Thursday, 25 August 2011

Fanning the flames

Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming, who has been an advocate of ‘family court transparency’, should learn important lessons from his latest foray into challenging the ‘secrecy’ of the family courts. The whole sad story is revealed at length in the Guardian (see below).

Sadly the family courts often have to deal with cases in which angry parents hit out at former partners by making reckless allegations. To borrow a phrase from Margaret Thatcher (something I don’t often do) the ‘oxygen of publicity’ can fan these flames of family conflict, often to the detriment of the children.

An important function of the Family Court is to create the conditions in which a child’s best interests can be calmly discussed and successfully realised. Lowering the emotional temperature and promoting a problem solving, rather than conflict sustaining, approach is key. But admitting the press to family court hearings inevitably raises in some people’s minds the possibility of inflicting severe and lasting damage to some-one who has hurt them.

Confidential (not secret) hearings are much more likely to promote a calm and constructive attitude by all the parties to the case.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Record Numbers of Care Applications

The Law Gazette reports that care applications have reached an all time record.

During 2010/11 there were more than 9,000 care applications in England, up 4% on 2009/10. This compares with a 36% increase in the previous year.

Cafcass Chief Executive, Anthony Douglas, is quoted as saying that, as a result, pressure on all parts of the family law system is intense.

Christina Blacklaws of the Law Society Council described the family justice system as being “in meltdown”. She criticised the government for continuing with “savage” cuts in the face of the increases.

It is not just the pressure on the family courts that is the issue here. Care proceedings generate huge amounts of work for local authority social workers, both during the case and subsequently when an order is made. Without adequate resources the system will meltdown, with disastrous consequences for the children and young people it is designed to serve.

What's happened to the NSPCC prevalence study?

Am I alone in feeling a bit frustrated that the full report of the NSPCC's prevalence study of child abuse and neglect still remains unpublished? Back in February they published a short summary with a promise of more to follow shortly, but so far nothing.

Come on NSPCC. This is important research. At least give us a date when the full report will be available.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Media Access to the Family Courts - Children and Young People speak out clearly

The Children’s Rights Director for England, Dr. Roger Morgan, has just published a new report on family justice.  

Children on family justice. A report of children’s views for the Family Justice Review Panel, 2010, by the Children’s Rights Director for England. Ofsted, August 2011

The research on which the report is based involved in-depth discussions with 58 children and young people who had personal experience of a range of different children’s services.

The children and young people said a lot of interesting things about the family courts and the family justice process. The one thing to catch my eye immediately was that 80% said very clearly that they did not want reporters or members of the public to be allowed into the courts where children’s cases are being heard.

This confirms the findings of other research and needs to be taken very seriously by policy makers. Most children and young people do not want the media to have access to their family court cases.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Book Review

Caring for Abused and Neglected Children
Jim Wade, Nina Biehal, Nicola Farrelly and Ian Sinclair
London, Jessica Kingsley, 2011

If we are to improve services to abused and neglected children, we must understand more about their needs and about what happens to them when services intervene in their lives. This book provides an account of high quality empirical research exploring what happens to abused and neglected children when they are reunited with their families following a period of being in care.

It is perhaps not surprising to discover that such children have poorer outcomes than children who remain in care, but the authors demonstrate this with admirable detail and clarity. They provide us with a solid understanding of what happens to reunified children and the risks they face. The messages they draw from the research are by no means entirely negative. The fact that there are risks to reuniting children with their birth families does not mean that we should not do it; only that we should take particular care when we do.

The book is well written and carefully argued. The research evidence is well presented and where tables are used these are clearly laid out and easy to understand. Detailed statistical analysis is confined to footnotes.

Anyone who works with or studies looked after children will gain from reading this book. It is exactly the type of research we require if we are to build services which are fit for purpose.

Unemployed social workers

Hard on the heels of my last post – concerning child protection staff shortages – comes the puzzling revelation in Community Care that 27% (yes, twenty-seven percent) of newly qualified social workers in England are failing to find suitable jobs.

What is going on? Community Care quotes Professor Ray Jones who speculates that some of this may be due to public spending cuts. Perhaps he is right, but whatever the cause this looks like a case of serious waste with young people trained at public expense now failing to gain the experience they require to progress their careers. And we know that child protection services continue to operate with high levels of vacancy.

I suspect that local authorities would be more willing to fill their vacancies with experienced staff, but see newly qualified social workers as requiring too much support and not offering enough insight and experience to tackle child protection work effectively. It is a sorry situation.

I return to the theme I’ve been banging on about for a while now. Retention is the issue that needs to be addressed. And putting current employees under the continued pressure of working in under-staffed and under-resourced departments will only make matters worse. Somebody urgently needs to come up with proposals to halt the vicious cycle of decline that will otherwise result.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

A response to staff shortages - try merging services

It has all gone quiet on the subject of shortages of child protection social workers in Britain. One thing, however, is certain: there has been no profound change. Vacancy rates are still high and local authorities still have to cope with chronic staff shortages.

