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.