Education & Family

Analysis: Less heat, more light on child protection

Boy sitting on stairs (model)
Image caption It is not possible to prevent every tragedy, says report author Professor Munro

Professor Munro's report on child protection was written in what might be described as the calm after the storm.

The storm was the outcry that followed the tragic death of Baby Peter. It has left the social work profession, in particular, feeling battered and misunderstood, at the same time as they are dealing with an increasing number of cases.

When the brutal details of what happened to 17-month-old Peter Connelly made headlines, the immediate reaction was to point the finger of blame at the professionals who allowed him to return to an abusive home.

They included doctors and police, but social workers bore the force of anger.

Cultural change

The report argues that knee-jerk responses to past tragedies have led to a defensive child protection system that tries to prevent mistakes by setting performance indicators and procedures for what needs to happen.

There's little doubt it was well intentioned, but somewhere along the line, the focus on the child who needs help has been lost.

The Conservatives promised an inquiry into child protection as part of their response to the Baby Peter case more than two years ago. When the coalition came to power last year it got underway.

By then there was less heat, more light.

Some of the problems facing the social work profession in particular had become clear - too much time taken up with form filling, a shortage of front-line staff and increasing caseloads.

Image caption Prof Munro wants social workers to spend more time with children

Professor Munro, already a respected child protection expert based at the London School of Economics, has tried to carry people with her by getting views at all stages in the review, listening to children as well as to the professionals.

She emphasises that child protection will always be a complex, difficult job and that it is not possible to prevent every tragedy.

Instead she believes problems need to be spotted early and then learnt from.

It is a cultural change that will take time and that relies on the expertise of those on the front-line.

The report says the current career structure moves the most experienced staff into management away from the front-line.

Others have moved out of child protection because of stress and staff shortages. Some have left complaining they spend more time at the computer filling in forms, than they do with families.

Tough decisions

Professor Munro is hoping her reforms will encourage some of them to bring their experience and expertise back into child protection.

Many of the child protection professionals I have spoken to welcome this re-balancing of the system, but they are worried by the context in which is is happening.

Local authorities are strapped for cash. They are making tough decisions about where to put the money they do have.

There is re-organisation in the health service, change in the education system and the economic situation is putting families under more pressure.

It all raises the stakes and makes it that bit harder to reach the most vulnerable children and give them the help and protection they need.

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