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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Child protection and child abuse

Friday, December 19, 2008

During the Christmas Adjournment debate in the House of Commons Meg gave the following speech.


I am delighted to take this opportunity to speak in the recess Adjournment debate. I intend to deal with the issue that was just raised by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who speaks for the Opposition on children’s issues, but is no longer in his place. I want to talk about child protection, the tragic death of baby P and other child abuse cases. How could this have possibly happened?


Today I do not want to concentrate on individual cases but to talk more generally about the issues and concerns. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham was right to say that the issue goes very wide and is enormously important. There are a great many aspects to the issue and I am sure that in the time available I will not be able to do justice to all of them, but I want to take this opportunity to debate some of the complexities in more detail. Before I was elected to this place, I was employed in social work for almost 20 years and spent a great deal of that time on child protection, ending up as the Assistant Director of Children’s Services in York.


We must all be concerned that previous reviews of child protection failures have identified the same or similar mistakes on the part of the professionals involved, whether social workers, health workers, teachers or police officers. We have to ask why the lessons that were identified so many times have not become part of the standard operating procedure in child protection cases.


We also need to understand in much more detail the pressures that make it difficult for even the best and highly competent social workers to operate effectively. What do we ask when we look at child protection? What decisions do we ask front-line workers from across agencies to make?


We know that children thrive best when all their needs are met, whether emotional or physical, so removing a child temporarily or permanently from their birth family is an extremely serious step. It brings into question the fundamental rights of families to enjoy family life as they choose. It also has a drastic effect on the child’s emotional well-being.


Research into adoption tells us that all adopted children and, indeed, adults have to address for themselves why they were adopted. Even those who were given up freely by their birth parents can suffer feelings of rejection and damaged self-esteem. Those children who are removed from their parents, go through the care system and are placed with permanent adoptive families often have significant problems. Social workers thus have to assess the risk to children—the risk of significant harm if the child stays with its own family, but also the risks of removal and placement with another family.


Of course we see children who are removed from home for a short while and placed with foster parents while social workers work to improve the abilities of the family to care for the child. They may look at the fundamental issues of how they care for the child—parenting skills—but they may also address the drug and alcohol dependency issues which, if they were not there, would mean that the parents could care for their own child or children. There may be a trialled return home, which we hope succeeds.


If it does not, there may be a further period in care and the child may ultimately be placed for adoption. Throughout the process, extremely difficult questions are involved in weighing up whether it is better to get the child back home with its family or to find it an alternative family for life. There are emotional implications for children and their security, but when a child’s birth family has complex problems there are no easy answers.


What is good enough parenting? When is it right to take the drastic step of finding an alternative family for a child? In cases such as that of baby P where there is horrendous abuse, we quickly come to the judgment that the point has long since been passed when that decision should have been made. In many situations, however, the decision is not easy.


For social workers, the burden is not just that they are in a situation where they have to try to make the best decision about a child’s future; our social services are overworked and poorly resourced, which makes things more difficult. A problem may not be identified because the social worker has too many cases and does not have time to assess the situation properly, so mistakes are made. I have been looking at some of the social work blogs, which are a way of finding out what people are thinking that was not possible a few years ago. Social workers say that they go to bed worrying about the children they are responsible for, because they do not have time to do all the tasks they should undertake. I remember that feeling well.


With some families, social workers are taking significant personal risks. I remember social workers visiting a house and finding firearms. It is not unusual for social workers to be threatened, but even in those circumstances they have to continue to try to focus on the child and make the best decision. They may come across new challenges that were not so prevalent when they trained. When I started in social work drug abuse was uncommon, but now it is a regular feature of the difficulties families face.


Is it possible to prevent child deaths? Yes, but not all of them. There will always be cases that could not have been foreseen. We must recognise the element of risk, which inevitably means that sometimes things will go wrong despite the best efforts of all concerned.


Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Does the hon. Lady agree that a key way of ensuring that problems do not happen again, whether they relate to social services or even the probation service, is to make public the internal inquiries that take place after something has gone horribly wrong? People could then see what went wrong and what is being put in place to ensure that it does not happen again.


Meg Munn: As the hon. Gentleman knows, that is a difficult question because there are confidentiality issues for particular families. It is enormously important that such reviews are carried out properly and in a way that makes the circumstances public, but they must not become witch hunts for particular social workers. Furthermore, people must be able to learn from them and I have some suggestions about how we can do that better.


Over the years there has been much structural change in child protection and a new approach to the needs of children through the ‘Every Child Matters’ agenda, which focuses on organisations involved in providing services to children, sharing information and working together to protect children and young people from harm and to help them achieve what they want in life. Some of those changes have been profoundly helpful— for instance, by bringing the different professionals involved together more often and emphasising the need to share information. I was pleased that the Government recently announced a co-location fund to bring health, education and children’s services together under one roof to facilitate those processes. From my experience, I know that when people get to know other professionals well and develop a daily working relationship with them, they are much more likely to be effective and to share information and achieve what they are trying to do.


