What will the publication of full serious case reviews mean for Unison members? Gordon Carson reports
True to their promise before and during this year’s general election campaign (see Child Protection: Back to the Frontline), once in power the Conservatives wasted little time in pushing through one of their first reforms of children’s services – the publication of full serious care reviews into child deaths and serious incidents, and not just executive summaries. This was prompted by perceived inaccuracies in the executive summaries of the first SCR into the death of Baby Peter and that into the torture of two boys in Edlington, South Yorkshire, compared with the accounts in the full, unpublished reports.
A letter from children’s minister Tim Loughton (see box, below) acknowledged that the full reports would need to be “appropriately redacted and anonymised” to protect the privacy of children and families. However, there is also concern that social workers involved in cases subject to SCRs could be named and shamed, and that the reports could focus more on apportioning blame than on improving services in future.
Helga Pile, Unison’s national officer for social work and social care, says it’s difficult to ensure full anonymity for the professionals, as well as children and families, involved in cases subject to reviews.
“There can’t be a cast iron guarantee that efforts to secure anonymity will work,” she says. “It’s not as simple as just redacting names.”
Perdeep Gill, an independent child protection consultant, says the full report of the second SCR into the death of Baby Peter is “brilliant” because it concentrates on highlighting systemic failings. The second SCR was ordered in December 2008 by the then education secretary, Ed Balls, after Ofsted rated the executive summary of Haringey’s first report as inadequate.
Gill has been a long-time proponent of full, anonymised publication of SCRs. “If social workers or any other practitioners have made really big and identifiable errors, the SCR shouldn’t interfere with whatever is going to happen with the regulator or disciplinary process anyway,” she says.
Pile says Professor Eileen Munro’s review of child protection, which was announced by Loughton at the same time as he revealed the requirement for full publication of SCRs, could be useful in ensuring reviews are more focused on how to achieve good outcomes for children. Loughton charged Munro with looking at “alternative ways of learning from experience that could be more effective”, and what could be learned from other sectors.
The Conservatives have already flagged up independent investigation reports into mental health homicides, which examine the care and treatment of people who have been in contact with mental health services and are responsible for killings, as a model that children’s services could learn from (see p11 Child Protection: Back to the Frontline).
Ian Hulatt, mental health adviser for the Royal College of Nursing, says the model is very effective, and that he would “rather go through the rigours of a professional enquiry than the less rigorous processes that sometimes the press might engage in”.
However, though reports are anonymised, Hulatt says: “You can’t get away from the fact that it’s not a pleasant process. Where there are issues of professional misconduct or culpability, an individual may be reported to the regulatory body. It can be dangerous for your career if you have made errors of judgment.”
Although there is government guidance on the information that should be included in SCRs, particularly how they should focus on systemic issues that may have contributed to a serious incident, Pile says SCRs are “sometimes conflated with disciplinary processes or referrals to the regulator”.
“We need to look at how to maintain the separation between these and SCRs,” she says. “We would also want to have discussions about what protection employers might offer in protecting identities of staff, or how they protect staff from the fallout if their identities have been revealed.”
Chris Cooper, Unison’s children’s services convenor at Birmingham Council, highlights the identification of a social worker by the press after a report into the death of Toni-Ann Byfield. She was shot and killed in London in September 2003 along with a man, Bertram Byfield, who was thought to be her father, though post-mortem examinations revealed he was not.
Cooper says the social worker was disproportionately blamed for Toni-Ann’s death, and never worked in child protection again because of the press exposure.
He also believes the SCR report into the case of Khyra Ishaq, the seven-year-old who starved to death in Birmingham in May 2008, “homes in on one particular social worker” even though there were problems identified in several agencies, including police and health.
“I’m not opposed to things being published but it does feel like another stick to beat social workers with,” he says. “But it might also lead to some good stuff coming out about social work and the press picking up on that.”
BACKGROUND TO CHANGE OF POLICY IN SERIOUS CASE REVIEWS
Statutory guidance on Working Together to Safeguard Children has required local safeguarding children boards to publish only the executive summaries of SCRs.
But in a letter to directors of children’s services and LSCB chairs on 10 June, children’s minister Tim Loughton said this requirement would be extended to include full reviews. This would enable lessons to be learned “as widely and thoroughly as possible”, improve transparency and accountability, and “restore public confidence” in the child protection system, he claimed.
Loughton’s letter said LSCBs should publish the full report from all SCRs initiated on or after 10 June. However, four high-profile cases were given special treatment. The full SCRs into the deaths of Baby Peter and Khyra Ishaq have already been published, even though the SCRs were initiated long before 10 June.
The government also wants full SCRs to be published by Doncaster, for the Edlington torture which took place in April 2009; and by Kirklees, for the kidnapping of Shannon Matthews in Dewsbury in February 2008.