Make child protection 'less tick-box'
Child protection should be less about red tape, targets and form-filling and more about looking after the child, an official report says.
Professor Eileen Munro says bureaucracy is preventing social workers from doing the job they have trained for.
And she stresses the importance of having a range of services based in the community to help keep children safe.
She was asked to review England's child protection system by the government.
In her interim report, Prof Munro says regulations, inspections and procedures have thrown the system out of balance.
She says: "Too often questions are asked if rules and procedures have been met but not whether this has helped children.
"Everyone in the profession can think of meetings and forms that don't actually make a child safer.
"Whilst some regulation is needed, we need to reduce it to a small, manageable size."
There was an increase in the amount of form-filling required of social workers in the wake of the Lord Laming's report into the tragic death of Victoria Climbie.
Some say the unintended consequences of this was that too much time is spent completing forms and meeting targets, and not enough with children and their families.
Prof Munro also says that too much time is being spent preparing for inspections and meeting the requirements of Ofsted inspectors.
She adds: "Professionals should be spending more time with children, asking how they feel, whether they understand why the social worker is involved in their family, and finding out what they want to happen."
Having a formal time scale for form-filling can distract the social worker from making the right decision, she says.
"We now have more knowledge about the kind of parenting that really harms children.
"Assessments should be skilled enough to distinguish between the families most in need and the parents who are struggling and just need a bit of help, possibly not from social workers," she adds.
She also stressed the need for closer working in multi-disciplinary teams in the community
In some areas this could mean social workers sitting next to police officers or it may just mean creating clearer lines of contact.
Families who simply need help and advice are often referred to social services unnecessarily, leading to a whole raft of paperwork and procedures, when perhaps an informal conversation may be all that is needed.
Not only does this create unnecessary work, the family can often end up falling through the cracks in the system and not getting the lower level of help that they do need.
But she also wants to see more effective working between agencies when there is an serious issue which requires social worker involvement. It is hoped that cutting unnecessary bureaucracy will help with this.
Prof Munro also wants to see the volume of statutory guidance reduced so it is clear what is a strict rule and what is just guidance.
The Education Secretary is considering using his powers to grant five local authorities temporary suspension of certain aspects of statutory guidance, subject to conditions as a trial.
Social workers in Cumbria, Knowsley, Westminster, Hackney and Gateshead would be able to complete certain assessments and hold child protection conferences within timescales that they think would best meet children's needs.
The trials would be rigorously monitored to ensure the safety and welfare of children and to minimise delays, the Department for Education added.
Children's Minister Tim Loughton said Professor Munro had identified areas where professionals' time is being wasted and children's needs are not being properly identified.
"I welcome her approach to getting help to the neediest children and families as early as possible, and recognising that child protection is not just the responsibility of social workers."
Prof Munro also wants Serious Case Reviews, which are the inquiries held into the death or serious injury of abused or neglected children, to be evaluated by a national team of experts - rather than Ofsted.
She also recommends that children's services departments should no longer get warning of Ofsted inspections.
Ofsted said it welcomed the opportunity to further improve the inspection process and that it looked forward to the extension and development of unannounced inspections.
It added that it agreed that its work evaluating serious case reviews should end.
"Ofsted supports the review' s proposals for how SCRs are likely to be approached in the future to maximise learning and improve practice," it added.
Prof Munro is also considering whether there needs to be a national panel of experts from a range of backgrounds to advise the government
Prof Munro was asked by Education Secretary Michael Gove to review England's child protection system.
He specifically asked her to look at how interaction between social work teams and those working with children could be improved and how barriers to good practice could be overcome.
She was also asked to look at how bureaucracy and how targets have got in the way of effective working.
Labour's Shadow Children's Minister Toby Perkins MP said he welcomed Prof Munro's work to identify any administrative barriers to protecting children.
"However we have real concerns that the more integrated approach that she is attempting to identify will be undermined by the massive level of spending cuts currently being imposed on many of the leading contributors to child safety."