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Child Protection when it goes wrong

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The following article was published on the website of Progress



The tragic death of Baby P and the sexual abuse suffered by two girls for years from their father again raises the question ‘how did the authorities let this happen?’ There are now reviews into these cases and at this point we do not know the full facts, but the failures so far highlighted seem incredible.


Unfortunately we have been here before. Previous reviews of child protection failures have identified the same mistakes on the part of the professionals involved, whether social workers, health workers, teachers or police. We have to ask why the lessons identified so many times before have not become part of standard operating procedure in child protection cases.


In my previous job as a child care manager I regularly interviewed for social work and managerial vacancies. One of the exercises I set would be a case study which would have incorporated key indicators that should raise serious concerns in practitioners in child protection. Unfortunately, I found the majority of those taking the exercise failed to identify all these indicators, or their importance. They failed to pick-up on the signs that can suggest something is wrong and needs further investigation.


I was concerned then, and remain concerned, that we have child protection professionals who do not learn the lessons from case reviews into those occasions when child protection fails. I know child protection is not easy, it’s making judgements and managing risk and there are few easy answers. But case reviews into when things go wrong are vital for all involved in child protection, everyone can learn more from studying past mistakes.


We know that children thrive when all their needs are met, emotional as well as physical. Removing a child, either temporarily or permanently, from their birth parent is a serious step. It brings into question the fundamental right of families to enjoy family life as they choose but also has a dramatic effect on the child’s emotional well being.


Research into adoption tells us that all adopted children and adults have to address the question of why they were adopted. Even those who were given up freely by birth parents can suffer feelings of rejection and damaged self esteem. Children removed from parents through the care system and placed with permanent adoptive families often have significant problems.


But it isn’t just the burden of making the right decision about a child’s future. Overworked poorly resourced social services do make it much more difficult. A problem may not be identified, a social worker with too many cases may not have the time to properly assess the situation, and mistakes are made.


So how do we do better in preventing these tragedies? Over the years there have been lots of structural change in child protection, and a new approach to the needs of children with the “Every Child Matters” agenda., which focuses on organisations involved with providing services to children sharing information and working together, to protect children and young people from harm and help them achieve what they want in life. Some of these changes have been helpful, bringing the different professionals involved together more often and emphasising the need to share information for instance.


But children will only be safe if we have well trained child care professionals who understand the risks, and who take the right action when they are confronted with them. They, in turn, need managers who understand what is required, who check their work regularly and ensure that the right information is collected and thorough assessments made.


Also required are robust and thorough inspection systems, both internal and external, to validate that the individual understand the risks and what is required. For instance, it’s perfectly possible at present for social workers to go years without anyone from the inspection system looking at their work.


To achieve this we must demand higher and more rigorous standards of training, better continuous professional development and proper management training for those managing the child protection system. Compared to other professions social workers are few in number, they have not been given the same kind of attention as other professions.


Finally the Department of Children Schools and Families have to ensure that they properly collate the lessons from all Serious Case Reviews, and disseminate the findings to the professionals involved in child protection. In addition they should actively seek out good practice, so staff can learn from what works.


When child protection goes wrong it all too readily can result in tragedy. The resulting press storm can leave onlookers with the impression that the whole child protection system is failing, this is not so. For the most part, children are protected and helped to have better lives because of the hard work and dedication of a range of professionals who do a difficult job well. When discussing the cases which go wrong we shouldn’t lose sight of the thousands that went well.


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