Undoubtedly the most widely welcomed recommendation from Professor Eileen Munro’s review of the child protection system was scrapping legal deadlines for assessments.
Social workers around the country breathed a sigh of relief that no longer would the primary object of their day be about filling in forms on time to meet a target.
However, the fear was that without deadlines drift would creep in and vulnerable children would wait too long to have their needs met.
According to a group of lawyers, who have started the Every Child in Need campaign, that is exactly what is already happening in those areas piloting the recommendation.
Rachel Knowles, a solicitor with Just for Kids Law, says it is not unheard of for homeless teenagers to have to wait more than a month for an assessment and much longer for care plans to be put in place.
Suicidal teenagers being left in bed and breakfast accommodation, teenagers sleeping on the streets and victims of child trafficking being left in prison are amongst some of the worst examples the lawyers have collected as part of the campaign.
Knowles acknowledges social services have struggled to deal with homeless teenagers since the Southwark Judgement “but there’s been a definite increase in the trial authority areas since the pilots were put in place”.
“I’ve only seen one initial assessment completed within 10 days in the last six months. To me, that is problematic.”
Oliver Studdert, a partner with Maxwell Gillott solicitors, says increasing numbers of referrals and a shortage of social workers have always been the real problem, not statutory timescales.
“What bothers me is that as social workers understandably desire more time to do their work more and more young people will not get the services they need in the time-frame they need them.
“A homeless teenager needs to be assessed straight away- they might be fleeing gang violence, they might not have any clothes or money, they might be escaping traffickers. The longer you wait for an initial assessment the greater the risk for these teenagers and that’s not good enough.”
Lack of resources
Nushra Mansuri, professional officer for the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) agrees a lack of resources is a significant issue for assessment times.
However, she says she there is also an issue with differing thresholds around the country.
“Evaluations of serious case reviews tell us that teenagers are a high risk group but there is still a pervasive attitude amongst professionals that this group is more resilient and better able to cope with neglect which is ridiculous.”
The London boroughs of Islington, Kensington and Chelsea, Wandsworth and Hackney, four of the pilot councils, deny there has been any drift on cases in their area. A spokesperson for Wandsworth said all cases were acted on within 24 hours.
Lucie Heyes, Islington’s social work reform programme manager says their social workers are still expected to see a child within 10 days but the initial assessment report does not have to be completed by that time.
“It’s a subtle but important difference,” she adds.
“The cases that have gone beyond 10 days all have legitimate reasons such as the social worker has tried to see the family but it has been impossible or it is a large sibling group where three of the children have been seen but one wasn’t there, for example.”
Feedback from social workers shows that in fact services are now being put in place for children and families much sooner. Previously there had been a tendency not to put services in place until the initial assessment was completed, Heyes points out.
“I will admit that there will always be a danger of drift if managers are not pro-active but it’s also important not to confuse meeting deadlines with quality. We are actually uncovering issues with practice that we weren’t aware of before because the deadlines were in place.
“One social worker summed it up saying that before on the first visit with a family the thing uppermost in her mind was that she had to get the initial assessment done on this visit and everything was focused on that. Now what is uppermost in her mind is what is going on with the family. We’re finding that actually it’s leading to better partnership working with families because we’re no longer trying to force them to fit with our timescales.”
And as Islington’s social workers have settled in to the new way of working assessment times have reduced, Heyes adds. In the last three months of the trial only 9% of cases were not fully assessed within 40 days.
A middle way
Cathy Ashley, chief executive of the Family Rights Group, says she is concerned about the potential for children to be left at risk and the lack of transparent checks in the proposed assessment system, but a return to the old timescales is not the answer either.
“We must be able to find a middle way on this.”
Mansuri says the issues need to be carefully monitored by managers, local safeguarding boards and advocacy groups.
“None of us would want to discredit the Munro reforms, which we have all signed up to, but ironically this could be one of those areas that Munro terms ‘unintended consequences’.”