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