Councils have come under fire over child protection thresholds. But it can be tough to ensure consistency. Molly Garboden reports
A consistent criticism across all Ofsted reports on local authority safeguarding relates to thresholds. Recent reports from the watchdog on councils include these remarks: “Inconsistent e_SDHpapplication of thresholds by managers across referral and assessment teams”, “there is no written multi-agency agreement on thresholds for access to services”, “there is too much variation in the level and type of final response provided by individual social workers”.
There are many reasons why local authorities and social workers struggle to maintain thresholds. Child protection consultant Perdeep Gill says they are set too high and are likely to edge even higher as resources ebb away.
“Thresholds are set depending on budgets. Panels agree how many children can be accommodated and then just try and bat away or close cases they can’t fit in,” says Gill.
Independent safeguarding board chair Paul Fallon says, although the Children Act gives clear thresholds on looked-after children, section 47 child protection cases and when a child is “in need”, the problems arise when children fall in between: “The debate is usually around those children who fall between being a child-in-need or a child needing protection. Ultimately, that comes down to how much can we afford to deliver. To pretend that it’s absolute is to mislead the public.”
Stephen Cameron, an independent social worker and trainer based in Bristol, says during the training he gives to teachers and other multi-agency partners in child protection, he is constantly bombarded with concerns about local authorities sweeping too much under the carpet. According to Cameron, multi-agency partners say their concerns are passed over by children’s services departments because of high thresholds.
“Clearly, if teachers or other agencies contact social services with concerns about a child, it’s right that they be asked questions to determine how valid that might be,” he says. “But, increasingly, I’m hearing from agencies who would know pretty accurately when to refer, that even when they’ve built up a concern over time and spent time with the family, they’re being told to do a common assessment framework (CAF) or that their concern doesn’t meet the social services’ thresholds. That does indicate that children’s services have resource battles.
“My concern is that there might be an avoidance of the scale of the problem on the social services side. There’s a sense of resignation and despair among teachers and other partners and that needs to change. We can’t see thresholds as so moveable.”
However, resources aside, keeping consistent thresholds in place is never easy.
Gill says it depends largely on individual interpretation. “There’s been a new document for London councils that is supposed to spell out what is a CAF, what is a child-in-need, when does a child need to go on a child protection plan, for example. But the descriptions are so vague that everything in child protection becomes subjective by whoever receives the referral.”
Joanna Nicholas, child protection consultant, trainer and social worker agrees: “It’s very difficult to say one situation is abuse and another isn’t – there needs to be greater clarity and uniformity between and within local authorities.”
Nicholas admits, however, that no matter how clear the legislation or guidance, these professional decisions are going to come down to individual opinions on some level.
“A lot of it is down to personal judgement,” she says. “For instance, I know my professional views changed as to what was acceptable in a home after I had children of my own. It would be good if we could factor that kind of thing out of the process, but it’s very difficult.”
However, she says that talking through things with colleagues and on teams is a good way to combat personal bias: “If we were discussing cases with one another, people would share their opinions and there would be more uniformity. With many cases, it’s not clear cut, particularly in cases of neglect.”
Laura McClean, a frontline children and families social worker in Renfrew, Scotland, agrees that peer support is crucial in maintaining thresholds – from informal chats with colleagues in the office to seeking the views and perceptions of colleagues in other agencies.
“Making sure that all appropriate agencies are involved and their views on the risk to children are sought is so important, both at the investigation stage and also in decision making-forums such as child protection case conferences,” she says.
Fiona Waddington, joint director of children and families service, Trafford Council
Multi-agency working is key to effective thresholds
Trafford Council recently received a “good” Ofsted rating for its safeguarding services and inspectors commended the effectiveness and staff understanding of thresholds.
According to Fiona Waddington, joint director of children, young people and families, successfully maintaining thresholds comes down to effective multi-agency working.
“We developed our threshold criteria on a multi-agency basis, so it was never isolated within social care,” she says. “Because everyone is in agreement and aware of the process, everybody’s on board throughout. Every agency is aware of the progression of a case and more importantly the reasons why a child’s situation was considered to meet a certain criteria. It leads to so much more clarity and saves a huge amount of time.”
Waddington added that good communication between the different agencies was crucial as well. To encourage these relationships, Trafford’s intake team has a full-time duty social worker available to give social care advice to any partner agencies that might need it.
“If any of our partners are unsure whether a referral should be made, they can ring up the duty social worker and talk about the case without betraying confidentiality. It’s an investment on our part, but completely worth it in the long-run because the average quality of referrals we receive is so high as a result.”
THE LEGAL POSITION
Social care lawyer Ed Mitchell says a lot of time is spent by the family courts untangling the reasons behind variations between and within local authorities with regard to thresholds.
“There’s little consistency across councils and even within a single council,” he says. “Often, the more articulate and clued-up parents receive a better deal. Likewise, more unreasonable, demanding parents might receive better services as well. More arbitrary factors have also been identified, for instance the point in a local authority’s financial year when the request is made may have a big impact.”
Mitchell says there is not the same certainty that there is in adult services, where over-arching government guidance about eligibility criteria steers practitioners. Challenges over children’s services thresholds are harder to handle in court.
Another complication is the distinction between services provided by social care and those provided by the education sector.
“What often causes confusion is that some services that look like social services are actually provided by education departments,” says Mitchell. “Under education legislation, there’s less room for eligibility criteria to operate because there’s a law that all children are entitled to a suitable education.”
This article is published in the 1 July 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline, “How much risk is safe?”
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