Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Steady on, Maggie

Children and Young People Now reports the Children’s Commissioner for England, Maggie Atkinson, as saying what seem to me to be some rather odd things about Scandinavia. Follow this link

Among a few disparaging comments about children’s services in Sweden she is quoted as saying:

“We (the British) are, as a nation, brilliant by being seduced by what they’re doing in Finland, Sweden and elsewhere.”

Hold on. Didn’t the idea of having a Children’s Commissioner come from there? I seem to remember that the first Barnomudsmannen was appointed in Sweden in 1993, more than 10 years before Maggie’s job was created here.

More on Frontline

I was pleased to see that Kirsty McGregor, writing in Community Care’s Social Work Blog seems to be coming to rather similar conclusions to mine about Frontline.

And she adduces some interesting comments culled from around the blogosphere. 

The one I liked the best, by someone called Fairgo, said that fast-tracking ‘shiny new graduates’ into child protection would not do anything if they haven’t got manageable caseloads and adequate resources to do the job properly.

Fairgo is absolutely spot-on. And conversely if current workers had reasonable caseloads and adequate resources then the ‘fast trackers’ wouldn’t be required.

Frontline appears to me to be a solution to the wrong problem. I predict it will gradually fade away, probably using up some scarce resources to little good effect as it does. What a pity.

The wheels on the bus go round and round …

I was in the audience at a child-safeguarding conference not long ago. As usual we were addressed by the ‘great and the good’ – members of an elite with fancy sounding job titles and, no doubt, even fancier salaries.

It was during one such presentation – in which there was repeated reference to the Munro reforms - that the thought crossed my mind that the presenter would have happily stood there and lectured us all in a similar way about Every Child Matters or the Re-focusing agenda or ritual abuse or the importance of child protection procedures or whatever was the current ‘flavour of the month’.

Did this person believe in the validity (or otherwise) of Munro's arguments? I don’t think so. I don’t even think that the issue of truth or falsity had entered the presenter’s mind. The Munro Review was on today’s agenda but this time next year it could equally be something else.

My cynicism increased when the next ‘expert’ stood up. The problem identified was that children’s and adults’ local authority services no longer came under single management. Talk about swings and roundabouts! I expect this person had argued for the split ten years ago, but I may be doing her/him a disservice …

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Data protection failures in Stoke-on-Trent

Infosecurity Magazine reports on a finding by the Office of the Information Commissioner of a breach of the Data Protection Act 1998 by Stoke-on-Trent Council.

A solicitor employed by the Council mistakenly sent eleven emails concerning a child protection court case to the wrong email address instead of sending them to the council’s barrister. These emails contained confidential and sensitive personal data about the case, including details of non-accidental injuries to a child and medical information about two adults and two other children.

The main failing, it is reported, was that the emails were not encrypted, so that whoever received them was able to read the plain text. Despite the Council having guidelines stating that this type of communication must be encrypted, apparently no encryption facilities were available to the solicitor. As a result she was not disciplined.

The Council was fined £120,000.

Children and their families have a right to expect that highly sensitive personal data will be handled with the utmost care.  The Council needs to put in hand urgent changes to improve information security.

Lean in London

It was very good to hear Andrew Christie on the BBC’s Today programme this morning. He is the director of children’s services for the three London Boroughs of Westminster, Kensington-and-Chelsea and Hammersmith-and-Fulham.

Andrew described how the councils have been implementing Lean management to cut by half the time taken to complete cases in family court proceedings. He told the BBC’s Evan Davis that the changes were inspired by the approach developed for manufacturing by Toyota in the 1960s. The key to the Lean approach was bringing together at exactly the right time and exactly the right place exactly those resources required to produce the service. He thought that the approach was based on commonsense.

You can read more about this initiative at:

You may remember I am a big fan of Lean.

It is really encouraging to hear about how successful this initiative in the centre of London is proving. If you want to find out more about the Lean approach I suggest you look at:

Radnor et al  - Evaluation of the Lean Approach to Business Management and its Use in the Public Sector Scottish Executive Social Research 2006

This can be downloaded free at:

Sunday, 28 October 2012

‘Frontline’ – missing the point

I was disappointed to see in the Independent on Sunday that Michael Gove, the Secretary of Sate for Education, has been persuaded to introduce child protection social work’s equivalent of the Teach First charity, to be called 'Frontline'. The scheme, first floated more than a year ago by former Children’s Minister Andrew Adonis, will aim to recruit ‘exceptional graduates’ who will be fast-tracked into social work.

As I said when I discussed this idea before I think this type of scheme misses the point. It is not just a matter of giving people more support and status. The problems with recruitment, and particularly retention, in children’s social work are very deep seated.

People do not fail to stay in child protection social work because of lack of status, advancement or money. Largely they leave because of the unremitting pressure of trying to do a very difficult, and sometimes dangerous, job that is made more treacherous by poor support, bureaucratic obstacles and a continuing blame culture.

