Monday, 31 October 2011

Speeding up adoption

The Guardian ( and the BBC ( both run top stories today on the Prime Minister’s pledge to take action against local authorities that are slow in completing adoptions. Councils that perform badly in this regard are threatened with the prospect of their adoption services being taken over.

Everyone welcomes more children finding secure and happy long term placements and adoption is certainly a very favourable outcome for many children who have been abused and neglected. But simply setting targets and waving the big stick will not deliver the desired results. And a seriously unwelcome consequence would be if targets got in the way of quality, resulting in inappropriate placements being made because unsuitable couples have been approved to adopt. So any changes must be closely monitored and controlled with a clear focus on the best interests of children.

There also needs to be a very clear understanding that simplistic performance indicators must be avoided. It is very easy to process adoptions quickly if you restrict your efforts only to relatively straightforward cases. So the speed at which adoptions takes place also needs to be seen in the context of the proportion of children coming into care who are placed for adoption.

To improve the speed at which adoptions take place requires an analysis of the relevant professional, legal and business processes. On the ‘supply side’ local authorities have to recruit, vet, approve and prepare prospective adoptive parents. On the ‘demand side’ they have to select and prepare children who also have to be ‘freed’ for adoption via a legal process. The two sides are brought together in a matching process, which hopefully results in a placement. In successful cases the process ends with the court making an adoption order.

Each of these stages of the adoption process can be resolved further into component activities, each of which needs to be understood. It is then possible to gather data relevant to the issue of how quickly each stage in the process can be completed.

We need to understand where the delays are occurring, so very slow components of the process need to be examined to determine how, if possible, they can be speeded up. However the whole process will run at the speed of the slowest ‘bottleneck’ so there is often no point in increasing the speed of all the processes; indeed to do so may result in wasted effort and resources.

Service-processes often generate queues of people waiting between some or all of the stages. These queues are equivalent to in-process inventory (work in process) in manufacturing processes. Speeding up the downstream business stages can sometimes reduce the size of these queues or, where possible, the process can be redesigned so that some stages run in parallel rather than in sequence. Managing queues usually requires resources (for example children waiting for adoption require foster placements or residential care) so eliminating queues often liberates resources that can then be applied to making stages in the process quicker or more efficient.

Sadly there is no one simple answer to this type of redesign question. The specific facts underlying a particular process need to be investigated and understood. Various reconfigurations need to be tried out and tested.

I was impressed by the developments at Harrow Council that are described by the BBC’s Sarah Bell ( The key to this approach, apparently developed by Harrow’s partner orgnaisation Corum, is a system called ‘concurrent planning’. Children are fostered with people hoping to adopt while the birth parents undergo assessment. If a decision is made that a child is not to return to the birth family, the fosterers become the prospective adopters. An important benefit claimed for this approach is that the child is kept in one placement throughout.

This is an example of paralleling various stages to speed the process. It appears to be an exciting and important development that many local authorities may wish to investigate. There does, however, need to be a recognition that one size may not fit all. Opting for a solution before understanding the problem is never a good idea. So I would urge local authorities to carry out careful analysis in order to fully understand where the delays are occurring in their own adoption operations before deciding how to move forward.

One thing that can be said for certain is that delays in matching prospective adopters with children that are due to arbitrary considerations should be purged from the system without mercy. Without research it is difficult to know just how much delay in adoption results from ‘silly’ considerations surrounding ethnicity. The BBC’s article quotes an example of a Finnish/Greek couple, with the implication that they found it difficult to adopt because of the shortage of children who had both Finnish and Greek heritage. I find it difficult to believe that that sort of literalism is widespread, although clearly there are isolated cases of it. And these may get more attention than they deserve in the media. The most important issue to address, however, is why black and ethnic minority children appear to have such greatly reduced prospects in the adoption system. While race and ethnicity are factors that must be considered in every adoption, the absence of prospective adopted parents of the ‘right’ ethic mix should never be an obstacle to a child having access to adoption by the best family available at the time.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Is Ofsted learning from Serious Case Reviews? Are pigs flying?

As someone who has, on more than one occasion, exhorted Ofsted to do more thematic research, I should be pleased to see what is described as a “… thematic report of Ofsted’s evaluation of serious case reviews from 1 April 2007 to 31 March 2011”. I know I should be pleased, but the report left me feeling sad … or was it angry?

Why? My first disappointment was only to be expected. To ‘learn lessons’ from Serious Case Reviews requires an analytic and enquiring approach which is largely absent from this report. All too often the authors simply gainsay their findings to form a recommendation: pre-birth assessments were sometimes undertaken late, so “ensure that pre-birth assessments are undertaken in a timely manner”; fathers were sometimes marginalized, so “both parents need to be supported. The father is as important as the mother and they need support to help them to become good parents”.

