Protecting Our Children

The Observer had this editorial this morning: For our children’s sake the social worker’s role must be reinvented.

I’m an enthusiast for what I read from Brigid Featherstone, and have more than a passing interest in what Participle are doing, but the Observer editorial – regrettably – reads like a conviction-free grab-bag of “stuff we like the sound of” rather than a well informed statement about what could improve social work. And the sub-heading on the editorial is one of the most pointless, knowledge-free statements I’ve seen for some time.

So, what might a sensible commentary about Child Protection look like?

Well, for starters, it might acknowledge the far greater number of children who would lose their lives at the hands of their parents if we weren’t already, right across the country, engaged in very high quality child protection work on a significant scale.

A sensible commentary would take a strengths-based approach, articulating and then building on what we already do well.

A sensible commentary would acknowledge that it is not just “child protection teams” or children’s social workers that keep children safe. It would be knowledgeable about ‘front door’ teams, long term teams, looked after children teams, care leaver teams, family placement teams, family support teams, family intervention projects and others and would understand that although there is a core set of skills and tasks across these teams they are differentiated for a reason, in order to best meet need. A sensible commentary would reflect on the role of the wider children & family workforce. It would mention youth services, schools, education welfare services, education psychology services, special schools (particularly BESD special schools), pupil referral units. It would acknowledge the role of midwifery, health visiting, school nursing, GPs, community policing, AND the specialist adult services that link so strongly to child protection issues, such as learning disability services, mental health services, alcohol and substance misuse services and domestic abuse services. A sensible commentary would remember that for families to enjoy well being they need a stable home, decent living conditions, neighbours who don’t make their lives hell. It would acknowledge that sometimes families who are a risk to their children ARE the ones who are making their neighbours lives hell and it would therefore include tenant enforcement services among the roles which also have a child protection duty.

A sensible commentary would recognise that unless we are willing to fund, resource and train staff in child protection teams at a scale which replaces all the specialist services above AND enables them to undertake child protection work up to and including court work, then we don’t actually want child protection teams to dilute their work by becoming proactive in the early intervention arena. A sensible commentary might recognise the number of occasions where local authorities have tried to spread their CP workforce too thinly across a broader ‘proactive’ terrain and have been found to be inadequate in child protection as a result. What we need is for those who are already skilled in early intervention to clearly recognise when issues are escalating and where specialist CP interventions are required and to have the professional confidence to make a referral which is pursued with energy and conviction. A sensible commentary might have something to say about CAF. And about the fact that early intervention work is not statutory and therefore funding is being cut. Because funding must be cut somewhere. And that this increases pressure on an already beleaguered system.

A sensible commentary would acknowledge that the pressures on this wider system are increasing, for three reasons – because the pressures on families at risk are increasing, because funding to these services is reducing, and because the atmosphere around this work makes it less and less bearable environment to work in for people who can find less stressful alternatives.

A sensible commentary would ponder on what appears to be the outcome of serious case reviews: that SCRs persist in making the same recommendations, but these recommendations are either not implemented or are (more likely) implemented patchily in practice. It would ask itself why that is so? Would it conclude that social workers and others are bad? Lazy? Don’t care about children? Or might a more reflective evaluation find that adherence to complicated processes and procedures can require certain environmental conditions to be met. (Colleagues to be available when you need them, systems to be working when you need them, funding to be allocated when you need it, managers to listen, and listen and listen again. Sometimes what the system needs is something as simple as the worker not to be tired).

A sensible commentary would recognise that the solutions to problems of human relationships do not lie in systems or processes, in “technical solutions” or “innovative delivery structures”, in “scaling up” things that work in one place so that they can become startlingly ineffective in a different place. Human systems need to be nurtured as human beings do. Children will do well and families will do well in communities which are in themselves safe, healthy and happy and generously engaged in modelling, reflecting and growing that health and happiness. Does that sound like a community near you? No. Me neither.

Child protection work needs commitment, stability, investment and time. At an individual level, a local community level, a local government level and a national government level.

Until I see those factors mentioned in an editorial, my hopes for the future are low.