A broad spectrum

Reflective practice is a girder that helped build social work. Reflecting on what worked well and what did not provides the pointers for tomorrow. Thus social care organisations like to portray themselves as learning organisations.

And sometimes you do not realise something is wrong until you experience it yourself. And out of the negative effects there is usually a chance to do something positive, something that puts it right.

This was the situation faced by workers with the Barnardo’s Spectrum project, which is contracted to Hounslow social services in west London to run services for severely disabled children. It works with about 100 families, employing about 60 workers. It provides home care, outreach and family-link (fostering) services.

An outreach worker with the project was working with a 14 year old with severe learning difficulties who disclosed at school abuse by someone known to him. “It was clear to us,” says project leader Paul Taylor, “that the abuse had taken place. Yes, he had a learning difficulty but could communicate verbally and was able to describe the events of the abuse very clearly and consistently. So, for us, there was no doubt that it had happened.”

The incident was reported to social services and an initial interview was set up by police. “It just went wrong,” continues Taylor. “In our opinion not enough was done to address the young person’s special needs in terms of first language – no translators were available – or thinking about how they understand concepts.”

He cites an example: “They held up a red card and said, ‘If I said this was green, would that be a truth or a lie?’ And the young person just didn’t get it. So he was not deemed a credible witness.”

No charges were brought. “The young person was left with a real sense of injustice and unfairness, but we did a lot of therapeutic work with him and that was good. We emphasised that we believed him. But there was that sense that the system wasn’t serving young disabled people. So we thought about how that could be changed,” says Taylor.

The idea was a joint working party. Chaired by Barnardo’s, it included representatives of social services, police, education, health, parents, community voluntary groups and the Crown Prosecution Service.

The group met every three weeks over six months reviewing each stage of the child protection procedure. “For us it was about educating people about the needs of young people with learning difficulties around child protection. And enabling these young people to have the best chance they can to tell their story,” says Taylor.

The group’s recommendations included adding details of a child’s disability on the referral form and designing an additional information sheet – a simple tick-box form detailing a young person’s communication needs.

Learning from experience, Taylor adds: “We also said that people who know the child need to be involved right from the start. A social worker might have little knowledge of the young person, but the keyworker in the residential unit, a home carer, an occupational or speech therapist, a teacher or teacher’s assistant might know much more. Sure, they can’t lead the interviews or ask direct questions but they can explain questions to the young person, their response or why they might be reacting in a certain way.”

There have been a few interviews with the support of someone who knows the young person which have “gone well” and have led to more successful outcomes for the young person.

Training has also improved. None of the multi-agency child protection training in the borough included disability awareness. It does now and Taylor is part of the child protection training sub-group that plans all the training.

And training is all about learning. Barnardo’s strapline is “Giving children back their future”. By facing the past and learning from mistakes, the Spectrum project can claim to be doing exactly that.

– For more information telephone Paul Taylor on 020 8894 2851.


Scheme: Child protection and children with disability working party.

Location: Hounslow, west London.

Staffing: From within each agency’s normal staffing.

Inspiration: To give children with learning difficulties better support during child protection cases.

Cost: Within existing budgets.

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