Model answer

With the imminent publication of Lord Laming’s report on Victoria
Climbi’ and the prospect of a green paper on children at risk in
the spring, it is timely to seek some form of synthesis of ideas
from among the many seemingly conflicting proposals that are
currently being aired on child protection.1, 2

From what we know of human nature, it is not tenable to claim that
all child abuse can be eradicated. However, abuse can be minimised,
but only if child protection becomes everyone’s business and is not
just seen as the preserve of social services. We have to create a
system of collective responsibility that dispenses with the
scapegoating of social workers for every system failure, scaring
off much-needed staff.

Although the record on child protection in this country can be
favourably compared with many others, we will not be able to
maintain or improve upon that performance if staff of the necessary
calibre and experience are not retained within the system.
Vacancies in some regions are now running at an average of 20 per
cent in children’s teams, often compounded by high sickness
rates.3 Furthermore, we have yet to match and
co-ordinate the available skills to address the most challenging

A more effective and sustainable system will require a modification
of most aspects of current provision, building upon best practice.
This encompasses policy and legal framework, standards of
professional practice, co-ordination of interagency working, and
the training and remuneration of staff.

By its very nature, the policy of prevention is a negative,
stigmatising and unmeasurable policy goal. It involves the
pre-emptive labelling of children and adults as potential
candidates for wrong-doing but has no means of measuring whether
the targeted individuals have been diverted from this hypothetical
course by any intervention.

There is a strong case for recasting the policy in more positive
terms to focus on the protection and development of vulnerable
children, who are measurably failing to thrive, knowing that abuse
may be one of the contributory factors. In a truly inclusive
policy, all agencies would be geared to assisting children to
realise their full potential and addressing any impediments. While
not forgetting other predatory adults and peers, most abuse is
perpetrated by parents but current policy focuses on the symptom
not the cause. Energies are devoted more to the identification and
management of risk than to the remedy of poor or inadequate

However, engagement with parents has to be set within a more
realistic legal framework. The Children Act 1989 requires that
intervening staff seek to work in partnership with all parents.
That is a laudable but flawed goal because not all parents are
capable or willing to work in partnership with statutory agencies.
In the view of many fostering and adoption staff, social workers,
while pursuing partnership, are delaying decisions about the
removal of children. This makes the damage to those children worse,
rendering the arrangement of substitute family care much more
difficult, as evidenced by the adoption waiting lists and rates of
placement disruption.

A contributory factor to the delay is the level of legal proof
required to justify intervention and the protracted nature of
decision-making within our adversarial judicial system. There would
be merit in exploring whether a family panel system, drawing on but
not fully replicating the model in Scotland, could expedite
decision-making and mandate more timely intervention, possibly
through making use of parenting orders. Contested cases would, of
course, still be subject to due judicial process.

Social services’ performance indicators on child protection
continue to demonstrate an unacceptable wide variation in practice,
even on minimum requirements, such as six-weekly visiting. In areas
of similar socio-economic status, the numbers on the child
protection register can vary by a factor of seven. The recent chief
inspectors’ report on safeguarding children expressed concern about
the variability of the thresholds being applied4 but
there is no coherent monitoring of other agencies’ performance on
child protection (witness the low priority for child protection in
the recent National Policing Plan). The government has made it
plain that it favours greater “localism” but only if national
standards are met on key issues. Child protection has to be one of

As argued by the NSPCC, a national standards forum made up of
representatives of all the constituent agencies could define, on an
interagency basis, the required practice standards, analyse the
performance monitoring data, commission research into best practice
and fast-track the dissemination of findings through its website.
Without such defined standards, authorities will be increasingly
vulnerable to challenge under human rights legislation and
interagency ownership of this agenda will remain patchy. A
standards forum could also have oversight of a national team to
investigate any system failures, because there has to be a more
effective way of learning any lessons than the current recourse to
costly and prolonged public inquiries.

The chief inspectors’ report doubts whether area child protection
committees can, as currently constituted, work effectively. Without
some form of statutory backing, these committees lack teeth and
agency representatives are often not of a sufficient seniority. A
growing consensus would appear to favour making the chairing role
independent of the local authority to reinforce the sense of
independent accountability. For their part, ACPCs could have a dual
accountability to the local children’s strategic partnership and to
the national standards forum.

