Child protection thresholds: how to improve practice across agencies

Clear guidance and proportionate responses to referrals are crucial, according to North Yorkshire council

sad child
Photo: Rex Features

Community Care’s analysis on child protection thresholds identified widespread confusion in local authorities, but North Yorkshire has been praised by Ofsted for the “thorough understanding of thresholds” across all agencies.

Vicky Metheringham, head of safeguarding and looked after children in the council’s children and young people’s service, explains here how this has been achieved.

“In North Yorkshire we have set a high priority on the development of a well-understood threshold for child protection by statutory social work teams. This has been achieved through the establishment of a customer contact centre screening team, which screens and progresses every referral made within 24 hours.

The team is managed by an experienced qualified social work manager and is made up of social workers, staff from the prevention team, an officer from North Yorkshire police, administrative staff and customer advisers.

One point of contact

As a result, anybody who has a concern about a child – be it a family member, a school, a professional or another agency – has one point of contact. The multi-agency screening team has a clear, consistent understanding of thresholds and knows when a case needs to be assigned to a social work team or can be dealt with more effectively through our new prevention service.

In April this year the council launched a new children and families service with the prime intention of becoming involved as soon as possible in the lives of children and families in need of help and support. This service works with all children aged from 0 to 19.

Cases allocated to it are passed to one of 12 area prevention teams across the county and each case is given one dedicated key worker and point of contact for the family. Prevention teams provide highly targeted, consistent and effective support on the ground at times when families are most in need, be it early mornings, evenings or weekends, to stop problems escalating.

Clear guidance

The local safeguarding children’s board and children’s trust have developed a vulnerability checklist which, along with working together guidance, is used in screening and in determining the correct intervention. This has assisted in delivering a more consistently focused social work service.

This document and the guidance set out levels of need from universal provision through to targeted support, and ensure appropriate and timely responses are in place.

Signs of Safety

In all cases, from the point of first referral through to closure and throughout the assessment process, our teams use Signs of Safety, the strengths-based and safety-focused approach to child protection work. This is our tool for undertaking comprehensive risk assessment.

By using this at the front door we take more account of both the dangers and strengths within a family when deciding whether a case should be allocated to child protection or the prevention service. Ofsted commented in 2014: “The Signs of Safety methodology is now used effectively across the county to manage risk.”

Signs of Safety assessments are used and shared not only with professional colleagues but also with families and children, so that all involved fully understand both the risks and the strengths of the case and families feel enabled.

Staff satisfaction

Through this clearly understood system, social workers and prevention workers feel fully supported. In North Yorkshire we use no agency staff and are able to recruit well to fill any social worker vacancies. We also have an impressive social worker retention record. In our experience, the more social workers feel valued but are also clear about their roles across the service, the more likely they are to remain in local practice.

Up to four years ago more than a quarter of North Yorkshire’s social workers were agency staff. The council’s vacancy rate is now half the national average (7%, compared with 14%) and sickness rates 25% below the national average.

Oversight and auditing

Cases are constantly monitored and audited. If other agencies have concerns about the progress of a case, they are invited to team group supervisions so that risks and strengths can be discussed using clear scaling tools. Senior managers audit cases each month and themes are analysed in order to assist with changing practice where required.

North Yorkshire has reconfigured its children’s services as part of an authority-wide change programme which runs through to 2020. This has set an agenda to do things differently and better, working with communities to develop the services that work best for them. In children’s services this means investing in early intervention and new ways of supporting families, and making sure that everybody – professionals and families – understands child protection thresholds.

Targeted support

Our child protection numbers have reduced over the past quarter, from 409 child protection plans to 371. This reduction corresponds with the impact of the customer contact centre screening and the launch of the 0-19 prevention service, with targeted support being offered at the right time for families. We also have fewer looked-after children than three years ago; the number has fallen from 481 in 2012 to 441 in 2015.

We are confident that services and interventions for families in North Yorkshire are provided proportionately in order to meet need. Decisions for services are not based on thresholds but are led by the needs of the families where we deliver a package of support in a targeted, early way. This is even more evident now that the outcomes for children and families have further improved.”

One Response to Child protection thresholds: how to improve practice across agencies

  1. Planet Autism September 28, 2015 at 6:20 pm #

    “Signs of Safety assessments are used and shared not only with professional colleagues but also with families and children, so that all involved fully understand both the risks and the strengths of the case and families feel enabled.”

    Is refreshing to hear. Too often families are put in a powerless position, with social care being it’s lord and master, which is not how it was ever meant to be. Parents need to be respected as experts in their own children, put on an equal footing with professionals and not made to feel as if a threat is constantly hanging over their heads.

    “Prevention teams provide highly targeted, consistent and effective support on the ground at times when families are most in need, be it early mornings, evenings or weekends, to stop problems escalating.”

    Is also good to read. Too often the bar is set too high for families to have support such as respite, leading to coping issues.