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‘Calls to change child protection after Daniel Pelka’s death merely offer an illusion of security’

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.

Daniel Pelka (Credit: Rex Features)

Daniel Pelka (Credit: Rex Features)

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.

Camilla Pemberton, journalist,

About Camilla Pemberton, journalist,

Camilla Pemberton is Community Care's children's editor

One Response to ‘Calls to change child protection after Daniel Pelka’s death merely offer an illusion of security’

  1. Berni Power 27 September , 2013 at 6:57 pm #

    I attended an interview as a newly qualified social worker earlier in the year. I was left feeling bemused by the interview process and outcome as those asking the questions solely focused on processes and my knowledge of the law. The interview was held in two parts. I was also interviewed by young people who had used services and had become looked after.I was interested in the questions they asked , as they wanted to know what sort of worker i was , what values i held and how i would approach working with young people. I had feedback from the manager who had interviewed me and they informed me that i had not got the job because i did not demonstrate knowledge of safeguarding and law enough. I was further bemused by the manager telling me that if he had wanted a children’s worker or child advocate i would have got the job. What’s my point i hear you ask. My point is that i disagree and feel that my approach was considered soft and not robust. How many people i wonder have teams that function in this way currently and how this does in my opinion increase risk for children who may need protecting as we are not child focused enough.

    Hang on i thought , that does not sit well with me at all. Have we stopped thinking about what a child protection or safeguarding social worker should be doing as an urgent priority when a matter is referred. Yes , see and speak to the child and be capable of communicating with the child and gain as much insight as possible. The childs safety and well being is paramount and the child should be seen and spoken too . Am i a bitter under employed newly qualified social worker talking about a one off bad interview. Well , i hope not but the thing is when i spent time on a safeguarding team a couple placements back , i did observe how through high work loads workers did not have time to reflect and discuss cases. Supervision , ha its gone out of the stable door .Many spent all of their time at computers, even spending evenings at home unpaid doing the same thing. I also remember having a robust conversation with a worker about a family where the mother had assaulted the eldest child and the children were already on the child protection register. The worker was consumed and focused on her relationship with the mother and how far she had come. I did not doubt the value of what she was saying but i did not see why the children were going to be left at risk because the mother had improved to the point where she was only still in contact with a partner who was violent and a risk to her and the children and who now only occasionally assaulted the same child she had previously bitten violently which was clearly evidenced. Hang on i hear you say , yes i know harm can be hard to detect and evidence but if we do not have strong child focused assessments as common practice the matter gets harder and harder. The Daniel Pelka case has reinforced my opinion that not only do we need to work together in multidisciplinary teams as a standard but we should also be more direct in protecting and assessing children . Harm and death has always occurred at the hands of adult abusers but the current conditions and pressures means that risks are much too high and teams cannot be expected to cope.

    I am as a worker committed to the principle that families should be supported and enabled to stay together and value a relationship based practice model , but not at the cost of leaving children at risk. I feel having spoken to a number of workers and attended a number of interviews that high thresholds mean that social workers will have no time at all to undertake that crucial element of seeing and speaking with a child and taking time to consider the next move. Ironically , high thresholds where cases are currently accepted not only means higher risks for children , but also means new workers are not being accepted for agency jobs let alone rare authority opportunities. How many experienced workers are we going to lose due to the current pressures of the job ?. I am also concerned that there will be lost opportunities to pick up the phone and speak with other workers and gain the invaluable insight into a childs life which could and should lead to better protection.

    Honestly , speaking to health , education and police colleagues is what i was trained to do by my practice educator but i did notice fellow workers did not always apply the same scrutiny. I was trained to be child focused but do workers always have the time and rather than reducing prescriptive practice this is now endemic due to such pressures. I would also like to stress that we need more newly qualified social workers in post as despite what Mr Gove thinks we have been well trained and bring energy and new ideas to teams. I also wonder why social workers do not take action over current work conditions . I was always under the impression that better services and resources have to be fought for but as yet ……