Thursday, 24 November 2011

More on Data Protection

There seems to be more than just one case of data protection lapses with child protection records. Here are a couple more cases: one in which data was posted on the internet and one in which minutes were posted to the wrong people.

Apparently this is all coming to light because of Freedom of Information Act requests to local authorities by the campaigning group, Big Brother Watch. Well done - this kind of thing needs to be made public.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Data Protection

The BBC reports that an English local authority has been fined for breaches of the Data Protection Act concerning the loss of child protection information. Apparently the minutes of a child protection conference were among the items that were accidentally disclosed.

No filing system, of course, can be made 100% secure, but it must be deeply concerning to all, especially the children, that information of such a sensitive nature should have leaked into the wrong hands. It is hard to imagine a document more private and confidential than the minutes of a child protection conference, filled, as it is likely to be, with details of the minutiae of family life.

The council concerned is, of course, revising its procedures. But I think this episode should be a wake-up call to all local authorities to review the arrangements for keeping child protection information safe. Confidentiality and data security are preconditions for gaining the trust of children and their families. Without confidentiality and security no child protection system can function effectively.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Learning from experience in Hackney

Reading the extract (published in the Guardian) from Steve Goodman’s and Isabelle Trowler’s new book on “reclaiming social work”, it is hard not to be impressed by the work that has been undertaken in Hackney. And it is hard not to agree with the ideas and principles under-pinning it.

In particular I like their analysis. They write of recent trends in children’s social work:
“With greater reliance on a procedural approach to professional practice, and ICT systems' solutions, a workforce often incapable of professional, creative and independent thinking had emerged.”
That is spot-on and neatly summarises the impact of policy over at least two decades.

The other thing that really interested me in this extract was the phrase they use – “slowing down to speed up”. By that they mean doing the job thoroughly in the first place, by using a range of professional skills. This is in contrast to just accepting the presenting problem and following the procedures. For example, instead of just accepting a difficult adolescent into care, skilled clinical practitioners are used, early in the intervention, to work with the child and her or his family with a view to achieving a solution. The result, claim Goodman and Trowler, is far fewer children coming into care.

It strikes me that this is very similar to the quality management maxim “get it right first time” and the views of the quality guru Philip Crosby that “quality is free”. 

Crosby argues that the cost of poor quality can be very high, involving extensive rework or even replacement. Another major cost is the loss of confidence by customers or service-users. So spending more up-front to improve quality can reduce the subsequent costs of getting things wrong. And that can result in total costs actually falling over time.

I believe that a poor initial investigation of a child protection concern can have numerous costly consequences:
  1. repeat inquiries, conferences and meetings
  2. time spent in re-referring and receiving repeat referrals
  3. injuries to a child, which may otherwise have been prevented, possibly requiring treatment and hospitalisation
  4. criminal proceedings that might otherwise have been avoided
  5. avoidable reception of a child into care and the cost of fostering
  6. costs of civil court proceedings
  7. costs of complaints or holding internal inquiries and Serious Case Reviews
That list should be a big incentive to us all to look at ways in which doing it right first time can be achieved.

To return to Goodman's and Trowler's approach, there is only one thing that worries me. What seems to me distinctive about 'reclaiming social work' is that the thinking and analysis was done in Hackney where the reforms were subsequently implemented. Rolling out the approach elsewhere might work, but there is a danger that because the analytic thinking has happened elsewhere, managers may be simply looking for a quick fix, like so many of the initiatives that governments have foisted onto child protection in Britain over the years. So often major quality improvement programmes in organisations fail because those implementing them only see the solutions not the problems. Let's hope this does not happen in this case.  

Monday, 21 November 2011

Sally’s Story

It is well worth listening to twelve year old Sally talking about how she came to be in care to Genevieve Tudor on BBC Radio Shropshire. The interview featured in BBC Radio 4’s “Pick of the Week” on 20th November 2011. You can hear it at:

Scroll forward through the audio file to 18 minutes and 12 seconds to hear what Sally had to say.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Talking to Children – some useful tools

A good introduction to some techniques for communicating with children and young people is provided in Community Care by Professor David Shemmings and colleagues.

I think there is a real dearth of solid practical guidance on child protection and, probably, far too much procedure, theory and policy. So it is really good to see something like this which is intensely practical and very useful.

