The final Munro Report recommended councils look at new gatekeeping methods in children’s social care. Judy Cooper investigates a multi-agency hub
The Oxford English Dictionary definition of a hub is “the effective centre of an activity or network”. When it comes to anxieties about a child’s safety or welfare in Devon, that centre is in a police-leased office on a business estate on the outskirts of Exeter – on the floor below a group of financial advisers.
The multi-agency safeguarding hub (Mash) was the brainchild of the area commander of the local police force at the time, Nigel Boulton, who based it on the police use of “intelligence” to make risk-based assessments. He says the model solves the problem that has been brought up in almost every single serious case review – lack of information sharing.
Set up a year ago, the Mash sees professionals from children’s care, police, education and health sitting alongside one another, with their respective IT systems. There are 10 referral co-ordinators, two senior social workers, two social work practice managers, 11 police staff, and safeguarding leads from health and education.
There are also virtual links to the early years team in children’s centres; the youth offending team; probation; both children’s and adults’ mental health; housing; and the ambulance service.
The idea is that, for every referral made, all the information available on a child and family is fed into the decision-making process. Once it is all collected, a social work practice manager then makes the decision on what happens to that referral.
Boulton, now a consultant on the Mash concept, says the beauty of the system is that health and police, traditionally the most reluctant of data-sharing partners – because of either patient confidentiality concerns or a desire to protect undercover sources – see it as a win-win situation.
Professionals or members of the public with concerns about child safeguarding can phone the Mash, where professionals will ask questions and gain background information. Following this, Mash workers will access all information on the child held by the various agencies, which will be evaluated by a social work practice manager.
They will then decide whether to refer the case to an allocated safeguarding social worker. Any sensitive or confidential information is not sent outside the Mash, but is used within the hub to make relevant safeguarding decisions.
It is important that professionals are physically sitting next to each other, Boulton argues. Sally, a detective sergeant on the team, says she had reservations before the Mash was set up about how co-locating services would work.
“As police officers, we tend to be quite assertive people, and we’re used to working in an environment with like-minded people. But this has broken down barriers and really helped me understand how other agencies work and look at cases. The flow of information is so much easier because we can just turn to the next desk and ask a question.”
Jenny, one of the social work practice managers who makes the final decision on all referrals, agrees. “We often say we don’t actually know how we managed before the Mash,” she laughs. “It is odd not working directly with children, but it’s never boring.”
She says one of the most useful offshoots of the Mash has been how it has dealt with the police notification forms when there has been domestic violence or a police incident in a house where there are children.
Richard, a detective constable, is one of the police researchers who sort through each of the 60 police notifications received each day and whittles them down to about six requiring further attention.
He points out that previously most police officers didn’t really know why they were filling them out, so you would get one sentence that didn’t tell you anything.
“We did some training and showed them what the reports were used for. Now they take the time to really think about what information they put down.”
Another bonus has been the advice line for professionals. Charles, one of the social workers manning the line, says it has proved massively popular, because he not only talks through their concerns but also supports them carrying out a common assessment framework (CAF) if it is needed.
Boulton is now engaged in discussions with London’s Metropolitan Police to see if the model can be implemented across the capital. But he admits that London is a completely different prospect from the rolling hills of Devon, with issues such as gangs and children who are living in one borough but going to school in another.
Back in Devon, Rory McCallum, the council’s director of early years and families, says the Mash has speeded up processing of referrals and brought about a 40% increase in the number of CAFs undertaken in the area.
However, the team says there is a risk it could actually result in more social work assessments, as it uncovers cases that would have been missed before.
McCallum agrees. “We’re very clear that Mash is about being able to improve decision-making and, on its own, it will never reduce referrals. That will only come about if we have more effective early intervention, which is part of our overall strategy.
“We think the Mash will cut the number of re-referrals we see because we’re making better decision-making right from the start.”
Case studies: The difference it has made to children
A police report on a drugs warrant noted a young woman present who was in possession of a high quantity of valium pills. On processing it through the Mash, it was discovered that the woman was seven months pregnant, living in temporary accommodation, had exhibited anti-social behaviour, poor engagement with ante-natal services and had a history of involvement with social services. The case was immediately passed to an assessment team and the unborn child was placed on a child protection plan due to fears of neglect.
Haringey was informed by a neighbouring borough that a suspected sex offender may be about to visit his girlfriend in Haringey. Social workers needed to establish if there was a child in the house. “Previously this would have taken all day,” says Sylvia Chew, head of service. “But because of the system, we got the call at 11am and we were able to ensure that by 3pm that sex offender was on a train back to his home and the child and the mother were safe. Previously there was no way we could have responded that quickly to a call on a Friday afternoon.”
Haringey leads second wave
Haringey has signed up to the second phase of the Mash pilot in London, having already implemented a very similar model with its first response team over the past year.
Head of service Sylvia Chew says it has also seen an increase in common assessment frameworks and swifter initial assessments as a result of the system.
“Mash is very police-based and driven and it’s just information sharing, whereas our first response team sits alongside the duty and assessment team. This means the social worker who will have the case is involved in the information-sharing discussions.
“The decision-making is so much faster because you no longer spend most of your day on the phone trying to track down the right person to speak to in another agency.”
She also points out that co-location has many spin-off benefits. “For example, we now realise that simply asking a teacher if they are worried about a child does not necessarily give us the information we need. It’s better to ask them about a child’s peer relationships and if their homework is being done, for example.”
(illustration: Gary Parsons/Miekeljohn)
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