Social workers underestimate the ‘fragility’ of babies

Social workers and other professionals are not always quick enough in their response to concerns about children under a year old because they underestimate the fragility of babies, according to an evaluation of serious case reviews. (Picture: Rex Features)

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Social workers and other professionals are not always quick enough in their response to concerns about children under a year old because they underestimate the fragility of babies, according to an evaluation of serious case reviews.

The finding comes from an analysis of 482 SCRs – evaluated by Ofsted between 1 April 2007 and 31 March 2011 – concerning 602 children, including 210 babies under one. It is included in a thematic report, Ages of Concern, published today by the watchdog to highlight key lessons learned from SCRs involving vulnerable groups – babies under one and children over 14.

Agencies should act particularly quickly when concerns are raised about a baby’s welfare and development, the analysis found. “While the speed of response is important for all age groups, the fragility of babies and their rate of development in the early months mean that agencies’ swift response is even more essential.”

But concerns were not followed up quickly enough in many cases, with the report concluding that practitioners “underestimated the fragility of the baby”.

Although some of the case reviews concerning babies showed evidence of good practice, the watchdog found too many revealed inadequacies in the timeliness and quality of pre-birth assessments meaning risks were not identified early enough for action to be taken.

Agencies also underestimated the risks posed by parents’ age, drug and alcohol problems or background, such as a history of abuse. Other issues highlighted include a lack of focus on fathers and too much focus on mothers, at the expense of the baby.

Key messages for practitioners in the report included:

● Pre-birth assessments should begin swiftly

● Early action should be taken to minimise known risks to unborns

● Rsk should not be minimised when reviewing child protection plans for babies

Local safeguarding children boards (LSCBs) should consider carrying out an audit to check that pre-birth assessments are routinely being conducted and ensure there are adequate systems in place for quality assuring pre-birth assessments in their area, the report recommended.

Reviews conducted for over-14s also found a tendency by agencies to focus on the teenagers’ difficult behaviour, rather than the root causes and providing support. Many agencies also ended up treating young people as adults because of confusion about their age or legal status.

Miriam Rosen, Her Majesty’s chief inspector, said the analysis was intended to be helpful for LSCBs and practitioners to be alert to the potential gaps in protecting children of certain ages.

Hilton Dawson, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, said the report was “clearly worthy of consideration but, sadly, [tells] us little that’s new”. “Early identification work and intervening to support older children can be costly and time consuming and few social workers are currently able to point to an excess of either,” he said.

“Ofsted’s leaders would serve children better if they were to instead highlight the many challenges facing service providers in trying to safeguard the lives of so many vulnerable children and young people,” he added.

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