Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Homeless young people are at risk of sexual exploitation

Any strategy to try to prevent child sexual exploitation must involve measures to ensure that homeless teenagers are given help to find safe and secure accommodation. Young people on the streets are obvious targets for criminals who are prepared to exploit them, either sexually or in other ways.

So it is particularly shocking to read in the Independent allegations that, if true, appear to indicate some local authorities are comprehensively failing in their legal duty to provide help and assistance to children who have run away from home. A spokesperson for the charity Coram Voice is reported as saying that some councils refuse to help and just tell children to go back to families from which they have fled, often because of violence and abuse.

I wonder what the point is in having complex inquiries into child sexual exploitation if we are failing to take simple basic steps to make children and young people safe. Leaving young people on the streets is little short of reckless and the solution to the problem of their homelessness is fairly straightforward – provide suitable accommodation.

Monday, 15 December 2014

The Needs of Looked After Children

Two important facts can be found in the recently published Outcomes for Children Looked After by Local Authoritiesin England as at 31 March 2014.

These are:
  • Two thirds of looked after children have a Special Educational Need
  • Only half of looked after children have emotional and behavioural health that is considered normal
Sometimes policy makers seem to forget that children who are looked after have usually had some very stressful experiences that are likely to have disrupted their lives significantly. Sixty two percent of looked after children are in care because of abuse and neglect and many of these children will be suffering the consequences of trauma. So it is no wonder that they have special educational and health requirements.

It is often insufficient simply to re-home children in the hope that a loving adopted or foster family will compensate for what has happened in the past. While such love and care is vitally important it often needs to be supplemented by additional resources and specialist expertise. In an era of cuts followed by more cuts these might seem to be hard to find, but they are absolutely essential if children and young people are to be given the chance of overcoming adverse early experiences.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

The Dangers of Bureaucracy

There is a report of a case in The Australian concerning a two year-old New South Wales child called “Peanut” (a nickname) who died at home as a result of physical abuse.

Some striking facts are revealed by this report:
  • Members of child protection staff spent more than 40 hours recording decisions to take little or no action in this case in their computer system
  • Despite fifteen separate referrals, only four hours were spent talking to the family, mostly by phone
  • What is described as a “new prioritising regime” resulted in the child being misclassified as being a low priority case
Child protection workers in Britain will recognise familiar themes here. The Integrated Children’s System based on the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need was made the basis for local authorities’ computerised child protection recording systems. It proved time-consuming and difficult to use. Information was difficult to enter and difficult to retrieve. The system was widely criticised.
Research by Broadhurst et al provides an insight into how these “… faulty design elements at the front-door of children’s local authority services…” actually have the opposite to the intended effects. They do not make children safer and they distract workers from interacting with the family by introducing new and unwelcome bureaucratic tasks.

Some may believe that we have moved on in the last few years. But I see little evidence that the kind of bureaucratic thinking that underpins systems like ICS, and its counterparts in other parts of the world, has been replaced with approaches that are actually supportive of practice. Complex decisions cannot be made by algorithms, but by experienced and knowledgeable workers. Good situation awareness is not achieved by simply having more information, but by having the right information. Effective communication does not come from completing fields in a database; it comes from interacting with other people and understanding what they say.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Combined Authorities provide an opportunity for child protection

There is currently a big push in England to create ‘city regions’ based on ‘combined authorities’ -

The idea is to confer on some of the big urban areas – e.g. Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire etc. - devolved powers similar to those that apply already in Greater London. Strategic planning, transport and environmental protection are some of the areas in which the advantages of combination are recognised by many.

As in London this would result in a two-tier structure with ‘boroughs’ or ‘districts’ still existing within a single strategic framework.  

I think that child protection should also feature in discussions about the formation of combined authorities. A single Local Safeguarding Children Board and a single approach to procedures and training for the whole combined authority area seem sensible. Much greater co-operation between individual children’s services departments would then become possible.

