Child protection has hit the headlines in the media during the last month in a big way, following the tragic death of baby P. The three adults responsible for his death – either directly or indirectly – certainly took the blame. But so did Haringay Council, and in particular the social workers involved in the case for failing to prevent the death and their managers for running a department which allowed such a tragedy to happen.The language used in the papers ranged from the professional to the intemperate. If lynching had still been legal, the anger shown in some articles would have led to a few more deaths; as it was, they arranged petitions and called for resignations.
This will not be the end of it. Inquiries are to take place and their conclusions will be considered before any action arising is determined. At each stage, the case will be aired again in the media. The ubiquitous picture of the little blond boy with the wide-open eyes will be iconic for years to come.
Looking at the case from a child care viewpoint, what is there we can learn?
The first point is that such incidents will continue to happen at intervals, if only because of human failings on the part of those killing the children and the agencies who are meant to monitor them. Ever since the Curtis Report there have been child deaths at the hands of parents, step-parents and other relatives, though only a few have hit the headlines. There has also been a steady stream of reports, many of which criticised the agencies involved and recommended changes in professional practice and child protection systems.
Just as the First World War was meant to be the war that ended all wars – and it patently has not been, so there can be no report (not even Lord Laming’s report on the death of Victoria Climbie) which is the last word on this subject, whose advice will prevent all future deaths. We may improve practice and we may reduce deaths, but human fallibility is something we shall have to live and work with.
This means, as the second point, that professionals working in child protection will have to live with the uncertainty of knowing that they could be the next ones on the banner headlines, with calls for dismissal, damage done to professional careers and personal attacks. The threat is real.After all the action following the death of Victoria Climbie, how could another child die? Surely professionals should now be able to prevent such tragedies?
These are understandable questions on the part of the media, and the wider community does need some sort of answers if it is to understand what happened and come to terms with it. The only simple answers it can find are that the killers are evil and the professionals incompetent. The truth is usually much more complex, and even those who conduct detailed enquiries into the events may not know all the causes and dynamics of the case.
The public anger – painful though it may be to professionals involved – is preferable to apathy. It is right that the wider community should be concerned and want its vulnerable little children protected. As Keith White has pointed out in his article on children’s rights in this issue, when there are crises such as wars or famines, children’s rights are nowhere on the agenda, and worldwide, millions die in childhood. It is preferable to live in a country where baby P’s death is seen as a scandal and a tragedy.
The question is how we can use such events to help the wider public understand more fully about child protection, and what we can learn to reduce further instances.
A consistent message which emerges from many inquiries is that before the child died there was a series of errors and missed opportunities where the application of good standard practice could have prevented the death. Indeed, if we were to look at cases where events did not result in the child’s death, we would see some with similar failures which thankfully did not end in tragedy and others where a professional retrieved the situation by intervening and taking action. Studies of case files show fairly frequent instances of newly allocated social workers being alarmed at the state of the case and taking action to address problems to which their predecessor had become inured. I made this point in the series of articles which appeared in the Webmag last year under the banner Learning from History, where I drew on my work in analysing the cases of children formerly under the supervision of social services who were seeking damages for alleged negligence. Good practice entails fulfilling statutory requirements, undertaking reviews at the right time, recording properly, viewing cases critically in supervising social workers, carrying personal accountability for group decisions taken at meetings, implementing decisions, and ensuring that teams are fully staffed.
It is important to emphasise that there is an enormous amount of good practice going on. Even where things go wrong, it is not necessarily the fault of the social workers. But if good practice were universal, much less would go wrong.
Bureaucracy and Motivation
The Children Act 1989 and the response to Victoria Climbie’s death has been to introduce more complex systems, to close loopholes and to demand accountability through paperwork. It is a trend which has hit education and police as well. The outcome is an enormous amount of aggravating bureaucracy about which the professionals in all these services complain. Does it make the services more effective though?My impression – and it is no more than that – is that the additional bureaucracy risks undermining the quality of social work, rather than enhancing it. It is not simply a question of the time involved in filling in all the paperwork, which clearly detracts from the time available for contact with the child and the family. It is that the rewards for the worker are then attached to the successful completion of the forms rather than the resolution of the child’s problems. Tick every box and you avoid criticism; spend time with the child, and the permanent record looks bad.
Until fairly recently, too few comprehensive assessments of children’s needs were undertaken, so it is not a question of returning to the good old days. But if you read the thorough assessments undertaken, say, thirty years ago, the child’s problems – and the social worker’s concern for the child – often stand out more graphically than in the multi-page standardised formats used today.
It is important to maintain systems and to record information. I suggest that it is even more important to maintain the social worker’s morale. The social worker, it has to be assumed, comes into work with children to be of help to them, to protect them and their rights and to help them fulfil the five key areas of their lives listed in Every Child Matters.
The role of their managers, their agencies and the wider community is to encourage them to remain motivated, alert, sensitive to what might be going wrong, capable of being supportive to parents while observing independently, persistent in seeking the best for the child, keeping the child’s long-term needs in mind, courageous at times when action is required.
The media, as part of the wider community, should be helping in that task. I have heard that research has shown that if a child is to pay attention to criticism, s/he needs to be praised four times for every time that they are told off. It sounds like good sense, but I doubt if it applies only to children. If the media were to praise social workers four times for every criticism they dole out, it would at least make social workers feel valued and make the criticism more bearable.
If we do not offer such appreciation, we run the risk that only people with the thickest skins will be prepared to run the risk of being pilloried in the press, and it will be even harder to staff hard-pressed inner-city departments. Then, of course, there is the risk that the whole cycle starts all over again.