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Social work after Baby P: the direction must change

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  by John Hemming, Allan Norman and Sue White

There have been many reports in the last year about ‘false positives’,
where the state intervenes when it shouldn’t.  What is often missed is
that the issue of ‘false negatives’, where the state fails to intervene
when it should, is actually part of the same debate.

An obvious case where the system should have intervened is Baby P.  This case, however, is not unique although in many ways it is more extreme than the case of Victoria Climbie.  

The system has failed

It is, however, very wrong to respond by demonising social workers.  Some of the press coverage nationally has been misguided and misplaced.  The people who were responsible for the death of Baby P were those responsible for his day-to-day care.   However, the system has failed and it is to the system we need to look for changes even if greater accountability is needed for individuals as well.

The Government’s response seems curious.  The inspection system failed – Haringey had a 3-star rating, yet the inspectors are seen as the solution. Ed Balls has announced a strengthening of children’s trust boards, yet this was already his intention before the story of Baby P broke. It is hoped that Lord Laming’s investigations into the reforms which were informed by his inquiry ask appropriately fundamental questions about the direction of change.

It has thus far proved impossible for us to obtain from the Department for Children, Schools and Families recent, detailed data on the numbers of child deaths and serious injuries. However, we – an MP, social worker turned lawyer and academic suggest that it is possible the reformed system may well increase unsafe practices.  Our discussion is informed by general findings from an Economic and Social Research Council funded study by Sue White and colleagues, which involved detailed observation of everyday practices across five local authority sites in England and Wales.

Counterproductive reforms

A turning point in the reform agenda was the death of Victoria Climbie. The resulting Laming Inquiry drove a number of changes in child protection intended to prevent future deaths and protect children, including the complete reorganisation of social services across England.  We are concerned that the reforms have been counterproductive

The Child Protection Register has been abolished and a complicated system of electronic standard documents called the Integrated Children’s System (ICS) has been introduced. ICS is a centrally specified system for categorising children and their needs.  It also incorporates audit data on performance targets and demographics for the DCSF, all of which must be entered by social workers. Documents designed to fulfil the need for government statistics are swallowing up large amounts of social workers’ time. Put simply, social workers cannot be out seeing families while they are in the office inputting data.

The system also forces social workers and team managers to categorise a case very early.  It has been known for decades that people tend to look for evidence to support their original categorisations. An error we can see in the case Baby P, where professionals were distracted by the mother’s claim that he was injuring himself and had behaviour problems. This tendency coupled with pressure from the system to maintain the categorisation and ‘workflow’ the case through the IT pathways we believe must increase the likelihood of error.

Unintended impacts

The demands of the technology are exacerbated by a range of other pressures on social workers’ time. The thresholds for referral and intervention are also matters upon which there is little guidance and the system is seriously over-stretched in places.  Often referrers ‘talk up’ referrals to avoid the threat of being blamed for inaction.  

The introduction of the Common Assessment Framework (CAF), a standard process designed to support early intervention and encourage other professionals to continue working with families rather than refer to children’s social care, is having its own unintended impact.

In a high blame, high risk environment, rather than encouraging other agencies to work with families for longer CAF has sometimes increased referral rates to children’s social care. Furthermore, the mandatory reporting by police of all cases of domestic abuse where there are children in the household, causes a considerable increase in the daily workload of children’s social care.  In already busy teams, these referrals are often managed by sending letters to the households where domestic abuse has occurred. It is self-evident that this is likely to increase anxiety for victims of domestic abuse.

This does not mean good practice is doomed. In well-staffed, well-resourced teams there are many examples, but it is often made possible by ‘working around’ the system.

System causes tensions

With the early categorisation and the concentration on computer systems rather than people it is not surprising that parents and children find the system (mainly technologically driven) to be difficult to influence.  This causes tensions between service users and practitioners which is causing problems with retention of experienced practitioners.

This turnover places very young practitioners in front line work immediately after graduation. They often have little experience of front line work because placements within statutory agencies are difficult to achieve.

To change this system we need to shift the approach in social work.  Social work as a profession is inherently dealing with complex decision-making and the upholding of human rights.  For this to work properly public scrutiny of decision making processes on an anonymous basis is essential as is the public availability of Part 8 Special Case Reviews, which have been established to look into why children die and how systems have failed.

The system of assessment needs to change so that it responds to children and families rather than people being forced to fit the system.   There has to be flexibility so that cases can change category. Children and families are not crosses on a computer screen.  Social workers need to have time to visit families and get to know them and they need space to think, debate and formulate a considered and careful opinion.

The solution to the problem lies in people not computers.  The direction needs to change.

John Hemming MP is chairman of Justice for Families

Allan Norman is a Birmingham social worker and lawyer and is principal solicitor at Celtic Knot

Sue White is professor of social work at Lancaster University

About Simeon Brody

Community Care managing web editor

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