Five steps towards better child protection conferences

Child protection conferences can be drawn-out, bureaucratic and intimidating for families – but they needn't be, argues social worker Andrew Matthews

Couple and social worker completing paperwork
Photo: John Birdsall/Rex (posed by models)

by Andrew Matthews

Child protection conferences, which take place when it’s believed a child is – or is likely to be – at risk of significant harm, play a crucial role in UK social work.

For the uninitiated, they usually take place in an office building where key professionals involved with a family, as well as the parents of that family, attend to consider whether a threshold of significant harm has been met. If professionals decide a child is at risk of significant harm then a child protection plan is put in place. After an initial conference, review conferences are held, usually after three months in the first instance and then every six months until the plan can end.

The high number of child protection conferences I’ve been to have provided me with a range of different experiences. While some have been positive, many have not. Here I make five suggestions for how things could be done better.

1. Higher-quality chairs

As one can imagine, having to attend such a meeting is likely to be hugely nerve-wracking for any parent. In my view not enough is being done to understand this. A lot for me rests on the chair of the meeting, who dictates its tone and flow.

I’ve been to conferences where the chair has put the family at ease, and conversation has been collaborative and constructive. But at others, I’ve found the chair to take a bullying tone towards parents, with the meeting becoming overwhelmed by process and risk.

The purpose of the chair’s role is to steer the meeting, but too often they end up actively leading the decision making. For me the chair can exercise too much power and influence, and my first recommendation to improve this important part of the child protection process is that chairs are regulated more closely, with local authorities taking steps to ensure that chairs are the epitome of excellent practice.

2. Cut professional friction

From speaking with chairs, it is only fair to acknowledge that they face difficulties when social workers attend conferences unprepared and disorganised. Chairs are bound to ensure that visits, assessments and meetings have taken place. This reflects the bureaucratic landscape we find ourselves in with the profession, but also highlights the issue of the relationship between social workers and chairs sometimes being strained.

I would suggest that efforts should be made to better integrate social workers and chairs within local authorities, and to consider sharing feedback about how best to move forward. It is important that working relationships between chairs and social workers are of a high quality, and while I don’t doubt this is the reality in some local authorities, in my experience there is always room for improvement to ensure conferences do not become overwhelmed by social worker/chair disputes.

3. Reduce the numbers

Another issue with conferences is the high number of professionals who may be present. Often I see more than 10 in attendance, which I think is ludicrous.

It should come as a surprise to no one that this environment can overwhelm parents. Where each professional produces a report the whole conference can also feel overloaded, with valuable focus lost. Each agency should have a lead professional to represent themselves and other colleagues involved, and conferences should also be set a time limit that professionals should work towards – perhaps two hours. To save time, assessments and reports from other professionals could in some cases be incorporated into the social worker assessment.

These factors could rein in what can seem like an over-reliance on bureaucracy rather than common sense, and make meetings more focused.

4. Advocate for parents

I have learned as a social worker that it’s important that I am confident and prepared for conference. For me, the social worker as a professional can use their power, influence and authority to ensure that the voice of the parents is not lost and they are appropriately advocated for. Parents need to be made to feel comfortable in what is bound to be a challenging environment.

Greater thought should be given to how this can be achieved, and to ensuring parents are involved in the decision making. An example of empowering parents could be involving them in the decision about where a conference takes place. Would there be any harm in having the meeting at the home of the parents if that is what they wanted?

5. Towards a more collaborative relationship

On the plus side, I feel that there is ambition to move away from tick-box conferences towards more meaningful conversations, which are steeped in good practice.

A number of local authorities have adopted models such as Signs of Safety to encourage a more open and fair conversation about risk in conferences. More needs to be done, though, to consider how practice models can be incorporated into conferences to change the status quo. We need to move away from conferences overwhelmed by paperwork and assessments.

In Leeds for example, the children’s services has experimented with using family group conferences as child protection conferences. This is both innovative and shows the need to switch from experts directing families, to families being positioned as the rightful experts on their own lives.

If improvements can be made with child protection conferences in every authority, and the nature of the relationship between families and social care can become more collaborative, the potential impact on the wider child protection system could be a true game-changer for children and families.

Andrew Matthews is a children’s social worker. He writes under a pseudonym.

8 Responses to Five steps towards better child protection conferences

  1. Barbara Gamble July 27, 2017 at 10:47 am #

    All these meeting should be audio recorded and parents given a tape as soon as the meeting ends.

  2. Andy July 27, 2017 at 12:56 pm #

    As a chair with a lot of experience I would say the following with regard to your points;-

    1) I agree absolutely but, in my opinion, the number of workers who truly understand child protection- whoops, safeguarding- are an ever decreasing number.