That’s just like saying that the plane flew into the side of the mountain so pilots should take care not to fly too close to high ground: true but blindingly obvious! And it doesn’t explain anything. What we want to know is why the assessments were undertaken late or why fathers were marginalized.

The authors of this report also appear to show no awareness of an important methodological shortcoming with their approach to this research. Simply listing all the things that weren’t done ‘properly’ in a case that went badly wrong does not provide a causal explanation of what went wrong; at best it only provides a description. And, most importantly, we don’t know if in all the other cases, that didn’t go badly wrong, many of those same things were not done ‘properly’ as well.

This is not just a philosophical debating point, but a vitally important consideration, because we may end up spending vital time and resources addressing things that are not done properly but which don’t result in tragedy. So we might spend money on training to improve the quality of assessments or put time and effort into developing procedures to speed their production only to find that children continue to die just as before.

That sounds to me pretty much what has been happening ever since Maria Colwell. As the Welsh inspectorate CCSIW once wisely observed: "Time and again serious case reviews identify the same issues as contributing to not protecting children, yet still the problems keep recurring" (see

So I’m afraid that this report from Ofsted, in the words of Shania Twain, “don’t’ impress me much”. It makes little attempt to get behind the obvious facts and to ask questions about why things happen, or don't as the case may be. And some of the recommendations are really quite insulting, for example: "Assessments of pregnant teenagers must take into account their family background". I think most people would struggle to conceive what kind of assessment could be made that didn't!

On the positive side there does seem to be anecdotal evidence that Oftsed is trying to improve its approach to inspecting child protection services. I was please to read in Community Care that in future they intend to send inspectors out with social workers on home visits. But, if this report is anything to go by, they still have a long way to go before they begin to deliver the goods.

A Warm Welcome to Guardian Select

I am very pleased to announce that this blog has now become a part of the Guardian Select Social Care Network (

With its long history of high quality journalism in social issues in general, and social care in particular, I believe that the Guardian is an ideal partner for a blog which is devoted to promoting learning and improvement in child protection.

The (expected to be small) amount of money earned from advertising will be used to further the objectives of the blog and may be sufficient to support some research and investigative journalism in the future.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Towards a new "Working Together"

Civil servant, Jeanette Pugh, who is director of the Department for Education’s safeguarding group, is quoted by Children and Young People Now as saying that it will be difficult to meet the July 2012 deadline for publication of the revised Working Together document which contains the British Government’s guidance on responding to child abuse and neglect.

The brief for the Department is to produce a shorter, simpler document. I would like to suggest that the best way forward is to begin by making a much clearer distinction than is currently made between ‘regulations’ (“rule(s) or directive(s) made and maintained by an authority” – Oxford English Dictionary) and ‘guidance’ (“advice or information aimed at resolving a problem or difficulty, especially as given by someone in authority” – Oxford English Dictionary). I believe that the core of Working Together should be the regulations. Additional guidance should only be provided in this document if it is absolutely necessary.

The first task is to work through the existing four hundred page document to identify the regulations or rules which everyone dealing with child abuse must obey. The remaining guidance (advice and information) should be classified into four categories: (1) information or advice that is essential in order to understand or implement the rules; (2) information or advice that can be helpfully located in the same document and which does not detract from the essential rules; (3) information or advice that should be located in other documents; (4) information or advice which should not be provided.

Using this framework should result in a much shorter document. I would suggest that following a short (one or two page) summary of current policy, the document should move directly to key definitions (currently not encountered until page 34). I would also include here a much shorter version of Chapter 6 (“Supplementary Guidance”) to make abundantly clear at the outset the nature of child abuse and neglect and the scope of the required response. Chapter 2 (Roles and Responsibilities) should be reduced from its current 46 pages to no more than a series of brief paragraphs each stating the key responsibilities of each agency. All of this should occupy no more one short chapter in the new document

I would then move to a shortened version of the present Chapter 5 (Managing Individual Cases), believing that Chapter 3 (on Local Safeguarding Children Boards) should appear later in the revised document. Chapter 4 (on staff training and development) could either be relegated to another document or be greatly shortened, perhaps being included as an appendix.

Chapter 7 (Child Death Review Process) and Chapter 8 (Serious Case Reviews) should be combined with the rules set out in Chapter 3 (Local Safeguarding Children Boards) into a single short chapter. Chapters 9 to 11 are pure guidance but may contain some information that needs to occur along with definitions and statements of scope towards the beginning of a revised document. The remaining information is probably best relegated to a separate document.

I would expect that applying the following suggestions would result in a document well short of 100 pages in length and hopefully nearer to 50. Before publication it should be subjected to a rigorous critique by someone who is expert in writing plain English. Perhaps then we would have a document with which people would become familiar, rather than a document that most people have no option other than to skim.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Starting at the beginning

Naomi Eisenstadt, who among other things used to be the Director of Sure Start, is quoted in Children and Young People Now as saying that Sure Start failed to reach the under-twos. She says that Sure Start was originally a minus nine months to plus four years programme but "we lost the babies”.

