by Eleanor Schooling, Ofsted director of social care
I’ve repeatedly said that the importance of effective joint working can’t be undersold. The responsibility for ensuring children are kept safe can never rest with one agency alone.
And, in areas where children are helped and protected well, we know that a strong shared commitment across agencies to doing the right thing and focusing on children’s needs is usually the lynchpin of this success.
Last year Ofsted, along with fellow inspectorates Care Quality Commission, HMI Constabulary and HMI Probation, launched joint targeted area inspections, which bring the inspectorates together to jointly to assess how local agencies are working together to protect children.
A ‘deep dive’ focus
The joint inspections include a ‘deep dive’ focus on a specific issue or concern, with the first five looking at child sexual exploitation and children missing from home, care and education.
An overview of our findings on this area will be published in autumn. We wanted to take a thematic approach not only to identify what could be improved, but to highlight areas where local partners are working well for children, so others can learn from their example.
September will mark a change for the joint inspections, with our next ‘deep dive’ element focusing on children who are living with domestic abuse. We will carry out six inspections in different areas across the country over the course of the coming months, again publishing an overview of our findings at the end.
Why this issue?
Why domestic abuse? Certainly the prevalence of the issue, and the challenges it poses to professionals dealing with highly complicated family situations, make it an important area for inspectorates to explore through joint inspection.
The true scale of domestic abuse is unknown. However, we do know it is a dominant factor in a significant proportion of serious case reviews published each year. Earlier this summer, Ofsted’s social care annual report also highlighted some 320,000 children in need across England, many of whom are living in families where domestic abuse is a constant feature in their lives.
Any local area will see numerous children affected by domestic abuse. And, those who come into contact with children living in these situations, whether they are a social worker, police officer, or health professional, know that its impact on young lives is frequently devastating.
Children are victims of domestic abuse in several ways. They may be physically and emotionally abused themselves, traumatised as witnesses, or affected by the negative impact the abuse has on the care they receive from a parent.
The short and long-term impact
Whatever the circumstances, when a child doesn’t feel secure and loved at home, this causes them both immediate and long-term problems.
In the short term, they may feel isolated, anxious, and more likely to go missing from home and school, which leaves them increasingly vulnerable to risky situations.
In the long term, the cycle of earlier behaviour and mental health issues may damage their future life chances. Studies have shown that children who witness domestic abuse are more likely to be affected by abuse as adults – either as victims or perpetrators.
This is also a hugely challenging area for professionals. Agencies dealing with domestic abuse do so from markedly different perspectives. Whether prosecuting offenders, dealing with the physical effects, or providing support to victims, domestic abuse cases can be a difficult balancing act. Sadly, it’s sometimes one in which the child and their experiences can become lost, with professionals focusing on the adults involved, and resolving their issues.
While there’s no perfect response to domestic abuse or a single model that agencies should follow in each and every case, inspectors will be looking – above all – at how well local partners see incidents of domestic abuse through the eyes of the child.
Professionals must be well-trained, confident and knowledgeable, and really understand the impact of domestic abuse. This will help them identify the best way to help and protect children, and decide what action should be taken in each family circumstance. Risks to children, and their needs, must be assessed effectively and responded to appropriately – the right response, at the right time.
Lessons from SCRs
Analysis of serious case reviews tells us that that practitioners are not always rigorous in assessing and following through on all identified risks of domestic abuse. And, in some cases, where the threshold for children’s social care involvement is not met, there may be little analysis of risks of harm.
Inspectors will be looking at the effectiveness of interventions for victims of domestic abuse and adult perpetrators, but specifically focusing on the impact this has on the welfare and protection of children involved.
In my view, understanding different perspectives is absolutely key. We know that some areas are doing this really well.
Our recent annual report highlighted a case in point – Leeds City Council – and its extensive, effective use of family group conferencing, which allows a family’s strengths to be fully explored. Issues are seen from the experience of the child, so professionals can work effectively with adults in order to fix them.
We should not forget the toll that domestic abuse cases can take on the professionals themselves. Walking into a home where there is violence and abuse is a daunting prospect for even the most experienced frontline practitioner.
Training and support
So inspectors will be looking to see that leaders and managers recognise the challenges in working with domestic abuse, and provide appropriate support, training, and challenge to allow effective practice to flourish.
When we were deciding what to call these inspections, we settled upon ‘children who are living with domestic abuse’. This is because while they may not be directly subject to abuse, for many, it is their – sometimes forgotten – day-to-day lived experience.
While we don’t underestimate the challenges domestic abuse poses to all agencies who deal with it, my hope is that a joint inspection approach will help to improve our understanding of what good partnership working looks like and, most crucially, help professionals to improve the day to day experiences of children too.