Munro has reported and her recommendations have been endorsed. But I still see little evidence of widespread cultural change, either in the higher echelons of the civil service and senior management or at the front-line.

The first step, Mr. Gove, should be to make the working environment less toxic. And don’t deceive yourself into thinking that a few young people from Russell Group universities will somehow prove to be more resilient than the run of the mill social work graduate. They won’t.

Friday, 19 October 2012

The Best Interests of the Child

Mr Justice Coleridge is entirely right to have ordered that a couple who were duped into accepting a child in a Nigerian clinic as their own should have custody of that child.

The child is now two years old and, it appears, has been with her carers since near her birth. The judge has decided that these people are perfectly fit and proper to care for her describing them as "people of the highest calibre and of complete integrity".

Who could argue for taking a two year-old child away from a situation in which she is settled and happy, with people whom she loves and regards as her parents? In this case what was the alternative? Take the child into care and place her for adoption with a new family? That seems little short of cruel.

But there are those who believe that the public interest (in combating trafficking) outweighs the best interests of the individual child.

Clearly everything needs to be done to stop child trafficking, but the day the family courts in Britain begin to extend the scope of their decision-making beyond the best interests of a particular child is the start of a very slippery slope. Fortunately it has not yet arrived.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

The Effects of Cuts

Patrick Butler writes in today's Guardian that spending cuts are forcing local authorities in Britain to focus their resources on reactive, crisis intervention (such as child protection) at the expense of preventative work with children and families. 

The study he describes, by the Family and Parenting Institute, also found substantial increases in demand for local authority children’s services at a time of budget restraint.

One of the eight councils in the study had experienced a 70% increase in referrals to children's social care in18 months and a 50% rise in child protection cases. Smaller, but nevertheless significant, rises were more typical. Big increases in the numbers of children taken into care contributed to the pressure to find money that the councils simply did not have.

Achieving the right balance between preventative early intervention and responding to crises is vital to the provision of effective services. We all know that under-spending on prevention can be a false economy, particularly with the very high costs that are incurred if a child has to be taken into care.

Government has to take responsibility. It is no good simply saying that cuts across the board are inevitable if all concerned know that a saving made in preventative services now will result in unavoidable increased expenditure on reactive services later. That is just hypocrisy. Public sector spending needs to be planned in a reasonable way and the consequences of cuts in one service need to be assessed for their impact on other services. Otherwise the inevitable result is that services decline while at the same time the expected savings are not made. That is an outcome that no sensible person could support.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

At it again ...

It is hard not to despair when faced with yet another article in the Daily Telegraph by Christopher Booker.

Booker’s thesis is that the child protection system in Britain is ‘dysfunctional’. He says that there are “…scores of cases of children seized from their parents for what appear to be quite absurd reasons”. But when we read the detail we are faced with accounts which seem to turn very much on the author’s own assessment of what has happened, rather than on independent empirical fact.

What he describes as “the strangest and most disturbing” case he has covered is described at length in his most recent article.

It is clear from Booker’s account of this case that not only were matters dealt with in the Family Court, but also that the parents were successfully prosecuted in a jury trial in the criminal courts. Apparently, they were subsequently imprisoned.

Nobody would deny that miscarriages of justice occur. But Booker must do more than simply assert that this case is a 'travesty of justice'. The only evidence he offers is that he knows ‘enough’ about the family and that he has followed the case for two years. Clearly he is convinced of the parents’ innocence, but to convince others what are required are hard facts – not simply a reporter’s opinions.

The child protection system can be a soft touch for campaigning journalists. Professionals involved in complex legal proceedings are unlikely to rush to be interviewed. Family members inevitably, and understandably, will often provide only a one-sided account. Crucial evidence may not be in the public domain.

I find it difficult to believe for one moment that there is some sort of conspiracy between medical experts, local authorities, the police and the courts. Yet that appears to be the only possible explanation of cases like the ones Booker recounts.

In my view the child protection system in Britain has important weaknesses and from time to time it fails. Things are by no means perfect. That is because the task is complex and difficult. There are frequently resourcing issues and there are important procedural and bureaucratic obstacles to good practice. But there is no conspiracy. When things go wrong they are usually failures, not felonies.

And most of the time things are broadly done correctly, even if that is with some difficulty.

The least helpful approach to creating a climate of improvement in child protection is to foster a myth of child snatching conspiracies – in Booker’s words “...cases of children seized from their parents for what appear to be quite absurd reasons”. I have been involved with child protection since 1977 and I have yet to meet a social worker who wants to split up loving families. Most go to work hoping that they can keep children with their birth parents wherever possible, even though they know that is often hard to do.

One of the aims of the new College of Social Work  is to engage with the media to promote a more accurate and positive portrayal of social work. Perhaps they should invite Christopher Booker to meet some child protection social workers?