Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Abusive Law?

It was chilling to read this week the accounts of the trial of the two 10 year-old boys convicted of attempted rape. The comment in the papers generally, and quite rightly, condemns an inappropriate use of the criminal law in this case. But it fails to lay the blame where it ought to be - at the door of the last Government.

It is easy to forget that it was New Labour that abolished the defence of doli incapax (s 34 of Crime and Disorder Act 1998). This means that the prosecution no longer needs to show that a child under 14 who is accused of a criminal offence knew that they were doing something which was wrong. In terms of culpability they are now treated as if they are fully mature. That alone makes our youth justice system among the most harsh and inhumane in the developed world.

But, to compound matters, the Sexual Offences Act 2003 makes sexual intercourse with any-one under 13 rape, even where it is 'consensual' and between two people of similar age. Despite assurances given by ministers to Parliament when the Act was debated that it would be not used to prosecute sexual experimentation by pre-teens, this is exactly how it is now being used.

The result of trying to look tough on youth justice is that two young boys and one young girl have been traumatised by unnecessary and damaging court proceedings.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Are Inspections Working?

Suppose an inspector had made the following comments about the child protection services in your area:
  • Workforce planning is ineffective
  • There is a significant shortage of front line social work staff
  • Demand for service, particularly referrals and re-referrals, has increased by 43% resulting in children not being effectively safeguarded
  • The (low) level of skill, knowledge and experience of social work staff is significantly impairing the quality of service provided
  • In some offices there are too many newly qualified staff carrying heavy caseloads
  • The threshold for access to children’s social care is not always consistently understood or applied by all agencies resulting in some children are not receiving the services they need
  • The number of children who are subjects of child protection plans has increased over the last year by 40%, with an increasing number of children subject of a child protection plan for over two years
No-one would blame you for being outraged and worried. It certainly sounds like the service is imploding. It seems to be at breaking point. Necessary services are not being delivered adequately. Children are suffering.

If similar comments were made about an airline you would never fly with it.

Now suppose that you are the manager of a service like this and you receive the inspectors' report. You agree with their findings (you know just how stretched the service is) and you eagerly turn to their recommendations to find out how you might improve. There you might hope to find some guidance on how limited resources might be used most effectively to deal with unprecedented increases in demand. Perhaps the inspectors have made some helpful suggestions about where additional resources could be found? You might also expect some proposals to help you deal with the shortage of suitably trained and experienced staff, or advice on how such people could be recruited. At worst you might find some useful thoughts on how services could be made safer even if the vacancies cannot be filled or the shortfalls remedied.

You might expect ... but if you were Nottinghamshire County Council this is what you'd have been given by Ofsted in their report 36564 of the 21st May 2010. The advice comes with the helpful qualification that it be implemented "immediately":
  • Revise the existing child protection, safeguarding and looked after service improvement plan to take account of the priorities for action set out in this report.
  • Ensure all children and young people are effectively safeguarded and are not left at risk of significant harm with priority given to tackling the backlog of cases.
  • Review and streamline the arrangements for making contacts and referrals to children’s social care.
  • Undertake a full evaluation of the allocation of children’s services resources to ensure that the capacity of the workforce is sufficient to meet the demand for service while applying the published thresholds for access to service.
  • Tackle the unacceptably high social work caseloads and insufficient team manager capacity, and ensure newly qualified social workers are protected from carrying high and complex caseloads.
  • Improve the quality and timeliness of initial and core assessments.
  • Ensure the local partnership provides effective challenge to drive the improvement agenda.
  • Ensure all partner agencies are adequately resourced to meet the needs of the most vulnerable children and young people who require safeguarding and are at risk of harm.
The three I like the best are the second, the fifth and the last (highlighted). But they all have a hollow, sanctimonious ring to them. How precisely is this struggling authority meant to ensure all children are effectively safeguarded when it self-evidently doesn't have the capacity and resources to achieve this task? Where will it find the resources to reduce unacceptably high caseloads? How can partner agencies be "adequately resourced" when there are no resources to achieve even barely acceptable levels of service?

I expect the answer is that the inspectors don't know. They state what might be technically referred to as "the bleedin' obvious" and then it's "over to you mate".

We need to ask some very serious questions about whether Ofsted Inspections of children's social care are working. The point of inspections, if there is one, is that they are intended to help improve services; not patronise hard pressed managers and dispirit overworked staff.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Well said, Nick

Today in his first major speach as Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg said:

"Britain must not be a country where our children grow up so used to their liberty being infringed that they accept it without question. There will be no ContactPoint children's database. Schools will not take children's fingerprints without even asking their parent's consent. This will be a government that is proud when British citizens stand up against illegitimate advances of the state."

So it looks like the surveillance society may be about to take a considerable knock. And that will see the end of some of the very worst aspects of the Every Child Matters agenda - attempting to safeguard children though bureaucratic snooping rather than protecting them through professional intervention.

The other side of the coin is that we must have services which are fit for this new environment. The Government must now work hard to create effective child protection services which do not rely on unproven database technology. And I hope that all the pillars of the children's sector establishment, which embraced ContactPoint and played fast and loose with children and young people's privacy, move on quickly and rapidly embrace the new status quo.

Now we must all grasp the nettle of how best to protect abused and neglected children in what I hope will be a freer and more open society.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Where is the Executive Summary of the Khyra Ishaq Serious Case Review?

It is now nearly two years since the Birmingham Safeguarding Children Board began the Serious Case Review into the tragic death of Khyra Ishaq and still we await publication of the Executive Summary of the report. It is hard to see why so long has elapsed.

I'll be posting a regular reminder on this blog every month from now on and I'm hoping not to have to do that too often. And let's hope that this Executive Summary, concerning this deeply worrying case, is more informative than some that I've seen of late. All the talk about learning from serious case reviews is so much hot air if the lessons to be learned never see the light of day.

Hopefully the new children's ministers, Sarah Teather and Tim Loughton, have their eyes on this ball. 

Ofsted Data on Child Deaths

Children and Young People Now reports on data obtained by Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming from Ofsted on child deaths resulting from injuries or neglect. These are said to have increased from 46 in the whole of 2008 to 56 in the first 10 months of 2009.

Any rise in child deaths must be worrying, but I do not know if John Hemming is right to attribute the rise to poor-decision making by social workers, as he is reported as doing. Figures of this sort will vary from year to year, sometimes quite dramatically because of the small numbers involved. What counts is the long-term trend.

We are told that Hemming obtained the figures from Ofsted under a Freedom of Information request. It seems to me wrong that this type of information is not routinely published by Ofsted. Policy-makers and professionals need to know what is happening and we all need to keep a careful eye on what might be an unwelcome reversal of the downward drift in child deaths reported earlier this year by Professor Colin Pritchard.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Foster carer shortage requires urgent attention

It's Foster Care Fortnight 2010 and the Fostering Network tells us that 10,000 additional foster carers are needed across the UK. The shortfall is exacerbated by the record numbers of children being taken into care. Without sufficient foster carers no modern child protection system can operate effectively. Solving this problem must be the highest priority for the new government.