    2) Professional friction can sometimes lead to really meaningful discussions within a case conference and generate plans which the professionals invest in. The chair should manage that friction to channel it into something positive.

    3) I often ask professionals to leave if the number of professionals attending overwhelms the conference process. Sometimes, though, it is appropriate to have large numbers in order that the conference can make an appropriately informed decision.

    4) Advocacy for children should be the greater priority for the conference process. That’s not to say it isn’t important for parents either. Children must be the priority in a child protection case conference.

    5) I agree, but this comes back to point 1. As an experienced conference chair, I’m very comfortable in using a more conversational approach in meetings but a I would put forward a view that some younger and less experienced chairs cling to a more tick box approach due to a lack of experience of working in child protection and sometimes this will also be driven by the organisational demands of the agency.

    Out of interest, why the need for a pseudonym, though?

    • Andrew Matthews August 1, 2017 at 8:02 am #

      Hi Peter,

      I chose to use a pseudonym in case there were possibly identifying features in the articles of the families I work with in practice. I raise issues I write about in my LA too :)!

      Andrew

  3. Peter Endersby July 27, 2017 at 2:31 pm #

    CP conferences are often the only way other professionals get to meet the social worker who is as hard to get hold of as unicorn milk at every other time. When they are first set up some parents are still in denial or claim that they don’t get support. A healthy number of involved professionals is a useful tool in reminding them if their accountability, the seriousness of the situation and the level of support they are recieving.

  4. Jett July 28, 2017 at 6:10 am #

    This has often been a bone of contention for me as a SW and now manager. Case conferences that drag on for hours and Chairs who behave like schoolteachers berating their pupils and instilling fear among the attendees. I find that they frequently have no plan to manage the meeting and even when it is clear that the family have worked well and done all that is asked of them; instead of praise they are made to feel like their children are grudgingly being removed from CP plans. It is the process which can continue to oppress and harm relations between families and CSC. When SW’s challenge Chairs they are sometimes penalised, undermined and made to feel small in front of the professionals and parents they continue to work with. Where I work we are actively taking steps to improve relationships between Chairs and SW teams, however, a new Chair joins the LA and we have the issues all over again. I think even though parents are fearful they need to be encouraged to complain more and voice their experiences and concerns….

  5. Sam LW July 28, 2017 at 3:08 pm #

    I agree with Andrew’s comments in the main. IRO’s should be given practice feedback as a routine part of the process from parents and professionals just as social workers receive case feedback after a review and quality assurance performance management grading which IRO’s in some authoritaties provide. I have used both Signs of Safety and Family Group Conference formats in CP conferences both very productive. However a restorative approach with BASE as used in my current authority is also a strengths based format with the onus on working WITH not to or for. It is empowering and focuses on capacity to change, aspirations, engagement as part of the approach. Key to assist parents thinking and taking responsibility for actions.

    Not sure if having multi agency professionals inputting into social work reports for conference may encourage other agencies to be less accountable for their role in the child/adults life and submitting their own bespoke report. That may be my perspective from past experiences where social workers are the only professionals minuting multi agency meetings and writing them up.

    I am all for a more positive enthused approach to child protection conferences where the child’s voice is central to proceedings and the parents are enabled to offer their views freely. Oppressive is not how we are trained to practice or conduct ourselves with others.

  6. Tony Stanley July 31, 2017 at 3:58 pm #

    good article Andrew – but I was a little surprised to see this is not your real name?
    I do think we have a culture of not speaking up – social work needs more active voices from within,
    Id encourage you to see your AD and PSW and seek support in speaking up as a social worker.

  7. Planet Autism August 2, 2017 at 8:31 pm #

    “For me the chair can exercise too much power and influence, and my first recommendation to improve this important part of the child protection process is that chairs are regulated more closely, with local authorities taking steps to ensure that chairs are the epitome of excellent practice.”

    I disagree, knowing that at a particular conference it was only the Chair who had listened to the parents regarding the LA having acted entirely unlawfully and this was the only thing that ensured the wrong decision was not made. Until that time, social workers had ignored their unlawfulness and committed non-oath sworn perjury, having also not sought any evidence or information from the family at any time and caused the whole family distress.

    @Barbara Gamble – agree entirely.

    @Andy re your point 4. children do not exist in a vacuum what is being done to their parents is being done to them too and with parents being the experts in their own children often advocacy for parents is by extension advocacy for the children too. Sad to say that the witch hunt mentality against parents means the children’s voices are deliberately totally ignored by the LA and they are sometimes causing the very harm to children that they allege the parents are causing.

    Basically we need honest social workers and honest Chairs who are all prepared to listen to the parents, comply with the law and admit when they have got things wrong.