The Victoria Climbie report – what next?

Anthony Douglas is director of social care services in

Child protection is very expensive and senior managers
are being forced to spend a lot of time trying to control child
care budgets.

When I managed a wide range of council services, including
leisure, libraries and housing, as well as social services, child
protection services and cases were the only ones that kept me awake
at night. They still do. Child protection work is as tough as it
gets in the public sector, however experienced staff are. And many
are not.

Sitting in a duty team allocation meeting recently, I was reminded
of the difficulty teams face when deciding which referrals warrant
further information-gathering, and which need a full child
protection investigation. Most are capable of more than one

For example, an average team can receive half a dozen referrals for
domestic violence a week. Research tells us about the strong link
between domestic violence and risks to children, direct and
indirect. The best safeguard would be to assess every referral, but
resources don’t begin to stretch that far, so first line managers
and senior practitioners have to make difficult choices about which
situations to follow up. Department of Health guidance, local child
protection procedures, and now Lord Laming’s recommendations are a
brilliant toolkit, yet decision-making and risk assessments on
child care cases remain above all a question of professional
instinct and judgement.

Senior managers and front-line staff are both overloaded. Most
social workers, senior practitioners and team managers carry far
too many cases to manage safely, and most senior managers have far
too broad a portfolio to focus on any one service or situation to
the requisite depth. Management systems in social care tend to take
on more and more tasks on top of their core business, diluting the
time spent on front-line services.

A typical senior manager today will be required to make a
significant impact on the corporate style and working of their
agency, which is time-consuming; on external partnerships, which
can mean regular liaison with dozens of people and organisations in
numerous networks; and on a host of miscellaneous matters which
greedily devour the scarcest resource of all – time.

Managers cannot take their eye off other services. Community care
services, particularly services to help older people live at home,
are vital to the successful delivery of the government’s NHS Plan.
Services to people with mental health problems and people with
learning difficulties cannot be allowed to wither on the vine. And
in some parts of the country, drug and alcohol services are just as
important as child care services, as many parents neglect and harm
their children because of substance misuse, or indeed, mental
health problems. Child care services are neither self-contained nor
are they a professional island.

Just as child protection services are complex, so they are
expensive. Considerable senior management time is spent in
attempting to control child care budgets. It has been like this for
the past 15 years. At present, there is a new national overspend on
these budgets of about half a billion pounds. A responsibility of
senior management, whatever the organisation, is to balance the
budget. Managers frequently have to stretch out recruitment
processes, pare back voluntary sector grants, or cut down on
administration posts which in turn means that case files and
records don’t get managed properly. The supply crisis matches the
demand crisis.

Social workers and foster carers are rare breeds. Costly and barely
suitable resources have to be purchased as a result. Money set
aside to support the many has to be diverted to pay for the few. If
there is one public sector budget that should not be cash limited
for the next few years, until standards are raised, it is the
national budget for children looked after, child protection
services, and children in need.

The way Victoria Climbie died is a reminder to us all to get the
basics of a local child care service right, and then to keep them

Catherine Watkins is team manager for a local authority
child care assessment team.

More needs to be done to ensure there are enough
experienced practiitioners in front-line roles.

Anyone who has read Lord Laming’s inquiry report could not fail
to be moved by the plight of Victoria Climbie. I am sure it is
every social worker and team manager’s greatest fear that a child
for whom they are responsible suffers appalling abuse and, even
worse, that they fail to detect that child’s suffering.

I have never favoured the idea of separating services for children
in need from child protection, so I am relieved that Lord Laming
chose not to recommend that route. Children frequently move between
the two areas so a separation of them would lead to more
difficulties in information-sharing between agencies.

There are 108 recommendations in the report of which 46 relate to
social care. Laming has announced his intent to make sure these are
implemented and suggests a timescale for this.

What impact will the recommendations have on practice? Many of
Laming’s recommendations outline best practice to ensure that a
child about whom there have been concerns will be properly
safeguarded and not allowed to slip through the system, whether or
not the concerns are of a child protection nature.

The Department of Health’s framework for assessment, Quality
Protects programme and performance assessment framework all provide
tools and measures for social workers and their managers to use.
These set targets that we need to achieve ranging from number of
initial assessments to complete within seven days, to the length of
time children should remain on the child protection register and to
how many children should be looked after by the local authority. It
is then the responsibility of the service and team managers to
devise strategies for achieving them. I am therefore encouraged
that Lord Laming has levelled responsibility for children’s welfare
at senior managers. They need to have a greater awareness of the
demands on front-line workers to achieve what is being asked of
them and to safeguard the welfare of children.

In all of the inquiry reports a common theme has been the lack of
information-sharing between agencies. Social workers are often only
as good as the information they receive, so it is vital that other
agencies pass concerns about children quickly and clearly. Any
delay could potentially be harmful for children. Lord Laming
identifies the difficulties that occur when a case does not fall
into the section 47 category, at which point there is currently no
duty upon other agencies to share information. He argues that there
should be guidance on the sharing of information in these cases
when parental consent has been withheld. This I welcome. We are
often left with uncomfortable feelings about a case, but without
“evidence” that the child is currently at “risk of harm” we are
unable to discuss it with other agencies because the parent has
withheld consent.

While many of the performance assessment framework indicators and
the recommendations made by Lord Laming detail good practice, there
are many obstacles. Recruitment and retention issues have an
impact. Shortages within the assessment team mean fewer people to
undertake the work, shortages in the longer-term team mean cases
that require longer term services cannot be passed to it, or cases
being “unallocated”. The number of referrals received does not
reduce because there are staff vacancies.

I hope that the government takes this opportunity to address the
difficulties facing social workers. Lord Laming says workers
undertaking child protection work need to have the necessary skills
and experience. To achieve this more needs to be done to retain
experienced practitioners in front-line roles. We need to ensure
that we are attracting social workers to these difficult and
demanding jobs, and that the public profile of social workers is

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