Social care leaders outline what Lord Laming’s inquiry into the Baby P should focus on.
Victoria Climbié became synonymous with child protection failings after she was murdered in Haringey, north London in 2000.
Lord Laming’s public inquiry, which reported in 2003, found the eight-year-old was let down by a “gross failure of the system”, involving poor practice, a lack of accountability for it at senior level and inadequate interagency working.
His recommendations formed the basis of the Every Child Matters reforms, enacted in the Children Act 2004, which have radically reformed safeguarding in England over the past four years (see panel, below).
The role of director of children’s services was introduced to assume full accountability for council services, and local safeguarding children boards established to ensure relevant agencies are engaged in protecting children.
Now, the case of Baby P, also in Haringey, has raised questions over the state of child protection and whether the Laming reforms are working. At the end of the Baby P trial last week, ministers asked Laming to look at progress since his first review. Social care leaders are already discussing the issues he should consider.
Jonathan Picken, chair of the British Association for the Study and Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, says children known to the child protection system are “among the least likely to experience death as a result of abuse or neglect”.
Picken, whose association has members from a range of professions, adds: “The perception of, and response to, child abuse and neglect has changed enormously in recent years.”
This view of the Every Child Matters reforms is echoed by Association of Directors of Children’s Services president Maggie Atkinson. It was also endorsed by perhaps the most authoritative recent verdict on safeguarding in England, the triennial joint chief inspectors’ report, Safeguarding Children, published in July. It found allocation of at-risk cases to social workers had risen “considerably”, to almost 100%, and child protection plans were mostly of good quality.
Information-sharing between agencies was improving, and, despite shortcomings in the NHS, provision of child protection training across agencies was “generally good”.
Kim Bromley-Derry, vice-president of the ADCS, says annual performance assessments and joint area reviews of councils over the past three years have shown “significant improvements in practice and policy”.
However, the quality of practice is likely to be at the heart of Laming’s review, given the Baby P case. The serious case review found practitioners placed a “high level of trust” in his mother, because of her co-operation with agencies and consequently his injuries were accepted as largely accidental. The review said practitioners made insufficient attempts to reassess their beliefs in the light of new incidents.
Bromley-Derry says the case “highlights the need to focus more energy on training and supporting arrangements. Continuous professional development is critical, for frontline workers and managers.”
In the General Social Care Council’s response to the case, chair Rosie Varley called for a debate about requiring all practitioners to complete post-qualifying training. “No social worker should be permitted to take on complex child protection work until they have the relevant specialist training,” she said.
The GSCC says the minimum requirement would be the specialist post-qualifying award in children and young people, their families and carers.
Jane Haywood, chief executive of the Children’s Workforce Development Council (CWDC), says it may review its strand of the national occupational standards for social work, “to ensure that safeguarding and the need to challenge is at the heart of this”.
The Department for Children, Schools and Families is already investing £73m from 2008-11 in the development of children’s social workers. This includes £21m for three-year pilots, organised by CWDC, to provide extra support for newly qualified social workers, including fortnightly supervision and dedicated time for training and development.
A survey of 500 recently-qualified children’s practitioners by CWDC this year found just one-third believed their degree courses prepared them largely or fully for the job. Only half said their course “completely or mostly” covered child protection.
Haywood says the CWDC will adjust the pilots, which began in September, if necessary in the light of the Haringey case.
Employers’ duties to staff
The GSCC is clear that training is necessary but insufficient.Varley reiterated the regulator’s call for its code of practice for employers – requiring them to regulate caseloads and support effective practice through sufficient training – to be made statutory, with sanctions for those who breach it.
Patrick Ayre, senior lecturer in social work at the University of Bedfordshire, believes more effective supervision is crucial in addressing the poor investigative practice exposed by the Baby P case. He adds that a “tick-box” culture, and an obsession with “procedure and process at the expense of objectives and outcomes”, is undermining support in some local authorities.
Wes Cuell, acting chief executive of the NSPCC, agrees, and questions how much supervision is focused on “thinking through, feeling, considering your intellectual judgements”. Managers should also be assessed and held accountable for the quality of this service to staff, he says.
There are issues about councils’ decision-making at a corporate level. The NSPCC, among others, has warned that government reforms to the care proceedings system, introduced this year, could put children at risk by deterring authorities from taking out cases.
Councils must now pay up to £4,825 to bring proceedings, up from a flat £150. Four councils brought a judicial review last month claiming that, although £40m was transferred from the courts budget to councils to pay for this, local allocations were not in line with need.
In its judgement, the High Court rejected their claim, saying councils would not be deterred from taking out cases.
Cuell said after the case that he hoped the court would be right in its judgement. However, he warns that some councils’ high eligibility criteria for child protection could put some children at risk.
The joint inspectors’ report found criteria were sometimes raised due “to workload pressures, staffing shortages and financial resources”.
Cuell and Ayre also voice concerns that the emphasis on children’s wider well-being in the Every Child Matters reforms could have led agencies to lose focus on child protection.
“Do local authorities have a real sense of the hierarchy of needs – that children’s safety must come first?” Cuell asks. “Unless they can guarantee this, nothing else matters.”