Interagency efforts to safeguard children are being undermined
by social work’s staff problems. But are other agencies ignoring
their own responsibilities, asks Katie
Social services came under fire again last week after eight chief
inspectors published a report into the arrangements in place to
‘Safeguarding Children’ is based on findings from inspections by
the individual inspectorates as well as from a programme of joint
inspections looking at inter-agency arrangements in eight area
child protection committees.
It is the first of a series of reports to follow Sir William
Utting’s recommendation that all chief inspectors of services
substantially involved with children should produce a single report
every three years on the safeguards in the different
In the report, staff from a number of agencies expressed concerns
with the thresholds social services apply in their children’s
services. The agencies said they believed social services were
unable to give an adequate response unless there was a high risk of
serious harm to a child, and that social services did not provide
sufficient advice. Social services chief inspector Denise Platt
said:”We think our report highlights the fact that children’s
safety is being compromised because insufficient priority is given
to safeguarding children.”
Much of this criticism can be attributed to staff recruitment and
retention difficulties. The inspectors identified this as having “a
major impact” on child protection work.
But Mike Leadbetter, former president of the Association of
Directors of Social Services, insists children are not being
endangered. He says if there was a child at risk in need of help
“there’s not a director in the land that wouldn’t pull staff off
Leadbetter says that priority has to be given to more “concrete”
cases. But social services would like to carry out more preventive
work, he says, and it is this which is hindered by recruitment
The report also accuses social services of deploying the least
experienced and non-permanent staff on duty and initial assessment
work. Leadbetter says this is not widespread, but admits that
options can be limited. “There are times when if you are short of
staff you put whoever you can get on duty,” he says.
Another finding from the report relates to reluctance by agencies
to refer child welfare concerns to more appropriate organisations.
It states that social services can be reluctant to refer to the
police, but Leadbetter refutes this. “In the authorities I’ve
worked in we have had no hesitation to refer to the police,” he
Other agencies, including schools, can be unwilling to contact
social services. Believing social services do not have the capacity
to investigate may be one reason for this, but the stigma that a
social services investigation can cause a family also deters some
people from raising concerns.
While the National Union of Teachers defends the quality of social
services, a spokesperson points out that individual teachers are
not personally to blame for any lack of referral. “The teacher may
draw the attention of the person responsible for child protection
and the head teacher, and they make a decision whether it’s
referred to social services,” she says.
“Schools are cautious because they may be making an allegation
without foundation. If a teacher thinks a child has a problem at
home the instant reaction won’t be to run off to social services –
it will be to establish whether the child fell over and became
bruised or whether they are being physically abused.”
The spokesperson also questions the extent to which teachers should
be involved. “The role of the school is to raise suspicions or
concerns with social services and then it’s for social services,
with or without the police, to investigate,” she adds.
One of Safeguarding Children’s key recommendations is for child
protection training to be part of the core training of all
professionals working with children.
The NUT spokesperson stresses that teachers “want to protect
children” but training would be costly and time consuming.
The report also reveals concerns that GPs do not attend initial
child protection conferences and are reluctant to participate in
area child protection committees (ACPCs).
But Andrew Dearden, a Cardiff GP and chairperson of the British
Medical Association’s community care committee, says his contract
with the government does not allow him to use work time for
anything other than seeing patients in his surgery. As a
consequence, in order to take an active part in child protection
meetings he would have to employ a locum. “I have to replace myself
with a locum at a cost of £120-£200 per morning and I
have to pay,” he says.
“The NHS won’t reimburse me for my locum so it falls to social
services. They tell us they don’t have a budget,” he says.
In addition, Dearden says that the meetings are often held at
inconvenient times, such as the busy morning period. “I saw 30
people this morning. Where are those 30 people going to go? If I am
at an area child protection meeting they are waiting – and then I
get in trouble with the government.”
Dearden believes that paediatricians and health visitors are better
equipped than GPs.
The report also highlights flaws in ACPCs, claiming that “few” were
able to work effectively because of poor leadership and lack of
support from other local agencies.
One of the proposalssuggests considering whether ACPCs should be
put on a statutory footing.
The NSPCC is in favour of this, and believes that ACPCs should
include representatives from social services and education
departments, the police, health authorities and local voluntary
“Strengthened ACPCs would provide a more powerful body to oversee
child protection work and ensure that the inter-agency system works
well at the local level,” says NSPCC director of public policy
Phillip Noyes. “There would be clearer and more consistent lines of
responsibility and accountability. It would obligate those involved
to fulfil their responsibilities.”
Organisations involved in child protection are likely to continue
proffering their ideas in the run up to the publication of Lord
Laming’s report, and with that unlikely to appear before Christmas,
there’s still plenty of time for debate. But the very fact that
eight different inspectorates worked together to produce this
report lays down a joint working gauntlet for front-line staff in
all the different agencies.
1 Department of
Health, Safeguarding Children, produced jointly by the chief
inspectors of social services, education, health, police,
probation, courts, prosecution services and prisons. Available from
Key proposals of report
– Social services should review the thresholds for
providing services, instigating child protection enquiries and
convening initial child protection conferences.
– ACPCs and constituent agencies should review their constitution,
membership, level of representation and funding arrangements to
ensure the committee is adequately resourced and fit to lead the
children’s safeguarding agenda.
– Local education authorities should monitor the arrangements in
maintained schools to safeguard children, including the
effectiveness of child protection procedures and training.
– Police services should review and clarify the role, remit,
location and status of the force’s child protection units to ensure
that all abuse of children is dealt with to a consistently high
– Health services should establish clear lines of responsibility to
ensure appropriate senior representation on ACPCs.