I have often thought that it would be very useful to have a practical guide to ‘knocking on doors’ – i.e. what are good ways to explain to angry or frightened parents that you are visiting them to undertake a child protection inquiry.

Another area where much more practical help is required is in observation and recording. It seems to be just assumed that it is relatively easy to conduct a fraught interview, drive back to the office, deal with some telephone calls and then write down what happened in a way that is both accurate and helpful to whoever has to read the record. Believe me it isn’t.

A ‘Scary’ Story from the Front-line

Community Care reports on a conference speech by a service manager. He is reported as saying that some child protection social workers are finding the new approach to assessment, as proposed by the Munro Review, “scary” and “a challenge”. He is quoted as saying that some social workers are “reluctant to analyse information or provide their judgment or opinions”.

This is indeed a scary story. I am struggling to understand what must have been happening before the new way of working was implemented. Surely nobody actually relied on the Initial and Core Assessment forms to make decisions for them? I know that these forms purport to support decision-making (not very well in my opinion) but I cannot believe that anybody ever believed they made it unnecessary!

Perhaps this story is indicative of just how steep the learning curve required to deliver the Munro reforms is. Quite clearly the necessary changes will not be brought about by training courses based around changes in the design of forms and other paperwork. What is required is a fundamental shift in the culture of organisations.

Monday, 14 November 2011

The Importance of Babies

The NSPCC research study, All Babies Count, is to be welcomed for reminding us that nearly half of serious case reviews concern babies under the age of one year and that babies are eight times more likely to be killed by their carers than older children.

The report also highlights the ‘toxic trio’ of parental mental illness, substance abuse and domestic violence as being important risk factors. The authors estimate that nearly 200,000 babies in the UK are at high risk in this way.

Also to be welcomed is the NSPCC’s response to the research, which will involve education programmes, derived from Australian and US models, with the aim of reaching parents of 80,000 newly born babies over a two year period.

From the perspective of child protection practice, rather than preventative campaigns, the research seems to me to imply an ever-stronger focus on babies. It is all too easy to operate with an optimistic assumption that a parent will improve her or his parenting abilities over time, or that the causes of an early abusive event can be successfully addressed or the consequences mitigated, but the sad truth is that the fragility of very young children means that during the first two years of life there is often little or no room for manoeurve . And a child who experiences abuse and neglect at this age will suffer long-term damage that is often difficult to repair.

I believe child protection social workers need to be experts in the health and welfare of babies. And I believe that child protection services need to be designed differently to meet the needs of different groups.  Babies and older children require quite different approaches. But a one-size-fits-all approach has been reinforced by the widespread adoption of standardising procedures that restrict the social worker’s ability to tailor services to the needs of a particular child. That can mean that the special needs of babies are often marginalised or neglected, especially where there are older children in the same family.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

The Future of the NSPCC

The NSPCC (The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) has been in the news this week. The Guardian has an interview with the Society’s Chief Executive and also reports on the publication of new All Babies Count research.

Andrew Flanagan, the former TV executive who now heads the NSPCC, explains his new strategy for the Society. Instead of spreading its resources thinly by providing a range of services, he believes that in future the emphasis should be on selectively testing out new ways of working and developing new policies on child protection, with the aim of persuading government and the children’s services establishment to adopt them if they prove successful. Flanagan speaks of the NSPCC aiming to become “an incubator for social polices”.

This is not an entirely new approach - I can remember people talking about it at the NSPCC in the early naughties – and clearly it has some merits. But it is not without its difficulties. A significant one is that it will take a great deal of ingenuity to persuade the public that they should contribute money to a ‘think tank’ rather than to a good old fashioned provider of services. Being able to say “we helped x thousand children last year” has a reassuringly tangible ring to it. Saying “we tested some experimental services which didn’t work very well” is probably not a donation winner. However, some medical research charities have been very successful in Britain and perhaps there are models there that the NSPCC can emulate. But I suspect that the public have greater faith in medical research than in social ‘science’. And the demonstrable benefits of new drugs and treatments are a lot easier to understand and communicate than the all-too-often ephemeral outcomes of social experimentation.

