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Serious Case Reviews should not be published in full

Monday, January 25, 2010

It has been suggested that Serious Case Reviews should be published in full. I believe if this were implemented it would seriously harm the prospects of achieving what most people want; improvements in the wellbeing of children. I write not as a politician, though of course I am, but as someone who before becoming an MP had twenty years experience of social work starting as a social work assistant and finishing as an assistant director of children’s services. 


Serious Case Reviews are carried out following the death or serious injury of a child where abuse is confirmed or suspected. We need to find out what happened, and to make necessary changes to ensure that in the future children are kept safe. Reviews collate information from as many of those involved as possible family, neighbours, child minders, social workers, health professionals, teachers, police etc.


The reviews include detailed family histories from many agencies; health, education, social services and the police. They may contain information about terminations, domestic violence, financial affairs, allegations and rumours from family members and neighbours, none of which may turn out to be relevant when considering the actual incident that led to the review. But collating such information is crucial; it’s not possible to know which pieces of information are relevant beforehand. But all of it would be open to public inspection if published.


Could they be anonymised?

Although the argument is advanced that Serious Case reviews could be anonymised before publication, removing names etc, this would not be enough. Family members and neighbours would be well aware who a particular individual in the report was. It could lead to revenge attacks by family and friends upon those who they consider helped the authorities.


Or imagine that your teenage daughter has been sexually abused by the father of a school friend and is included in a Serious Case Review. How would you feel if your most intimate family details were included in a public document albeit anonymised? You may well reasonably fear that someone would guess who you were.


How much more difficult for your daughter, already struggling to come to terms with what happened. She could well believe that other children at her school knew, were able to read about her. One of the difficult aspects of child abuse for victims is the feeling of powerlessness, that somehow it is their own fault, that they should have done something. A published report including their personal details may perpetuate the feeling of powerlessness; and itself feel like abuse.


Certainly detailed information about sexual abuse contained in Serious Case Reviews would find its way onto the internet. Another place for paedophiles to feed their fantasies. 


Published in full?

So why are arguments advanced for all Serious Case Reviews to be published in full? All right thinking people want to see fewer children suffering abuse. They want professionals to learn the lessons from those cases that have gone wrong. Why, they ask, do some authorities turn up again and again as failing children? They believe that the summaries of Serious Case Reviews deliberately cover up failings identified in the full report.


These are all important issues and should and must be addressed. In my view there are two responses.


First we have to improve both the Serious Case Reviews and published summaries. Guidance from the Government is clear that an independent person should chair the panel that does the investigation. Both the full report and summary are submitted to Ofsted. Their role is crucial, both in assessing the adequacy of the initial report and in ensuring that the summary accurately reflects all the key aspects of the case, all the failings and a full list of appropriate recommendations.


If any report fails then it should be returned by Ofsted with an instruction that it be amended to address the failings. In fact if reports from a particular authority were regularly returned this itself should guide Ofsted as to where its own investigations should be directed. Ofsted report that the percentage of inadequate reviews they receive is falling. In December Government issued new guidance designed to improve the quality.


Second, we cannot protect children on the cheap. We have to ensure we employ properly trained and well resourced social workers, health visitors, GPs and other child care professionals. It is a longer and more difficult task and one that all governments have failed to adequately address since at least the death of Maria Colwell in the 1970s. The social work taskforce has recently reported and its recommendations need putting in to practice as a matter of urgency.


But what will happen if Serious Case Reviews are published in full? I know that every social worker imagines the possibility of finding a child dead. They never forget what they saw, what they felt, at that moment. Why should the surviving siblings and other family members have to suffer again knowing that anyone can read these most terrible events? What purpose could ever be served by making these details public?


I know that were I still a social worker I would be much more wary about promising personal confidentiality to those giving me information. And if I were writing part of a review I would change the way I wrote it. It would be less likely to be severely critical of professional staff, and I might well censor some of the information that I felt should not be in the public domain. I’m sure that professionals, family members, neighbours etc would be more guarded. The review would be less full and therefore less effective.


This issue should not be a party political football. I know that there will always be room for improvement in the child protection system. Governments of all political persuasion should be prepared to listen seriously to suggestions and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses.


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