Saturday, 30 July 2011

More on media access to the family courts

I was pleased to see that the report of the House of Commons Justice Committee on the Operation of the Family Courts agrees with me that increased media access should not go ahead.

The report concludes:

"... our witnesses were united in opposing implementation of the scheme to increase media access to the family courts contained in Part 2 of the Children, Schools and Families Act 2010. While their reasons for doing so differed, and were sometimes contradictory, such universal condemnation compels us to recommend that the measures should not be implemented, and the Ministry of Justice begin afresh. We welcome the Government's acknowledgement that the way the legislation was passed was flawed, and urge Ministers to learn lessons from this outcome for the future." (para 280)

The report also notes:

"The work of the Office of the Children's Commissioner on media reporting in the family courts gives a voice to the most important, and least heard, group of people in the family court system. The research makes plain that children involved in family court cases fear identification by their community to such an extent that knowing a case may be reported in the media could inhibit them from giving vital information to family justice service professionals." (para 289)

Coupled with the on-going revelations from the hacking scandal, there is now an overwhelming case  not  to increase media access to the Family Courts. 

Thursday, 21 July 2011

The Terrible Twos

The end of July 2011 marks two years since the birth of this blog, so it is now entering that period of toddlerhood known as the 'terrible twos'. Here’s looking forward to a year of temper tantrums and petulant outbursts!

On the blog’s first birthday I drew up a list of seven things I would like to see changed (, so today seems like a good time to assess what progress has occurred in the last year.

(1) Serious and seemingly intractable problems in recruiting and retaining child protection social workers.
In aggregate I see no evidence that much has changed, although as the year has gone on I have become increasingly convinced that retention is the key to this problem, not recruitment. Sadly there are few useful statistics on this subject, which makes analysis hard work. If I had a wish for next year, I’d wish for more, and better structured, information on the nature of the problem and a strategic approach to dealing with the problems of retention. In particular I would like to see some critical thinking about job design, with lots of thought devoted to how burn-out can be avoided. Greater job variety and possibly some kind of job rotation (e.g. with related specialisms such as adoption, or with training or academic roles) might be one way forward.

(2) Highly bureaucratic systems and working practices
The Munro review has provided an eloquent counterblast to bureaucracy, but how much will fall on deaf ears? I think here of the NSPCC’s untenable assumption that child protection social workers can continue working under tight procedures while at the same time developing professional expertise, or of those who still seem to believe that it is just a question of making a few modifications and tweaks to make ICS more user friendly. A great deal of work is required to make everyone aware of just how radical Munro’s reforms really are.

(3) Out-dated and misguided approaches to improving safety and quality in child protection work
I was disappointed that Munro did not say more on this issue. Her emphasis on the systems approach to SCRs is welcome, but I believe that it will have only limited impact on safety and quality. What we need is a new and comprehensive approach to workplace learning. The models I would draw on are the kaizen approach to quality and the human factors approach to safety. There is much in common between these approaches which might be captured in some combination of employee suggestion systems (for quality improvement) and by introducing briefing/de-briefing before and after significant work episodes.

(4) A chronic shortage of foster-parents
There seems to be little change here and no evidence that it is a policy priority. Sad.

(5) A dispirited workforce.
Again there is little evidence of significant change

(6) Services that continue to be driven by producer interests and internally agreed targets, rather than by the needs and wants of abused and neglected children
There has been some progress here, with the Munro Review recommending some sensible performance measures which are more outcome and less process focused. Abandoning the silly timescale targets now appears to be Government policy – which is to be warmly welcomed

(7) The blame culture
Just as I thought things were getting better, it was back to square one with the Government announcing it would appeal the court’s decision to allow Sharon Shoesmith to challenge her dismissal. I can see no point whatsoever in hounding people who worked for Haringey and who may have made mistakes but who were not wilfully in error. Instead we need to think about how we move towards Dekker’s just culture.
So it's been a mixed year, with some progress, but not enough. Lets hope the next twelve months bring much more change.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

ICS – they just don’t get IT

Community Care reports warnings by ‘experts’ that government proposals on national performance data collection may result in an increased “bureaucratic burden” on child protection IT. David Grigsby, of ICS provider Liquidlogic, is quoted as saying that new performance measurement data requirements will have a significant impact on children’s services IT and “… could even affect the processes they have to run." The implication is that ICS systems will be even more strongly specified from the centre.

What I like least about this kind of talk is the pervasive assumption that we have to have ICS whatever happens and that all that there is to discuss is how we can modify it to cope with changing requirements. This type of crude cultural hegemony is really an insult to our intelligence because the truth is that we don’t have to have ICS at all – there are better alternatives.

In previous posts I have mentioned Professor Darryl Ince of the Open University. He strongly believes that ICS is misconceived and that a simple ‘chronicling’ system may be a much better alternative. ICS is based on the mistaken assumption that working with abused and neglected children is largely a matter of completing pro forma assessments. If, on the other hand, we accept Munro’s argument that what is important is forming relationships with children and their families and making sound decisions, then a system that captures narrative is essential. And that is what Ince is advocating.

Of course lots of important (and some not so important) people have invested lots of time and money in ICS. That’s a shame but there is no point in continuing to try to make a square peg fit in a round hole. We need to cut our losses and accept that ICS is not what we require. Then we can move on.

