Social worker Abe Laurens reflects on the terrible death of four-year-old Daniel Pelka, and of his own 30-year wait for vital improvements to national child protection procedures and systems.
You never become immune to the tragic stories behind child abuse inquiries, even though they reprise gut-wrenchingly familiar themes like a lack of professional communication and an absence of child-centredness.
The tragic death of Daniel Pelka has particularly touched my colleagues and I, all hard-bitten experienced social workers. This, perhaps, is because the abuse was not hidden behind closed doors, dreadful though that is. So much of his suffering was in the open, among his peers, witnessed by so many.
The government says there is no quick fix. True, but I’ve been waiting 30 years for a slow one and my patience is running out.
Every report is accompanied by a call for a change in the system, this time for mandatory reporting of abuse. It’s worth raising if only to generate a sustained public debate about the nature of child care and the powers of the state. It would not have protected Daniel or indeed Heidi Koseda, Jasmine Beckford, Maria Colwell or Victoria Climbie. People saw and reported but actions did not save them.
‘Refreshing honesty’ from Munro
It’s damn hard. I know from bitter personal experience how hard it is to prove abuse beyond doubt or make that mental leap to think the unthinkable. I completely endorse Eileen Munro’s refreshing honesty this week – like her I’m not sure I could have done better. All the more reason for a public debate.
Calls to change the system merely offer an illusion of security where seeing to be doing something is apparently more important than doing it. Policy-makers and politicians move on to something else, but I’m still here. The existing systems may not be perfect but they are good enough, especially after Munro. The problem is, they are not being put into practice.
For a job that is all about people it is astonishing how little attention is paid to dynamics and relationship-forming within and between professions. This is tough, draining, time-consuming and messy, which is why it is avoided rather than addressed. This has to change.
I recently attended a workshop run in a so-called failing authority by independent consultants, presumably paid a fortune. At one point I confess I burst out laughing. They had plenty of Powerpoints and flowcharts but little idea of what social workers did day-to-day.
Child protection in England will not improve unless three things happen:
1). Professionals who work in the same locality need to talk to each other. Services are under intense pressure because of cuts and scrutiny, because of performance targets and re-organisation. Therefore colleagues have retreated behind their professional boundaries. It’s said that there’s no time for multi-disciplinary work: in fact it’s an essential, core task. Talk about children, good practice, politics, or X Factor – that’s how trusting, understanding relationships are created, how boundaries are broken down, how problems are shared. Relationships are the oil that makes the system work smoothly. That’s why someone, someday, will find it easier to pick up the phone and say, “This little boy, I’m worried, what do you think…?”
2). We need more social workers. Of course existing resources can be used more efficiently and I know you’ve heard this before. Doesn’t mean it’s not true. There is no escaping the cold stark reality that caseloads are bulging because there are not enough social workers.
3). Managers and directors have a duty to tell their elected members about the true extent of the problem. I’m sick of senior staff hiding behind numbers. Cases may be allocated but that does not mean they are being actively worked on or the child knows their social worker. Vacancies may be filled but agency staff come and go, they are not a long-term solution. Moving the threshold for admission to care improves the statistics but does not mean children in the community are better protected.
The thousands of hardworking, dedicated social workers in this country deserve this and so do the children we work with. You can never stop child abuse but you can do a better job to protect children.
- Related conference: The ‘Baby P’ legacy five years on: What have we leant? 14 December 2013, central London