I can’t help thinking that this shows just how loose some of the thinking behind ‘early intervention’ is. There is substantial evidence to demonstrate that the first two years of a child’s life are crucially important in terms of development and future functioning. Huge changes in the brain during this period can be adversely influenced by early experience of abuse and neglect, resulting in long-term damage. Not only that but we know that pre-verbal infants and toddlers are particularly vulnerable to abuse and neglect and particularly to some of the more extreme forms. A large proportion of child abuse deaths concern this age-group.

So, if I were developing an early intervention programme I would work from minus 9 months forward, rather than from five years down. Why policy makers did not get hold of this simple message baffles me. Perhaps it is the same kind of thinking which allowed the number of health visitors in Britain to decline to an all time low under the last government?

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

A Culture of Fear?

What was most interesting to me about Martin Narey’s article in today’s Guardian ( was not his views on adoption but the aside he makes about social workers who have written to him in his role as a government adviser.

He writes: 
“Troublingly, those (social workers) who did (write) either wrote anonymously or pleaded with me not to identify them or indicate where they work. And this despite the reality that in almost all cases they were simply expressing their frustration with a safeguarding system which makes it so difficult for them to protect children.” 
These are chilling words. In my view there can be no excuse for employers who suppress the legitimate views of professional employees. Unless social workers are free to say what they find wrong with the child protection system it will continue to be difficult for them to protect children because the system will continue to be dysfunctional. A frightened employee is seldom an effective employee. And an employer who cannot listen to reasoned criticism is always a bad employer.

Creating learning organisations can only be achieved if the people who do the work, who understand the issues and the difficulties, are actually encouraged to speak out about their frustrations and anxieties. Having that type of information in the public domain allows us all to engage in building improved services and meeting the needs of abused and neglected children better.

But a culture of silence based on fear fosters the growth of organisations which do not deliver the goods. That results in less safe services, because senior managers only hear what they want to hear, not what they should hear.

Thanks should go to Martin Narey for speaking openly about this problem which urgently needs to be addressed. Perhaps he can mention it to ministers next time he is in Whitehall.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Publish and be damned!

I recently wanted a copy of the Executive Summary of a Serious Case Review report. I knew it was available because I could read all about it in the Daily Mail and in the Guardian. However, when I looked on the Local Safeguarding Children Board’s website (I won’t say which one) I couldn’t find a copy to download. An email inquiry received the response that it hadn’t yet been published yet and I would just have to wait. Well it may not have been 'published' but mainstream journalists clearly had been given copies.

I don’t think that is right. I can’t help wondering who is more important - the press or the British public? By the time ordinary people are able to see the report the 'red tops' will already have created their 'official' version of it and it will be yesterday's news. So much for transparency, openness, accountability and the democratic process.

To merge or not to merge

Having recently congratulated three London boroughs for intending to merge their child protection services ( I now - with some embarrassment - read that child protection is specifically excluded from plans to merge services provided by the boroughs of Westminster, Kensington-and-Chelsea and Hammersmith-and-Fulham (

I am also disappointed by Andrew Christie's (who will be director of children's services for the three boroughs) reasoning behind this decision. The Guardian reports him as saying that councillors did not want major change in that area, on the grounds of risk. And he believes politicians are right to be very cautious about child protection.

But there is every reason to suppose that there is more risk in inaction than in change. I believe that in most places we need to make much more efficient and effective use of the child protection work force. Merger between councils is one way in which this can quickly be achieved. I urge the three boroughs to think again on this issue.

The Integrated Children’s System – stop messing about!!

The Integrated Children’s System (ICS) is an approach to computerising ‘children’s social care’ (children in need, child protection, children in care etc.) developed by the last British Government. Our present government has not said much about it, but Professor Eileen Munro’s recent report on child protection ( had some suitably harsh words for a system which by common consent is manifestly unfit for purpose.

Munro helpfully prescribes three things that are required of any children’s social care IT:

• It should meet the critical need to maintain a systemic family narrative
• It should be able to adapt easily to changes in local child protection system needs
• It should be based on a human-centred analysis of what is required by frontline workers

ICS provides none of these. The approach followed until 2010 was driven by an elaborate and increasingly bizarre collection of ‘exemplars’ many of which were adapted from the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need ( In concentrating on this framework the ‘architects’ (I use the word with reservations) of ICS seem to have forgotten that providing services to children in need involves much more than repeatedly assessing them. And they seem to have forgotten that it is of central importance to have a record which explains what has happened, what has been done and why.