On past experience, it is hard to see how ACPCs will ensure a
consistency of practice without a dedicated specialist protection
team of practitioners, seconded from constituent agencies in the
same way as youth offending teams. Such teams could not take on all
child protection work but they could concentrate on the most
challenging cases to the relief of mainstream colleagues. With the
progressive extension of the direct payments principle to child
care, such teams would be ideally placed, as brokers, to
orchestrate complex packages of care with the aid of pooled

As guardians of the child protection register and of the child
protection system more generally, team members could also provide
the independent chairpersons of all child protection conferences.
This would promote greater consistency across this whole area of
practice. In this way, team members would be able to manage the
boundary between mainstream and specialist child protection work
and have a balance of direct and supervisory work as a counter to
burn-out in a possible three- to five-year secondment.

Specialist protection teams need not be associated with dangers, so
long as there remains a common access route to services and such
teams are part of an integrated range of service options. This was
achieved 20 years ago, by some, though not all, of the nine
specialist teams established by the NSPCC, combining the above
functions.5 They achieved a focus and a sophistication
of working that has rarely been attained since.

After all the public inquiry recommendations on child protection
for more joined-up working, it will be incomprehensible to public
and politicians alike if child protection remains the one area
where we do not explore more integrated ways of working, especially
as they see staff being increasingly lured away to work in other
interdisciplinary teams, such as Sure Start, Connexions and youth

The training of staff for child protection work cannot be divorced
from the wider debate about the future of social work. The welcome
introduction of three-year qualifying training opens up the
possibility of specialisation in the final year that could be
appropriately sub-divided, as in education, between pre-school,
primary and secondary ages, with specialist child protection work
being a post-qualifying module attracting a salary premium. Such a
training framework would facilitate the formation at the local
community level of networked interagency teams for the different
stages of childhood, expanding the multiple-intervention On Track
model from focusing just on the potential for antisocial behaviour
to more general significant under-performance. There would,
however, need to be an override that enables specialist teams to
keep a continuity of involvement. In this context, the National
Assessment Framework might have to be revisited to ensure that it
focuses sufficiently on the risk of abuse, does not impede
continuity of engagement and has full interagency commitment to a
unified assessment process.

What is inescapable is that the competences of parenting need to be
given a much higher profile in the national agenda as part of the
national curriculum in mainstream education and as a core element
in the training of all caring professions dealing with

Beyond that, social workers, in particular, need to develop more
skills in cognitive therapies, so that they are better equipped to
deal effectively with difficulties in parent-child relationships.
They also need a wider range of complementary and specialist
service options, such as family support workers, link families,
children and family centres, family group conferencing and so on,
as well as a proactive capacity to reach under-performing children
and young people and their families who do not seek timely

The proposed model sets out a more comprehensible framework, which
has the potential to be more supportive both of children at risk
and of the staff charged with protecting them. It recasts the
policy of prevention more positively and provides a more realistic
legal framework for timely intervention.

It establishes a means of defining what constitutes “good enough
parenting” as a basis for more consistent interagency practice and
sets up a more supportive interagency operational structure, while
creating more robust arrangements for collective

Finally, this model keeps child protection within mainstream child
care but recognises the role of specialist skills and gives
enhanced status to child protection work.

This is one of many potential models. Given that we have so much
still to learn, it is to be hoped that, in keeping with the spirit
of health secretary Alan Milburn’s address last October to the
National Social Services Conference in Cardiff, the tone of the
forthcoming green paper will be permissive rather than
prescriptive, promoting a diversity of interagency approaches, the
outcomes of which are monitored in a co-ordinated way to optimise

Bob Welch is an independent consultant in social care


1 Local Government Association, Serving Children
, ADSS and LGA, 2002

2 L Kendall and L Harker ed, From Welfare to
, Institute for Public Policy Research, 2002

3 Local Government Association, Social Services
Survey, LGA, 2001

4 Department of Health, Safeguarding Children: a
Joint Chief Inspectors’ Report on Arrangements to Safeguard
, DoH, 2002

5 David N Jones et al, Understanding Child
, Macmillan Education,1987

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