Another difficulty that this new approach faces is that some of the services provided by the NSPCC are not suitable for absorption into state provision. On-line or telephone counselling services for children, such as ChildLine, need to be able to give assurances of confidentiality which, even if they were forthcoming from statutory services, would be unlikely to be trusted by children and young people. In similar vein, one of the really valuable things about the counselling services that the NSPCC has provided in schools is that these are services that are not part of the school establishment. Children know they will be treated differently by a voluntary sector service provider and welcome the opportunity to share their concerns and anxieties outside the formal bureaucracy of the school.

But perhaps the most important difficulty with the 'think tank' model is that there has never been a shortage of people in Britain ready to propose new ways of working in child protection. In the 1970s and 1980s researchers identified different forms of abuse and ways in which it can occur. Experts and civil servants proposed new procedures to deal with these challenges. Then, in the 1990s inspectors suggested that services needed to be refocused to take more account of children's needs. To ensure that this happened various frameworks and checklists were developed. In the early 2000s the Government and the children's services establishment became preoccupied with information sharing and the potential contribution of IT. Procedures and checklists were brought together to create IT systems which did not work.

Arguably the cumulative effect of many of these changes has been that child protection services in Britain have become ever less professional and more stressed. Children are in danger of being processed rather than helped. Depressingly, child deaths and critical service failures persist. And those people who deliver the services remain as confused as ever about what they should be doing and why.

The problem here is one of 'top-down' rather than 'bottom-up'. It is so tempting to allocate service development to a technocratic elite, working in ideal laboratory conditions, and to allocate service provision to a much larger group of 'doers', working in the real world. But the effect of this division of labour is seldom as productive as it first promises to be. The demonstration models developed by the technocrats often do not resonate with the humble service deliverers. Resentment and complaints of blue-skies thinking fill the air. Reforms and new ways of working are formally adopted, only to be subverted and remodeled into traditional practices at the earliest opportunity. Organisations do not learn; members of staff learn to see off innovations and to subvert change.   

Andrew Flanagan tells the Guardian that he wants the NSPCC "... to become a nimble, instinctive risk-taking champion for children: defying the government and the charity establishment when required, rather than always seeking to join hands with it." I have no problem with the NSPCC being more willing to challenge Government and to be more assertive, but I do not believe that what we require is an ivory tower think tank. The real challenge of achieving high quality in child protection services will not, in my view, be met in this way. Rather what is required are ways of creating the conditions in which those actually doing the work are enabled and involved daily in taking responsibility for service improvement, resulting in continuous developments based on first hand knowledge of where the service fails its users. 

Inspection and the Costs of Poor Quallity

The Yorkshire Post reports a record volume of child protection cases in Doncaster, said to be an increase of 330%. The main reason for this appears to be the reactivation of a large number of forgotten cases that were discovered during the turnaround of Doncaster’s children’s services department, which has now emerged from the special measures that were imposed by Ofsted. Sadly it seems that a consequence of doing the job properly is a whacking overspend of £2.6 million.

This is a good example of why inspection is such a blunt tool in the quest for improved quality in children’s services. Yes, Ofsted identified a failing service in Doncaster and yes, it has now been turned around, but in the course of these events hundreds of children have not received the service they needed and deserved and the taxpayers of Doncaster have been left with an unexpected bill.

The quality guru, W.E.Deming, always maintained that reliance on inspection in manufacturing processes was actually a cause of poor quality. The idea that quality defects may, at some later point in the process, be uncovered and rectified means that those who are producing components of the product are less likely to give attention to quality issues. That results in waste, when the defects are eventually discovered, and, of course, some of the substandard product may eventually slip through the inspection process to find its way into the hands of soon-to-be dissatisfied customers.

Services, which unlike goods are produced and consumed simultaneously, are more difficult to inspect than manufacturing processes. That is because the defect is only apparent to an inspector once the service has been delivered to the end-user. A defective television set can be taken out of circulation and recycled before it reaches the store, but by the time a child protection enquiry is recognised as being defective it is usually too late: the harm is already done.

I am not arguing for the immediate abolition of inspection of child protection services, but we do need to get away from the idea that inspection will ever deliver the kind of quality required in services that are safety critical. Rather than focusing on passing Ofsted inspections, managers need to become focused on creating the conditions in which everyone is constantly striving to achieve ever higher quality. That is the only way towards achieving more effective and safer services.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Overworked in Wales?

Wales Online gives an account of conditions in an Intake and Assessment team dealing with child protection in Cardiff.

