In more than 70 inquiries into the death or abuse of children since 1945, one of the most repeated recommendations has been the need for improved inter-agency working, including better communication and understanding of each others’ roles.
This sentiment – as the title suggests – strongly surfaces in the government guidance Working Together to Safeguard Children. It sets out the need for a “shared responsibility” and for “effective joint working between agencies and professionals that have different roles and expertise”.
Eleven councils in south west England have been working together to produce shared child protection procedures. Nothing strikingly new as Welsh and London authorities have already done so. But the South West has ended up with something very different: a web-based, jargon-free and interactive guide.
“We said we’d do it as a pdf document,” says Barry Raynes (pictured), executive director of Reconstruct Ltd, a company working in children’s services, which won the contract. “But we’ve been able to put it in a very user-friendly format – so what we’ve actually got is a website.”
There are five flow charts in Working Together: referral what happens after initial assessment urgent action to safeguard children what happens after the strategy discussion and what happens after the child protection conference. Within these flow charts are 69 boxes of possible actions to take. Reconstruct has taken each of these boxes and split them into key points, how to do it and added lessons from research.
“What we find is that Working Together tells you what to do,” explains Raynes. “For example, it says ‘interview the child alone’. But it doesn’t tell you how or where. Or what to do if the parents say ‘No’. So by integrating a lot of our training ideas we show workers how.”
He continues: “If a local serious case review is held we can take the learning points and integrate them into the procedures. So if something happened at the point of referral, then people would read the relevant part of the serious case review at the point they are actually making a referral. I think that will fundamentally change practice.”
Ruby Parry, head of children’s social services, South Gloucestershire Council, and chair of the interagency group, agrees: “This site isn’t just a set of procedures. It’s about good practice, evidence from research, and what the government guidance says. I’m really excited about this approach.”
A lot of credit must be given to the 11 authorities (Bath and North East Somerset, Bristol, Devon, Gloucestershire, North Somerset, Plymouth, Somerset, South Gloucestershire, Swindon, Torbay and Wiltshire) for taking such a brave step.
But how did Raynes find managing the contract with so many interested councils? “That has gone very well. They had already got together and had formed a steering group – which is representative of various agencies and local safeguarding children’s boards. That’s the group of people I meet with. They happen to get on very well with each other. I think the process has helped. I think what we offered them was much more than they expected – they weren’t expecting the computer system.”
It’s a system that means the public can easily find out what they can expect from professionals. To this end, the procedures have been written in plain English. “We think we’ve done a fairly good job,” says Raynes. “We have had it proof-read and redrafted by a freelance journalist who doesn’t know anything about child protection – and we’re now having it read by young people: we want the procedures understandable to a 15-year-old.”
Of course, as well as being shared between individual council services such as social services, schools and the youth service, the understandable, easy-to-use procedures will also be used by police, health, Connexions and the voluntary sector. “Health authorities and police are just over the moon that it’s all the same procedures,” smiles Raynes.
Too often neatly produced procedures are filed away and rarely read. The South West child protection procedures are an interactive, integrated practice aid: this is about doing good and not just looking it.
● Ensure you have a good chair.
● Use Working Together as a final check for accuracy.
● Understand that this is much more than just writing procedures.
● Get a group of people together who are defensive about their practice.
● Don’t worry about funding it – keep it cheap and cheerful.
● Start off with the text in Working Together.