to work for me. What on earth has happened to the 'unofficial' child detectives, those who have always kept a watchful eye just because they care, period? What on earth has happened to the 'grapevine', the 'sages', and the 'relief suppliers' who used to be ports in a storm when I was a child and young adult? Are we all now seriously alone in this world?

    We are reaping what we have sown and it is far too simplistic and too dishonest to shed our guilt and anger on yet another investigation into all our shortcomings. Eileen Munro has done what she was asked to do and it is our fault if she has done it wrong.


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