Small changes are beautiful

In the last of our series on the future of
child protection, Rob Hutchinson argues that area child protection
committees should have more powers to improve the way that
different agencies work together.

In the debate about the future of child
protection, it is easy to forget that the number of child deaths
has actually fallen considerably. And it is also worth noting that
these improvements have occurred over the same period as social
services have been in existence.

The UK is second only to Sweden in the league
table of the reduction in deaths of children aged one to 14 years.
In addition, recent data based on World Health Organisation figures
compared the average homicide rate for all children up to 14 years
old between 1974 and 1994. The finding was that the rate in England
and Wales had fallen from 66 to 27 per million per year. For babies
under one, the most dangerous year of life, the rate fell from 51
to 18.8 per million per year.1

Phase 2 of the Victoria Climbie Inquiry, I
hope, will take account not just of what would have saved Victoria,
but of what can help all other children keep safe. The lessons from
the inquiry will inform the key questions as to whether the policy
is sound, or whether the whole structure, philosophy and practice
of child protection needs a total rethink.

I believe the policy is strong but that “no
change” is not an option. There are issues for government to
address – these include new thinking on the way we are bringing up
our children, including the smacking and shaking issue, the role of
a children’s commissioner and the need for national procedures for
child protection. There are also issues for local government and
all the agencies directly and indirectly involved in child
protection. There are also responsibilities for communities.

On the basis that 100 people improving by 1
per cent is a more realistic target than one person trying to
improve by 100 per cent, the importance of a succession of small
changes as opposed to one major change needs to be borne in mind in
determining what will help keep children safe.

I am reluctant to start with a bureaucratic
issue because I strongly believe that the major emphasis for
strengthening the child protection system needs to be given to the
front line of all key services. However, much has been said about
creating child protection teams as a catch-all solution and this
will impact on the front line. More interestingly, Lord Laming has
speculated on virtual child protection teams. Each member of a
multidisciplinary virtual child protection team, which would be
accountable to the area child protection committee, would report to
a team manager while continuing to be employed by their respective

There are so many different aspects to child
protection that organisationally it is virtually impossible to get
all the key players into the same box. That is why Lord Laming’s
speculative suggestion is particularly radical as well as more
difficult to achieve. It requires all parts of the children and
families world to focus on key outcomes and decide on how they are
going to contribute to them.

Four outcomes might be:

– To keep all children safe (prevention).

– To protect children when they are abused
(assessment and protection).

– To counsel and support children and their
families where there has been abuse (treatment).

– To manage perpetrators and potentially
dangerous people in a way that protects children (safe

Everyone involved would have to demonstrate
how they could contribute to each outcome and then be held
accountable. It would require detailed agreements on how the
police, social services and health service undertake an assessment
of a child and where it would happen.

At the front line the members of a virtual
team will ensure the integration of objectives, roles, practice and
review of performance. However, a virtual team would avoid the
destabilisation of restructuring and the danger of creating a child
protection structure which might not interact with the other parts
of the system.

Other recommendations I would hope for is the
re-creation of what used to be called a training support programme
for those involved in child protection. One problem that exists is
that joint training of professionals is not being fulfilled because
schools can’t (or won’t) fund supply teachers, police officers are
on a rest day, paediatricians are doing ward rounds and social
workers are in court. All understandable reasons and all of them
unacceptable. It is through the joint understanding of each other’s
roles, as well as the relationships that are created, that we can
provide the safety net of joint working and decision-making when,
at the worst, one party makes a mistake.

Three other areas I hope will be considered

– Extending the ways in which children can
themselves directly seek help through helplines, and mobile phone
texting, for example.

– Engage community support in protecting
children and families through the neighbourhood renewal

– Ensure that those children living away from
home receive the same level of oversight and monitoring that
looked-after children receive.

The inquiry needs to publicly recognise and
praise the staff, including health visitors, social workers, police
and others who undertake this complex responsibility and together
achieve so much success in keeping so many children safe.

Sir Ronald Waterhouse, in the north Wales
inquiry, emphasised the need for sufficient resources of both money
and staff if children are to be kept safe. The forthcoming
comprehensive spending review will be the test of where the
government places child safety in its priorities.

1 Unicef statistics on
child mortality can be found at

Rob Hutchinson is chairperson of the
Association of Directors of Social Services children and families

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.