Of course, at the heart of the matter is a fundamental issue about knowledge and skills. There has been insufficient rigour in ensuring that all professionals involved in child protection learn the lessons from case reviews and inquiries. Case reviews are vital for all involved in child protection—everyone can learn more from studying past mistakes—but we also need robust and thorough inspection systems, both internal and external, to ensure that child care staff understand the risks and what is required to address them.


We must demand higher and more rigorous standards of training, better continuous professional development and proper training for those who manage the child protection system. Compared to other professionals, such as doctors, teachers or nurses, social workers are few in number and their profession has not been given the same kind of attention as others. For years, the career structure has been debated to address how those with most experience can remain in front-line work. Some local authorities have done that more successfully than others, but too often the most experienced people are in management positions and not necessarily on the front line, where the skill, knowledge and experience needed to deal with difficult situations are sorely required. I therefore welcome the establishment by the Government of the social work taskforce. It will begin work in the New Year and will address those and other issues.


All front-line staff need managers who understand what is required, who check their work regularly and ensure that the right information is collected and that thorough assessments are made. We must not forget that such work puts a strain on the well-being of social work staff so we need to ensure that it does not overwhelm otherwise competent, dedicated and skilled staff. Day in, day out, dealing with difficult families and difficult circumstances is very demanding. Social workers rarely receive recognition when things go right, and the negative press about tragic cases has an impact on their morale and, ultimately, on people’s desire to do that difficult and demanding work. We need to ensure that social workers are properly supported in their tasks and also properly remunerated.


I shall touch briefly on paperwork, because there is a tendency to view the recording of information as bureaucratic and unnecessary. This is where I feel that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who speaks for the Opposition on these matters, has got it wrong. I do not in any way feel that his intentions are bad—I too believe that we need to be vigilant about unnecessary bureaucracy—but accurate recording and robust management information are at the core of child protection.

Indicators of likely future harm are best identified from past behaviour, so co-ordinating information and accurately recording visits and contacts, with proper analysis, are crucial. Supervision notes must be kept so that it is clear that social workers are receiving appropriate advice, and decisions must be recorded on files.


That is essential for good practice and ensures that children have continuity of protection even in the absence of their allocated social worker or in the event that they move to a different authority. Many such families move around regularly and one of the danger points in child protection is when they move from one authority, which may have been working extremely hard with them, to another, which may not pick up the significance of various issues in the family.


I have concentrated primarily on the role of social workers, but other professionals have a vital role to play and must be involved. Working together across professions to monitor children, using all the information about health, child development and education, is essential.


I turn briefly to the prosecution of those who have harmed children. As we can see from the baby P case, we have moved forward. We saw the benefit of legislation that came in only a few years ago to ensure that everyone in a household could be held responsible for the death of a child even if it was impossible to identify who exactly had killed the child. However, I am concerned about the length of time that such cases take. It is obviously essential that nothing impedes legal processes and the conduct of a fair trial, but what about the children?


The serious case review on baby P was produced 15 months after he was killed, at the end of the court case, so for 15 months issues in Haringey were not fully addressed. I urge the Government to consider how more speedy reviews can be undertaken and how action can be taken to address failings and improve services, without the need to wait until the end of a court case. If we do not do that, we are failing children.


A number of people have called for a public inquiry into the case of baby P. Public inquiries are long, complicated and expensive. I believe it is unlikely that such an inquiry would uncover new lessons to learn, beyond those that previous inquiries have discovered or beyond that which the serious case review will uncover. So what would be the purpose of such a public inquiry at this point? The priority, in my view, needs to be to ensure that all those who work with children are properly trained and put that learning into practice.


The Government have taken a number of steps to address child protection concerns, some of which I have already referred to. The management of children’s services has rightly been raised. The Government propose that Children’s Services Directors should have both education and social work experience. I am concerned about how that will be achieved. Although experience of child protection matters can be gained by staff whose previous career was in education, I am not sure whether the depth of knowledge required can be achieved easily. The Government should consider making each local authority have a senior manager with the required experience designated as having overall responsibility for child protection issues. That may be the Director, if
suitably qualified, but if the Director has not got that depth of experience, it should be a second-tier manager.


The Department for Children, Schools and Families must ensure that it properly collates the lessons from all serious case reviews. My response to the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is that bringing together information from reviews across the country is enormously important; in that way, we identify trends and understand the issues faced by social workers.


Today, I received an answer to a parliamentary question about the number of children who have been the subject of serious case reviews who have died from ingesting methadone. I have had that concern for a number of years, having quite by chance discovered other local authorities, as well as the one in which I was working at the time, where that had happened. The Department does not know the answer. That is not good enough; it needs to collate the information to look at issues that are perhaps not being identified, so that social workers can do their jobs and policy and practice can respond. In addition, I believe it is fundamental that the Government ensure that research on good practice is disseminated, as well as that on failings, so that staff can learn from what works, as well as from what goes wrong.


When child protection goes wrong, it can all too readily result in tragedy. The resulting press storm can leave onlookers with the impression that the whole child protection system is failing, which is not so. For the most part, children are protected and helped to have better lives. 

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