Monday, 11 April 2011

Listening to Children – not to systems

Important and useful research by the University of East Anglia, and funded by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, has just been published. Don’t make assumptions: Children’s and young people’s views of the child protection system and messages for change, written by Jeanette Cossar, Marian Brandon and Peter Jordan, is essential reading for everyone engaged in providing child protection services.

The study looked at children’s views of the child protection system. The messages from the research are unequivocal: children involved in child protection inquiries must be listened to and their views respected. One important recommendation, among many, caught my eye:

"Local authorities should recognise the importance of the child’s relationship with the social worker and organise the work so that social workers can get to know children, and are not viewed as remote but powerful figures."

That flies in the face of trends in recent years to re-engineer child protection social work through the introduction of computerised assessment tools and highly structured approaches to child protection inquiries. Yes, I am thinking of the Integrated Children’s System here! Social workers cannot make trusting relationships with children if they are spending lots of  time in front of computers and are seen by children and their families as bureaucrats who are just collecting information.

Another recent publication lends weight to these conclusions.

Bradford Safeguarding Children Board’s Serious Case Review Executive Summary Regarding a Child who was born on 17/4/2000 and died on 18/2/2010 ( draws attention to some of the adverse “… effects of electronic recording systems, protocols and pro-forma requirements…” which, it is argued, “… may constrain lateral thinking and initiative”. The review states that “… it is important that (these systems) should not erode the role of human intelligence in making connections between historical events”. The conclusion drawn is that “… practitioners should be encouraged to be ‘curious and to think critically and systematically’ in order to better understand the risk of harm to children” (p 22).

To summarise: we need child protection social workers who listen attentively and respectfully to children and young people and who are capable of building trusting relationships with them. And they need to be curious and to be capable of critical, lateral thinking and initiative. What we don’t need is people who are driven by systems, protocols and pro-formas which have been designed by civil servants and software developers!

I think the writing should now be on the wall for the Core Assessment, in particular, and the Integrated Children’s System, in general. I am not arguing that social workers don’t need to make careful assessments of children’s needs – just that the way to do this is by building strong relationships with children, gaining their trust and thinking critically and imaginatively about what to do next.