High caseloads, stress, low morale and unfilled vacancies are mentioned as being important factors. One social worker is said to have a caseload of 49.

I think we need some solid national data on what is happening in child protection teams. We know that since Baby Peter the number of care orders made has increased dramatically, but we don’t have a clear picture of the impact of this on the workforce. Central government could fund a quick independent research study. That would not be expensive and it would be a solid base for a more strategic approach, which at present is sadly lacking.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The College of Social Work

I have always believed that in Britain we need a college of social work, if for no other reason than that all the other caring professions have their colleges and royal colleges which take a leading role in professional standards and development. If surgeons have a royal college, why not social workers?

A college of social work would, I am sure, be good for child protection social work. Having a national membership body with a remit for developing practice and practitioners would surely result in a better standard of service to abused and neglected children and their families. And the college could form a focal point for independent research and the development of new ways of working. Not only that, it would be supportive to practitioners and enhance their professional self-esteem. In short it is a good idea.

Why then is the present project to establish the College of Social Work running into such serious difficulties? Accusations of various sorts are flying back and forth between the Interim Board of the College and the British Association of Social Workers. A trades union, Unison, appears to have become party to the proceedings (for reasons which I do not understand) and the Government seems to be sitting on the sidelines just waiting for the next dramatic impasse. Not a pretty sight.

Without being privy to the contents of late night discussions in what used to be called 'smoke-filled rooms', it seems to me that it is impossible to say who is right and who is wrong. But it is possible to say that the whole spat is a complete disgrace which is doing the profession and the cause of higher practice standards no good at all. So some-one needs to bang some heads together quickly.

The Interim Board of the College appears to have acted in ways which to me seem strange. Rather than concentrating on what needs to be done in the short-term to create a suitable governance structure and to attract the maximum number of members, they seem to have broadened their activities into all sorts of consultation and policy areas. 

And I personally felt patronised to receive an email asking me to participate in a key word exercise about the nature of social work.  This is the kind of thing I used to get my students to do on day one of their courses when I taught in a university - and which they used to complain about as being infantilising! I would have much preferred to have been treated as a grown-up and simply asked to give my opinions about what the college should do, how it should be governed and how it should develop. 

    Delays in the Family Courts

    I was impressed with Sanchia Berg’s article on David Norgrove’s call for a six-month deadline for care proceedings in the family courts (

    According to Berg, judges defend lengthy proceedings on the grounds that they need to scrutinise the work of social workers. Judges told her about many cases where the local authority had not handled cases well, requiring the court to intervene. Thus delays, although undesirable, are inevitable.

    Norgrove, she says, hopes that the Munro reforms will result in higher standards of social work, which will give judges more confidence. The detail of case planning can then be left to social workers, with judges left free to concentrate on the issue of whether the children should be made subject to a care order.

    This account neatly encapsulates the ‘chicken and egg’ nature of this problem. And it sits well with what we know about the long-standing problems of child protection services in Britain: staff and skills shortages and social workers overburdened with bureaucracy. Paradoxically under-resourcing local authority children’s services, and deskilling social workers, results in work being displaced to the courts where it is processed at much greater cost.

    I am very worried about David Norgrove’s recommendation for a six month time limit on care proceedings. Unless this is phased with real and measurable progress on implementing Munro’s reforms, the likelihood is that uncertainties, which are currently being resolved at length in the family courts, will be simply re-exported to unprepared children’s services departments where they will receive even less satisfactory attention. Inevitably children will suffer.

    Wednesday, 2 November 2011

    More on Transracial Adoption

    Ben Douglas, a black person who was adopted by white parents, writes passionately in today’s Daily Mail in favour of transracial adoption. I think it is difficult to argue with his conclusion that “…what children need above all is a loving home rather than an ethnic match”.

    However recent research reveals a complex picture of the disadvantages faced by black and ethnic minority children in the adoption process. It is important to ensure that reforms achieve the best possible outcomes for all children, regardless of their race and ethnicity.

    And I disagree with Ben’s criticism of remarks by Children’s Minister, Tim Loughton, which Ben says dash his hopes for reform. On the contrary the Daily Mail reports Tim telling the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that “… although having an ethnic match may be desirable, it is a bonus and not a deal breaker”. That seems to me to be a reasonable starting point for reform.