Why such a completely unrealistic approach was taken to computerising children’s social care records cannot easily be explained. Systems were probably designed by committees of bureaucrats and by social work academics who had little understanding of how effective IT systems are created. The result – as is widely acknowledged - is a disaster in waiting.

What is even more frustrating is the fact that civil servants do not seem to be offering any sensible advice to local authorities in the light of what seems to be yet another Government inspired IT mess. 

There you will find only a brief acknowledgement that Munro’s general approach is correct, followed by pages and pages of guidance, all dated pre-March 2010, which is steeped in the worst fallacies and silly assumptions of the ICS project as originally envisaged, and expressed in the excruciatingly toe-curling gobbledegook which seems to have been de rigueur for those who drafted it.

The Department of Education needs to get a hold on this situation. It should stop trying to square circles with such weasel words as:

“The guidance developed by the expert panel continues to be relevant to the modification of existing electronic recording systems in accordance with the principles (Munro's) set out above.”

Come off it. The guidance is not only not relevant, it often does not make any sense and even when it does it is not wise. It serves no good purpose but to mislead and distract. It should be taken down. All you have to do to assure yourself that this is true is to follow the link on page 2 of the guidance and to look at an “ics recording formats deconstruction table” (whatever that is!) or read the wretched paper on ‘interoperability’ to which a link is provided on page 3. Don’t be conned into thinking that there is someone somewhere who understands this stuff. There isn’t.

Moving forward on ICS requires frank admissions that the project commenced under the last Government is totally misconceived and, like other Government IT projects, that it has been managed in an amateurish, if not naïve, way. The way forward is to admit frankly past mistakes, not seek to pretend that they are in some way part of the new way forward. And there needs to be a completely new approach, with, if necessary, new people at the helm.

Monday, 10 October 2011

A New Academy

It’s good news that the much-criticised Birmingham Council children’s services department has jointly launched, with the University of Birmingham, an academy that will provide continuing social work development aimed at raising the standards of child protection social work in the city.

And it is very good news that the academy is not just for newly qualified staff, but for all of Birmingham's social workers.

Although the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, there is every reason to suppose that ventures of this sort will support the development of better-informed and more reflective practice. Staff retention and recruitment should also be improved if members of staff feel that their professionalism and knowledge are being recognised and valued in this way.

The real issue for an academy like this, however, is one of resources. And the most important resource is that of the time that social workers can give to participating in reflective and educational activities. Without very careful management of caseloads there will always be a danger that the academy will remain inaccessible to many hard-pressed practitioners. This is something Birmingham council managers will have to monitor very carefully if the academy is to be a success.

Too many recommendations from Serious Case Reviews

A very useful research report has recently been published by the Department for Education

Researchers from the universities of Warwick and East Anglia looked in depth at the recommendations contained in 20 Serious Case Reviews. They found that these reviews contained more than 900 recommendations, an average of 47 (yes, 47) per review! And most recommendations were concerned with issues of procedures and training. The researchers also found that there was a "proliferation of tasks to be followed through" resulting from "breaking down recommendations into achievable actions".

The researchers conclude:
"Local Safeguarding Children Boards need to take responsibility for curbing this self-perpetuating cycle of a proliferation of recommendations and tasks and allow themselves to consider other ways of learning from serious case reviews. Recommendations may not be the best way to learn from these cases." (page 2)
These are very welcome words.

Back in February I criticised a Serious Case Review for making what seemed to me to be silly recommendations . Hospital staff in Manchester had not recognised that an alcoholic woman they were treating had the care of a child. So the SCR recommended that all patients attending hospitals in the area should be be asked routinely about the dependents that they are responsible for. 

I call this 'knee jerk proceduralism' - if something wasn't done in a case that went badly wrong, then make it a procedural requirement that it is always done in all new cases. The logic is simple but it is seriously flawed. And it doesn't take much imagination to see where this approach takes us. As time goes by there are more and more things which have to be done to follow the procedures, which leaves less and less time to provide the service. 

The key to learning in child protection - as in other safety critical spheres of activity - is analysis and understanding of what goes wrong and why.  Sheila Fish, Eileen Munro and Sue Bairstow are wholly on the right lines in recommending what they call a 'systems approach' to undertaking SCRs - . In particular they argue that the report should always go beyond the basic facts of a case to try to understand the differing views that different workers had at the time, with the aim of identifying "... underlying patterns of factors in the work environment that support good practice or create unsafe conditions in which poor practice is more likely". 

But I remain sceptical that the findings of individual SCRs are likely to be sufficient in themselves to produce a critical understanding. Although case material is an essential part of the building blocks of an analytical approach to safety it is only through aggregation of a number of cases that a full understanding arises. What we need are SCRs which produce findings in ways which can be more easily aggregated at a national level so that over time a robust understanding of the causes of error emerges.

And meanwhile let's get away from mountains of recommendations which are more likely to obscure safe practice than to inform it.