Incidentally, I don’t think that Munro’s suggestions for performance data require a lot of sophisticated software to collect the data. The idea that performance measurement always requires a massive database is just na├»ve. Often a great deal can be done quickly and simply using spreadsheets.

The hacking scandal and the family courts

A few days away from my computer and lo and behold yet another scandal! The corporate ethics (or rather lack of them) of the Murdoch empire are now unravelling in public and the true extent of breaches of privacy are now becoming apparent. The depths to which journalists have stooped are truly shocking. Carl Bernstein (the American journalist who – with Bob Woodward - uncovered the Watergate scandal) has referred to a “semi criminal press” in Britain.

It was a Murdoch paper, The Times, which campaigned so effectively for what is euphemistically referred to as ‘family court transparency’ – allowing the press access to family court proceedings and to make public highly private and sensitive information about children and young people who are the subject of care and other family court proceedings. Back in 2008 Camilla Cavendish argued in The Times that journalists (presumably including News of the World journalists) would act responsibly and would safeguard the anonymity of children and young people and their families (“Family justice: what we can do to protect our children” July 9, 2008). That argument seems to have carried weight with Jack Straw, who, when he became Justice Secretary, reversed his predecessor’s decision not to throw the doors of the family courts open to the hounds of the press and caved in to The Times’ demands. Subsequently there was even talk of allowing journalists to see confidential medical and psychiatric reports submitted in family court proceedings.

The benefit of hindsight is a wonderful thing. Who now would support the idea that people with the kind of morals which allowed them to tap the voicemail of murder victim Milly Dowler (and to delete messages, thereby risking interference with the police enquiry and falsely raising the family’s hopes) should be admitted to courts where the most private and sensitive details of a child’s life are being discussed? But that is what ‘family court transparency’ risks.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Losing the Plot? The NSPCC's response to Munro

I have just discovered a response to the Munro report by the NSPCC's chief executive Andrew Flanagan. Although dated 10th May, and therefore definitely yesterday’s news, I cannot allow it to pass without comment.

While purporting to support Munro's vision of a child protection system centred on the child and free from unnecessary red tape, the NSPCC’s response describes her report as “short on detail”. The response continues:
“The government should not move too quickly to rapid deregulation. It needs to invest heavily in building the skills, confidence and experience of all professionals working with children. Controls which safeguard against poor practice must stay in place while professionalism is built. Otherwise, children's lives could be put at risk.”
Flanagan concludes that it will take at least 10 years to build and retain a high-calibre workforce and reminds the government that “child protection is everyone's responsibility”. He cautions it not to lose sight of the fact that “keeping children safe does not start and end with social workers”.

It is difficult to know where to begin. I was initially puzzled by the comment that Munro is short on detail, especially so given the length and complexity of the two volumes which comprise her report. However, it only takes a couple of minutes reflection that to see that Flanagan must mean 'short on detail' about what a reformed child protection system would look like. But that misses the point. The Munro report, unlike previous attempts at policy in this area, does not attempt to prescribe top-down what a child protection system should be. Rather it cautions against that sort of control. How abused and neglected children are helped cannot be specified by politicians and other policy makers - not even by the NSPCC. Indeed Munro's argument is that trying to do precisely that is what has got us into the present mess.

Flanagan compounds this mistake in the paragraph quoted in its entirety above. The key words are "Controls which safeguard against poor practice must stay in place while professionalism is built". Unpacking this sentence reveals its absurdity. It seems to advocate that social workers should continue to follow the rule book while at the same time developing greater professionalism. But how could that operate? Surely no-one is advocating a situation in which a worker says: "My professional judgement tells me to do X, but the rule book tells me to do Y, so I'll do Y even though I know it's wrong"? And where do social workers find the time to engage in reflective practice if they are still filling in all the forms? And how, precisely, do people become 'professionals' if they have spent all of their 'professional' lives being bureaucrats, following the rules which others have imposed? It could never work like that.

The whole point about Munro's approach is that something needs to happen to free social workers rapidly from the vice like grip of forms and check-lists and computer systems which divert practice from child-centred relationships and professional decision-making. Making that shift cannot be without risks, but it is preferable to the status quo where the prospect of ever increasing paralysis and ineffectiveness, due to proceduralisation, looms large. You can't have your cake and eat it, Andrew, and you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs.

Before moving on, just a couple of comments about the tail end of Andrew Flanagan's statement. The phrase “child protection is everyone's responsibility” is a good one, but it does not mean that everyone has the same responsibility for child protection. Most professionals who have contact with children must be alert for the signs of child abuse and neglect and be willing to co-operate if inquiries become necessary. But they cannot be responsible for specific actions to protect a child, because they do not have legal powers and particular expertise. Those who do have powers and expertise must be well placed to use them - and that's why child protection social workers are vitally important. Keeping children safe does not "start and end with social workers" - it does not start and end with anybody - but social workers do have a crucially important and quite specific role to play which should never be understated.  

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Will Munro's recommendations be implemented?

Community Care reports that Eileen Munro has told MPs that the government may lack the courage to implement her report, because government is the entity that created the prescriptive system in the first place.

My own thought is that it must be very difficult for all those civil servants, who for years have overseen the child protection system by producing mountains of regulation and guidance, to suddenly realise that less is better, more is worse. I can imagine the culture shock.

You can watch Eileen Munro’s evidence to the Education Committee on