Child protection blues

Like their colleagues in social services
police officers who work in child protection know all about low
status and understaffing. But the need for them to work more
effectively has never been greater, writes Sally Gillen in the
second article in our child protection in focus series.

Many police officers regard working on a child
protection team as having a lowly status. Some joke that only those
with a well developed “soft” side and ambitions to while away the
day drinking coffee down at social services need apply. It is
certainly not thought of as a job for the career driven, but as
ideal for the female police officer who wants a nine to five job to
fit in with child care, or the detective who has paid his dues
after a 30-year CID career and has earned himself a cushy number
before retiring. It is not for nothing that child protection teams
are dubbed the “cardigan brigade” by police in other units.

Detective Inspector Kerry Marlow, of South
Wales Police, attributes the job’s low status to ignorance about
what it actually involves. In a culture that rates job
effectiveness by the number of convictions, child protection is
never going to be top of the crop.

Marlow says that it seems to others that child
protection officers do not do much because very few cases reach
court or result in a conviction. “In reality you might deal with
200 cases but only two will need to go to court,” he explains.

Karin Mulligan, a detective chief inspector at
Greater Manchester Police, adds that child protection has a lower
status than some of the “sexier” CID units such as drugs, and has
traditionally been known as the “women and children’s department”.
Around 45 per cent of officers in child protection within the
Metropolitan Police are women, the largest female representation of
any police unit.

Social workers also know a little about image
problems, of course. At times during the Victoria Climbié
Inquiry, which heard from a number of police witnesses, observers
could be forgiven for thinking a bad image was all that the two
agencies had in common. But whereas social services must fight to
improve its image among the public, police child protection
officers must battle an enemy within. Perhaps the distinction is
unimportant because the end result is the same – a recruitment

Graduates do not want to make a career in
social work, and the brightest police trainees do not opt for child

Poor public relations can do enormous damage
to recruitment – a reality the social care sector is trying to
address with the campaign it launched last year. The problems it
has created within police child protection were illustrated during
the inquiry when police sergeant David Hodges, a supervisor of PC
Karen Jones, the officer who failed to visit Victoria at home
because she feared catching scabies, admitted he should “never have
been selected” for his post.

He said his lack of child protection training
left him unable to adequately supervise Jones, but added: “At the
time they were struggling to find detectives so the post had to be

Although his candour about his appointment was
unusual, Hodges’s admission that he had little child protection
training was not. Many of the police witnesses said they had very
little or no training and were left to pick up knowledge
on-the-job. They also reported that as the “cinderellas” of the
police service they had the poorest accommodation and precious few

Steps to improve training nationally have been
taken by the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), the body
responsible for drawing up police policy. A working party – set up
following a 1999 report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of
Constabulary, which recommended a training curriculum for officers
investigating child abuse – is drawing up a list of recommendations
for the strategy.

Next month the recommendations will be
presented to Acpo for consultation. Once ratified, the UK’s 43
forces will sign up to the strategy, which will include specific
training for detectives and sergeants investigating child
protection cases.

Terry Grange, chief constable of Dyfed Powys
and Acpo’s lead on child protection, says it is an excellent idea
that an accredited training curriculum will offer core child
protection training and refresher courses, describing it as
“stunningly obvious” that all police officers working in child
protection should be properly trained.

The establishment of a specific training
course is a sign that the police have recognised that current
training arrangements are inadequate and highly variable.

But Grange admits he faces a challenge in
getting every force to prioritise child protection within its
training budget. The problem, he says, is that “while
intellectually they believe it is an important area, not one of the
10 performance indicators against which the police are measured
includes child protection”.

Government messages about children are that
they are problems, rather than victims, says Grange, pointing to
the recent emphasis on street robbery. He adds that the government
needs to openly state that protecting children is a police priority
and that it should be included in the annual policing plan of each

Raising the profile of child protection work
will also present Grange with a challenge. One force is leading the
way in all these areas. Unsurprisingly, it is the one that dealt
with Victoria Climbié. According to Grange, the Met has
“really berated itself and looked at what they need to change,”
following the eight-year-old’s death.

Sweeping changes to the way child protection
was structured were introduced by the Met in July 2000, following
the appointment of commissioner Sir John Stevens. The 25 child
protection teams were merged with the paedophile unit and three
major investigation teams, which included one dealing with abuse in
care homes and base them at New Scotland Yard.

The decision to bring them all under one
operational command called SO5 was also a response to Victoria’s
death, and was designed to dispel the view that child protection
was beyond the fringes of real police work, says detective chief
superintendent Derrick Kelleher, who heads SO5.

He admits that, historically, police child
protection work has been “cash starved”, but insists that massive
improvements have been made. For instance, he says that in the past
“we have had people working in child protection who because of
their own welfare issues should not have been.” Now, potential
recruits to child protection are being psychologically screened
before being accepted.