One of the lessons that emerged from the Victoria ClimbiĆ© inquiry was that the relationship between hospitals and social workers was complicated because hospitals had to accommodate different procedures and working practices of different boroughs’ children’s services whose residents used the hospitals. There is absolutely no reason why this sort of unnecessary complication should be tolerated.

Ideally I would like to see arrangements in which child protection work (especially emergency work) can be easily passed between boroughs/districts within the combined authority. That is yet to happen to any great extent in London, but in my view should be a strategic objective of the Department for Education to achieve.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Looked after children. Demand: UP, UP AND … UP. Resources: also up ... but not by so much

A report from the National Audit Office (NAO) appears to have answered, in part at least, a question I’ve been asking myself for some time. What has happened to resources as demand for places in care has increased?

The report reveals that the number of children who were looked after in England rose to its highest level for 25 years in March 2013, when 68,110 children were in care. That’s a whopping 14% increase since 2008. 

The report also says that spending on foster and residential care increased by 3% in real terms between 2010-11 and 2012-13  while the number of children in care
rose from 65,510 in 2010-11, to 68,110 in 2012-13, an annual increase of 4%. 

So demand seems to be outstripping resources.

The NAO goes on to say that there is "a lack of understanding of which particular factors contribute towards the costs of care". It also says that the Department for Education (DfE) “… which holds local authorities to account for delivery of these services, does not have indicators by which it measures the effectiveness of the care system.”

Yes, you did read that correctly! The DfE doesn’t appear to understand the costs of looking after children or how effective the process is!! 

[Please note this is an amended version of the original post, which gave a misleading impression of the extent to which demand seems to be outstripping resources]. 

CP-IS - the dangers of slow roll-out

I am a fan of the CP-IS information IT system for child protection. It is designed to ensure that members of NHS staff (e.g. in Accident and Emergency Departments) are alerted if a child is subject to a child protection plan or is in the care of the local authority.

I was very much enthused by recent reports that it is now being rolled out. However, following up on those reports I have discovered some not so good news – the roll out is scheduled to take quite a long time and doesn’t seem to include Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland! Even by 2018 it is anticipated that only 80% of NHS sites in England will be integrated into the system.

Given the rapid speed at which many IT projects progress, I can’t understand why what seems to be a straightforward piece of work is taking so long. Is the project under-funded or are local authorities dragging their feet in supplying the data? We are not told.

The report of project progress also draws attention to a danger associated with the slow progressive implementation, namely that NHS staff may wrongly presume that data is being shared in their area when it is not.

That must not be allowed to happen. Wrongly thinking that a risk does not exist is much worse than not knowing whether the risk exists.

Given that some NHS staff, especially junior doctors, often move from one area to another quite frequently during training, there will need to be some very obvious warnings in those areas that are not yet connected.

Minnesota – failures to protect three-year old Eric Dean

The Star Tribune reports that on fifteen separate occasions, day-care workers made reports to authorities in the US state of Minnesota’s Pope County saying that they suspected that a three-year old boy, Eric Dean, was being physically abused.

Following some inquiries it was determined that no further action could be taken by the county’s child protection office, even though it appears that child protection workers believed Eric was being abused. The family’s denials and a lack of witnesses were subsequently cited as reasons for this lack of response.

Subsequently Eric died as a result of multiple non-accidental injuries.

In Minnesota, teachers and care providers must report suspected child maltreatment to the child protection office. If they fail to do so they commit a criminal offence.  It seems that Minnesota law also prescribes when child protection workers should respond. In Eric’s case the child protection authorities have defended themselves by saying that the allegations didn’t meet the response criteria set out in state law.

It seems to me that using legislation to try to determine when maltreatment reports are made and when authorities should respond has the dysfunctional consequence of shifting thinking from ‘what are the risks?’ to ‘what are the rules?’ Rather than worrying about what the law says, I would prefer to see child protection practitioners worrying about what is happening to the child and what s/he is experiencing and feeling.

That’s why I have the strongest reservations about the ‘Daniel’s Law” campaign to introduce mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect in England.