In a rational world people would be trying to come up with some urgent but effective responses to this problem. In the real world people seem happy to rely on agency workers to fill the gaps and on the future promise of more social workers coming from training. Neither response is satisfactory. Temporary agency workers can never provide the continuity of service that is so necessary for effective child protection. Although there are plenty of people training to be social workers, increasingly it has become apparent that the problems are of retention, not recruitment. And it is experienced social workers that are most urgently required.

My view is that the first thing we need to do is to use the current workforce more effectively. In big cities, like London, lots of relatively small local authorities employing a small number of social workers deliver child protection services. Inevitably this amplifies the negative effects of staff shortages on service quality and places greatest strain on employees. Greater flexibility would result from London Boroughs, for example, choosing to work together to cover the whole Greater London area with a single child protection service. This would facilitate the most efficient deployment of staff and generally make the service more resilient to staff shortages.

There are no legal obstacles to merging services in this way; they would be delivered as a partnership. Indeed some London Boroughs (such as Westminster, Kensington-and-Chelsea and Hammersmith-and-Fulham) are already engaged in merging children’s services with their neighbours, demonstrating that a wider merger of the type I envisage is feasible.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

A Critical Incident in Hull

I found the report, published today, of the Local Government Ombudsman into child protection failures at Hull City Council very interesting. Apparently, an aunt and another local authority referred two teenagers to Hull saying that there was a likelihood of significant harm to them because the mother’s new partner had mental health problems and had been violent. Hull, it seems, chose not to undertake a formal child protection inquiry (a Section 47 inquiry) and assigned the case to a trainee social worker for support.

What I found most worrying was that the response to the report from a spokesman for Hull City Council, as quoted in the Guardian, seemed to focus exclusively on improved guidance around “the process for placement of children within extended family” while the real safety issue is that the council appears to have failed to respond to a clear child protection referral.

The short, informative and very clear report by the Local Government Ombudsman contrasted favourably with many Serious Case Review Executive Summaries I have read.

However, its conclusions focused too narrowly on issues of blame and responsibility and did not explore ways in which a repeat of these mistakes could be avoided in the future. That is because the Local Government Ombudsman is charged with investigating a complaint, not improving child protection systems.

I would like to see much more open reporting of child protection ‘critical incidents’, like this one made suitably anonymous. I think there is considerable value in looking at cases where things have gone wrong without resulting in serious injury or death, because such cases are far more representative of the type of errors that occur everyday. To find out more see an article I co-authored on this approach.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Ofsted - at it again

With all the talk of a new approach to inspecting child protection services, I would have expected the inspectorate, Ofsted, to have started to change its ways. There is, however, little evidence of any new approach in the recently published report of an unannounced inspection in the London Borough of Waltham Forest - - June 2011.

The problem with this report is that it is critical without being specific and that it points to shortcomings but with no analysis of the likely causes. The inspector writes that “children were placed at risk of inadequate protection” which sounds like it should mean something until you begin to think about it! Is she trying to say that some children were inadequately protected or that they could have been if some condition had been different or that there was some systematic organisational failing? It just isn’t clear. And how is ‘risk of inadequate protection' defined and measured? We simply don’t know. I wonder if the inspector does?

My guess is that this is an example of ‘inspection-speak’ – a kind of language that inspectors use to avoid saying anything which might be too helpful. The report continues in similar vein. Apparently “planning and analysis of emerging risks was poor”. But what is an ‘emerging risk’, as opposed not a non-emerging risk, and how was the analysis poor? Then we are told that the “… failure to effectively engage children and young people led to an incomplete understanding of the risks to them …”. But there is no hint here about the difference between ‘effective’ and ineffective ‘engagement’ (whatever that means) and no explanation of what is meant by ‘an incomplete understanding of the risks’ – is any-one’s understanding ever complete?

We are told, however, that as “… a result protection plans were inadequate leaving them (presumably the children, not the plans) at continued risk of harm”. (Page 4, Area for priority action). But there is no information provided about how or why the plans were inadequate or any hint about how they might be improved.

It is all a bit like saying that a plane has crashed because of a mechanical failure or a human error, but failing to say what sort of mechanical failure or human error was involved. It may be obvious and it may be true, but it isn’t very helpful. And it doesn’t help people make the improvements that result in increased safety – which is what matters.

If inspection of child protection is to stay with Ofsted, which as I understand it is now Government policy, the very least that Ofsted could do is to raise its game. Ofsted inspectors need to get away from glib uninformative inspection reports written in bureaucratic gobbledygook. They need to begin to produce reports that are informative, insightful and analytic.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Government loses appeal in Shoesmith case

The Government has lost its appeal in the Sharon Shoesmith sacking case - which means that Ms Shoesmith is likely to receive substantial compensation.

From the day Ed Balls decided Sharon must go, this has been a total mess. Successive Governments have appeared to be more concerned to appease the red-top press than to act responsibly. 

In future let's look to making sensible improvements to the child protection system after a tragedy - not fostering the myth that a small number of people can be blamed, shamed and sacked and that it will never happen again.