He describes the training that now exists,
which includes a three-week child protection training course for
all constables and a week’s child interviewing and multi-agency
course, as a “Rolls-Royce model compared to what we had

A child protection manual, outlining standard
procedures for child protection teams, is now in use across the Met
which, says Kelleher, clarifies the role of the police because in
the past “no-one told officers what was expected of them”.

He is also arguing for statutory codes of
practice to replace area child protection committee protocols. He
cites Met research that showed that local protocols varied in
quality, many contained very little information on the police’s
role, and a lot of them did not include guidance on how to resolve
disputes between agencies.

The different professional agendas of the
police and social services inevitably lead to clashes over how to
handle cases. But Kelleher says that in these circumstances the
police are often overruled by social services because they hold the
budgets to provide support services.

Staffing levels will also be boosted later
this year, with the recruitment of 59 more officers and 32 trained
civilians to help with paperwork, the demands of which often keep
officers away from case meetings.

Research carried out by an independent
consultant for the Met revealed that the average child protection
officer deals with between 75 and 120 cases a year, which Kelleher
plans to reduce to a “safe” rate of 60. Image problems should not
interfere with the recruitment of new staff because the view that
child protection officers “spend their days down at social services
drinking coffee,” is, he says, a thing of the past.

When he joined SO5 there was a 14.5 per cent
vacancy rate across the child protection unit and the work
attracted detectives in the last two years of service. By employing
aggressive recruitment methods such as headhunting, Kelleher says
he now has some of the best detectives around.

Improved IT systems are also being installed,
including a database that has a “sounds-like” facility on name
searches, which is being piloted in three boroughs in September and
goes live in November.

But what sort of impact have these changes

To begin with DI Michael McDonagh, who heads
Camden child protection team, disagrees that the poor image of
child protection work no longer exists, arguing: “Until more
detectives know what the job involves, and the complexity of the
investigative work we do, that image will remain”.

He has established an attachment programme
whereby detectives from other units can visit his team for a week
to see what the job involves.

His team of nine officers typically work a
12-hour day because, while the office is open from eight until six,
many of the home visits take place outside those hours. The six
officers allocated cases deal with between 100 and 120 a year,
compared to the 30 to 50 handled by the average detective, proof
that Kelleher has some way to go to reduce caseloads. McDonagh says
a detective constable with 16 years’ CID experience who recently
joined his team, the second busiest in London, had to ask for a
break from allocations because she could not cope with the change
in work rate.

Resources are scarce. Computers, the newest of
which is five years old, are shared between four people, which
creates practical problems when the majority of work is
computer-based. The two phones are shared between four and there is
one car available for use. Until last year officers were expected
to use their own transport.

McDonagh says that he is confident Kelleher
will deliver on his promise of extra staff but is less certain when
they will arrive.

But despite working in an under-resourced,
pressured environment, Camden child protection team offers plenty
of examples of how police can work effectively in child protection.
When he joined the team about a year and a half ago, McDonagh
introduced a supervision system, which has won praise from the top
people at SO5 and looks set to be introduced in other boroughs.

The supervision model, which involves
investigating officers and their supervisors having a team meeting,
followed by one-to-ones, is a rarity in police work. The culture in
the police, as became evident during the Victoria Climbié
inquiry, is for individual officers to act on their own

Changes such as these may also benefit joint
working by increasing similarities between the working practices of
social services and the police. Often, says, Kelleher, “police and
social services operate in two very different cultures”.

“We train officers to act as lone agents
exercising their own discretion. They then go into social services
where they operate in a line management system and where there is
more of a group consensus about the way things are done.”

For McDonagh, who puts ability to work with
other agencies at the top of a list of qualities a child protection
officer must have, the essence of effective multi-agency working is
trust. This, he believes, can only be achieved by having regular
meetings. Every month he and his detectives have a meeting with
middle managers from social services, which they take turns to
chair. He also regularly meets the assistant director of social
services to discuss policy issues.

Inevitably, given the different agendas of the
police and social services, there are sometimes disagreements about
the way a case should be handled. The police’s need to investigate
a crime will sometimes clash with social services’ desire to keep
the child within the family.

But McDonagh says that both are ultimately
concerned with the needs of the child and because of the stress it
would cause to the child the police will rarely be eager to pursue
a court case.

DCI Mulligan says that Greater Manchester
Police has followed the Victoria Climbié Inquiry and the Met’s
response to it with interest and have tweaked aspects of their
child protection practices. Other police forces from around the
country are doubtless doing the same. When Lord Laming and his team
release their report later this year it is likely that it will
recommend another raft of changes to the Met’s practice.

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