Overhaul child services

This week, the Institute for Public Policy Research formally
recommends a new, dedicated child protection agency.

There is an overwhelming consensus among social care
decision-makers that it is a bad idea – a view shared, it appears,
by the Department of Health, though not necessarily by all
government departments. The idea has been examined and dismissed in
this column too.

Families do not fall into neat, administrative categories.
Practitioners know that many child protection cases involve
vulnerable families who have not had the support they need. Even
defining the remit of a new agency is an insurmountable

Yet the IPPR has been led to its conclusion by a painstaking
analysis, which should not be ignored.

Child protection is the most risky and high-profile task of social
services departments. It has skewed their priorities, leading them
away from Seebohm’s original vision of preventive and
community-based work, supporting vulnerable families with
non-stigmatising services. Thirty years later, the social services
department is the last place many families would call in a crisis.
When the government rediscovered the importance of family support,
using a new language of “social exclusion”, social services no
longer seemed its obvious home, so new agencies were established:
Sure Start, Connexions and Children’s Fund partnerships.

But co-ordination between social services and the new agencies is
often poor. The ideal of the seamless family service, able to
divert families from tipping over the edge into abuse, but
responding quickly when it seems that they will, is indeed the
clinching argument against isolating child protection. But only if
it exists – and it doesn’t.

This week’s joint inspectorate report, Safeguarding
, shows that the threshold of child protection
services is too high. The focus is on highly dangerous families,
with little available for others. The answer is not to lower the
threshold, but to provide appropriate services for those families.
Moreover, the IPPR is right that child protection investigation
differs from other work with children and families, requiring a
different relationship between child and professional, and between
parent and professional.

The current child protection structures have evolved as agencies
have acknowledged their responsibilities, distorting the remit of
the one agency to take child protection seriously and be publicly
held to account. The system has failed too many times, in similar
ways, with horrific consequences. And, as the Victoria Climbi’
Inquiry has shown, it cannot succeed when resources, leadership,
training and staffing levels are inadequate.

So, if not a new agency, what? Clearly, the system must be revised,
but seen as a whole system from inclusion and support to

New social inclusion projects do not help those whose needs are too
acute for universal services, but who are not at risk. Local
authorities must be tasked with auditing all services in their area
and identifying and filling gaps in provision. They should be
enabled to establish multi-agency investigation teams with a single
manager. Performance indicators for partner agencies should be
co-ordinated to support the whole spectrum of services. A national
joint inspectorate should be established to set and monitor child
protection standards. And a national task force should identify
weak areas and provide support to develop structures and practice.

Most of all, the government must recognise that real preventive
work with vulnerable, troubled families is not being funded.
Whatever the outcome for child protection services, nothing would
protect more children than remedying that.

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