False premises

When a child dies as a result of abuse or neglect, the public
ask what can be done to prevent it from happening again? In these
circumstances it is not enough to take action; we must also be seen
to take action, demonstrating that lessons have been learned.

That is why the Institute for Public Policy Research’s proposal to
create a new national child protection agency might be
superficially so attractive (news page 7, 26 September). It has a
number of morally satisfying connotations: the new broom, the point
at which the buck stops, the single-issue agency. Yet, tempting
though this vision is, there are compelling reasons why a national
agency is not the way forward.

The first is to do with responsibility. Rather than enhancing
co-ordination between agencies, the creation of a new national body
would remove child protection from the accountability framework of
local services. Child protection would be seen as “their” business,
when in fact it needs to be everyone’s business, a responsibility
shared not only by social services but by others working with
children, in schools, health services and the wider community. The
research that led to the redrafting of the government guidance,
Working Together to Safeguard Children,1
highlighted the problems caused by polarisation and called for a
more integrated approach to children and families work.

Then there is the sheer difficulty of identifying those children
who are at risk. Neither Victoria Climbi’ nor Ainlee Walker, whose
parents were recently convicted of her manslaughter, were on the
child protection register. The Department of Health’s overview of
40 serious case reviews,2 showed that only six of the
children concerned had been on the register at the time of the
incident, while in almost a third of cases the child was not known
to social services.

The IPPR proposal assumes there is a clear and static threshold
that places a child inside or outside the child protection system.
Yet children do not come with a label attached. The picture of
neglect and emotional abuse builds up over time; it cannot simply
be identified and managed within an investigation model, which
would be the bread and butter of a separate agency. We do know that
many are children in need of positive support. Not only would a
national agency require the process of categorising children to be
more rigid, it would increase the polarisation between family
support and child protection. This could mean children being
bounced between social services and the new agency.

A separate agency would not solve the sector’s underlying workforce
problem: the lack of skilled workers. If anything, it may
exacerbate the shortage by siphoning off staff to expand
investigation capacity.

Perhaps the greatest danger lies in the unintended consequences of
creating a national agency. Mainstream services might feel the need
to refer any child at any sort of risk to the agency, as an
insurance against future recriminations. This could result in a
re-run of the scenario faced by the Child Support Agency, which was
overwhelmed by demand. It could distort statistics, instantly
implying a large increase in the number of children at risk of

There is no doubt that we need to improve local co-ordination and
communication, and to strengthen area child protection committees.
This might mean giving them statutory status with a small national
board to support them, whose duties would include monitoring ACPC
performance, reviewing current child protection guidance and
commissioning evaluation of new initiatives. The board could also
have a role in serious case reviews and statutory inquiries.

Most of all, we need to focus on prevention. The fact is that it is
not possible to separate child protection from support. In many
cases those best placed to identify children in trouble will not be
child protection workers, but GPs, health visitors, teachers and
others providing services within the community. A legal duty of
child protection needs to reside equally with all these
professional groups, supported by strong local protocols to ensure
joint action and accountability. But by building on systems already
in place, we stand a much greater chance of improving outcomes for
children in ways sensitive to all their needs.

Paul Ennals is chief executive of the National
Children’s Bureau.


1 Department of Health, Working Together
to Safeguard Children: A Guide to Inter-agency Working to Safeguard
and Promote the Welfare of Children
, The Stationery Office,

2 Sinclair R, Bullock R, Learning from
Past Experience: A Review of Serious Case Reviews
, Department
of Health, 2002

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