Monday, 23 January 2012

Mixed messages from research?

There is a real danger of seriously mixed messages circulating in media discussions of the Action for Children / University of Stirling report on neglect published today. The situation is not helped by Action for Children’s headline – “Social workers feel powerless to intervene in child neglect cases”.

It is important to realise that what is NOT required are more powers for social workers, the police or other officials. Present powers deal adequately with any situation in which there is a likelihood of significant harm occurring to a child.

In my view the message from this research is that neglect demands more resources and more resourceful ways of working. Money, ingenuity and creativity are required, not legislation.

New statistics on care proceedings

New statistics from the UK's Ministry of Justice reveal that there were 7,700 children involved in public law court cases in the third quarter of 2011. This is a 28 per cent increase on the same period for 2010.

Clearly the effect of the Baby Peter tragedy continues with more and more children being subject to care proceedings. Sadly I see little evidence in government policy of any concerted strategic approach to this increase which continues to tax not only the Family Courts but also the limited resources of local authorities.

Forthcoming BBC Programme about Child Protection Social Work

The BBC, in partnership with the Open University, has made a programme entitled Damned If They Do, Damned If They Don’t, about child protection social work. The first episode will be screened on BBC 2 at 9.00 pm on Monday 30th January.

It looks interesting.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Cost and Consequence

There is news today of an English local authority facing a £1 million compensation settlement for failing to protect children from sexual abuse by their father. The case dates back to the 1990s. Significant errors appear to have been made in assessing the risk posed by the father, who had a previous conviction for sexual abuse. As a result the children were allowed access to him, during which time they were abused.

The costs of poor quality can be very high. The prospect that cases that have not been handled properly can result in costly litigation is one that all child protection agencies need to take very seriously.

But there is also news today that old habits die hard. The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) reports that employers are making it “impossible for social workers to practice ethically”, by insisting on “unrealistic and unmanageable” caseloads. In a survey of members 81% expressed concern at unmanageable caseloads and 56% said they were very concerned.

Saving money in the short-term is often counter-productive. And it can have catastrophic long-term consequences, not only for organisations that have to make huge compensation payouts, but more importantly for children who have to live with the consequences of abuse that could have been stopped.

Monday, 16 January 2012

The Definition of Neglect

Last week saw three big children’s charities (Barnardo’s, The Children’s Society and the NSPCC) address the House of Commons Education Committee as part of its inquiry into child protection.

The session started with a discussion of neglect. While I very much agreed with the general tenor of the charities’ arguments, namely that neglect is a neglected issue that poses particular problems for child protection systems, the discussion seemed to me to rapidly become unhelpfully pedantic. At times, indeed, it seemed to resemble the discourse of medieval theologians on the issue of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

It was the NSPCC’s Phillip Noyes who introduced the subject of the definition of neglect. He was concerned about what he thought were discrepancies between various definitions. He called for a new definition, although he had to admit that he did not have a proposal for one.

In particular he seemed anxious that the definition of the criminal offence of neglect in Section 1 (2) a of the Children and Young Person’s Act 1933 , which speaks of causing injury to a child’s health as a result of a failure “… to provide adequate food, clothing, medical aid or lodging for (a child)”, was at variance with the Working Together definition:

“Neglect is the persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical and/or psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of the child’s health or development.”

Perhaps neither definition would win a prize in a competition for etymologists, but I struggle to see how they are incompatible or for that matter even problematic. The Working Together definition is a broader one, but then we would expect it to be, given that its purpose is to provide the context for intervention, not to delineate an imprisonable criminal offence. And perhaps the 1933 Act now sounds a bit archaic, but there seems to be no evidence that it has become unusable when it is necessary to pursue criminal charges against people who neglect their children.

Nor do I think that social workers find that their practice is inhibited by not having a better definition of neglect. Most know neglect when they see it. How to define it is just an academic quibble.

I think the real issue is that neglect, broadly defined, is difficult to respond to. There are three distinct problems:

  • The first is that neglect is often an incremental phenomenon. In many cases there is no one clear event or crisis. Rather there is an ongoing, progressive deterioration in the child’s circumstances and conditions. This can make knowing when to intervene difficult and sometimes social workers become ‘acclimatised’ because changes in the family’s circumstances are small, frequent, cumulative and difficult to detect. 
  • The second problem is one of resources. Turning around a situation of neglect can require a long-term commitment of resources to a family. Sometimes it is hard for social workers to admit that these efforts have been in vain, so there is often an argument for just trying one more thing.
  • Thirdly some neglectful parents can inspire great sympathy and compassion. They may not be failing because they do not love their children or because they do not aspire to be good parents. They may be trying their best and still failing. Often deficits in their own histories explain their inability to give their children the care they need. So it can be painful for professionals to think in terms of care proceedings.

I remain puzzled about why Phillip Noyes thinks the issue of the definition of neglect is so important. And I think that his call for “a really serious think” involving a national review of both the civil and criminal law definitions of neglect is likely to result in an unhelpful distraction. I do not believe that we get more responsive child protection because we have clearer definitions, in law or in procedure. To believe that we do seems to be to revert to a pre-Munro view of child protection in which we move forward by following the manual, rather than understanding the child’s perspective and the issues surrounding the case. And better decisions are made not because national committees have produced the relevant guidance, or for that matter better definitions; they are made because professionals who know the child have carefully gathered the facts, considered the options and come to reasoned judgements.

You can watch the video of the Education Committee’s deliberations at:

Raise the age of criminal responsibility

The think tank set up by Tory minister Ian Duncan Smith, has joined in calls for the raising of the age of criminal responsibility. The centre's proposal to raise the age to 12 would bring England, Wales and Northern Ireland in line with Scotland.

The Government should look at this proposal very seriously. There are calls from every quarter, including England's Children's Commissioner, to raise the age, which I believe should be 14.

It is important to remember that raising the age of criminal responsibility does not mean doing nothing about crimes committed by children. In many cases there will need to be intervention, either to protect the public or the child in question. The point is that the criminal courts are not the best place for this to happen.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Abuse by the state

The Guardian reports on the Ay family's court case win against the British Government. It is said that a a six figure sum will be paid to the family in compensation.

This Kurdish family was detained under the UK's immigration laws in 2002 and the mother and her four children were kept in a single room in an immigration detention centre for 13 months. Not surprisingly the children sufferred trauma resulting in long-term ill-effects, apparently of such magnitude that they required specialist medical treatment when they were eventually removed to Germany, the country where they had originally claimed asylum.

Although the UK's immigration policies have now been changed to prohibit keeping children in detention for long periods, the story of this family clearly illustrates how the state can emotionally abuse children and cause them to suffer significant harm. In my view it is unacceptable to detain asylum seeking children even for short periods.