Congratulations to Nicky Morgan and David Cameron for their new £100m commitment to improving social care with a mission to attract high quality graduates to the profession, training them through the Frontline and Step Up programmes. There is also going to be a new regulatory body to hold people to account in the same way that doctors and lawyers are. All in the interests of preventing future suffering by the likes of Baby P.
We neglect the nation’s children at our peril, so it is sad to see that, according to a recent Ofsted report, there has been a 60% increase in the number of children who died as a result of neglect or abuse in 2014-15, with 56 confirmed cases compared with 35 in 2013-14. That’s more than one a week, and excludes any medical mishaps.
The report also revealed a 14 per cent increase in the number of local authorities reporting incidents in which a child died or was seriously harmed directly as a result of ‘suspected abuse’.
The number of serious case reviews rose from 143 to 166 in 2014-15, a 16% increase. An Ofsted spokesman confirmed that decisions to investigate rest with local Safeguarding Boards ‘to find out if lessons can be learnt’.
The news prompted critics to comment that local authority children’s services are getting worse at managing risk, with most ‘dysfunctional’, yet Ofsted is refusing to publish an analysis of the deaths which would surely aid future monitoring. Instead, it says that “if inspectors have concerns that children may be at risk, they immediately highlight this with the local authority and Department for Education.”
To any ‘ordinary’ person, this sounds like complacency; the ‘we know best’ culture which permeates the public sector and prevents change, despite more children’s departments thought to be inadequate than good, with one in 4 likely to be taken over by high performing services or charities unless they improve. Interventions are already targeted at Norfolk, Sunderland and Sandwell.
So what’s to be done?
We are already awash with reports and safeguarding guidance, with an ever-expanding number of people with ‘responsibility’, from school governors and teachers, to medics and police officers, and anyone volunteering to work with children through sport, drama, music and the arts, as well as professional social workers. Yet still, you can’t open a newspaper without seeing reports of some dreadful violation of a child or its murder. Inevitably, some incidents are totally unexpected, with no-one in authority ever having an inkling that anything is amiss – which means that nosy neighbours and interfering colleagues do have a role after all; they are the eyes and ears of prevention, since most abuse takes place behind closed doors within families.
Better safe than sorry is a mantra we could all do well to remember. Concerns from anyone can be reported confidentially, avoiding embarrassment or potential harassment; malicious reports are thankfully rare.
However, one of the biggest criticisms arises from failure to act when issues are brought to the attention of relevant authorities, with a lack of focus, and too many different people and organisations involved in determining how to proceed.
Consequently, there is a strong argument for a lead professional to collect all relevant information/advice, rather than for it to be devolved to a number of people; justification for future actions would then be carefully recorded, together with all the relevant evidence to support any interventions, or the lack of action. Someone would be accountable – something which doesn’t appear to happen judging from published case reviews. The new regulatory body is, therefore, especially welcome.
Also what about those ‘lessons to be learnt’ from Safeguarding Boards’ investigations? How are they shared? At the moment, it appears that it is only newspaper columnists who raise awareness of the poorest outcomes through their own research.
Given Ofsted’s latest evidence, little changes year on year, except, it seems, to get worse.
Lessons can only be learnt if people change the way they work, to recognise previous failings – wherever they happened – and how they can be remedied. It’s all very well to hold conferences, distribute training manuals and provide ever more data, but this methodology tends to be in one ear and out the other, simply because of the pressures everyone faces. No-one quarrels with the fact that social work is a difficult, and sometimes impossible, job, but it is a vital one.
Perhaps Safeguarding Boards could invite those involved in serious case reviews from other areas – and at all levels, including junior social workers, teachers and police, as well as victims’ families – to share what happened, or didn’t happen, from their own perspectives. Such engagement sticks in the mind, helping everyone likely to be faced with similar situations in future.
Blame may already have been apportioned to some extent, so it’s important to understand where the gaps were: communication and how that can be improved; better staff mentoring, management and decision-making; the need for sympathetic understanding of carers in crisis, who may be pushed over the edge, rather than to be dismissive of their fears.
Perhaps this would give those in charge the confidence to make better decisions, putting the child’s safety above all else. If a child is taken into care, a decision which may subsequently be revised, that is preferable to leaving a child to suffer and die at the hands of those who are supposed to love and cherish it. In such cases, the child is then also firmly on the radar in the event of future concerns demanding action, and there is a chance to build relationships with its family, to identify and avert potential problems.
Few people are really bad, deliberately planning harm, but drink, drugs, unemployment, relationship breakdown, or illness can all contribute to a mental state prompting someone to damage another person, usually someone close to them, in the heat of the moment or even by accident.
Recruiting another 1,000 social workers, focused on children and families, by 2020 will be a challenge, but Frontline have already proved that they have a high success rate through their quality training, which emphasises leadership qualities; people who liaise with the courts and other professionals, whilst inculcating a passion always to do the best for those children who desperately need their very special skills.