The government’s response to the Victoria Climbie Inquiry provides
an opportunity to acknowledge how serious child protection is.
Successive inquiries into the relatively small number of cases
where abuse or neglect has led to the death of a child have drawn
attention to significant shortcomings in the current system.
Structural reform alone will not resolve these problems, but the
creation of a dedicated child protection service might create the
kind of environment in which they could be resolved.
There are three problems that any reform would need to address.
Firstly, inquiries have repeatedly found a lack of inter-agency
working. The Victoria Climbie Inquiry found evidence of
communication breakdown and misunderstanding between professionals
and an over-reliance on social services to bear all responsibility.
A system that achieves greater inter-agency working would be better
able to protect children.
Secondly, there is a shortage of experienced child protection
staff. We await the findings of the latest Social Services
Workforce Survey but there are anecdotal reports of high vacancy
levels in children’s teams in some regions. Poor levels of pay mean
that high calibre staff are being lured from child protection.
Thirdly, children who die as a result of abuse or neglect are often
not known to social services. Preventive family support work needs
to be strengthened. But such preventive work is undermined by
public distrust of the social work role. Social work is
disproportionately associated in the public’s mind with the removal
of children from families. Social workers have to perform both
“care” and “control” roles and as a result parents are uncertain as
to whether services are investigating or supporting them. And in
the face of limited resources, social workers’ workloads are being
dominated by high-priority child protection cases at the expense of
family support work.
A dedicated child protection service could create an environment in
which it would be possible to achieve inter-agency working, reward
and retain high calibre and experienced staff and free up others in
the social care field to devote more attention to preventive family
Such a service would comprise a specialist team of practitioners,
seconded in from relevant agencies including social services,
education, health and the police. Co-location of multi-agency staff
in a single team reporting to a single manager would achieve
greater depth of inter-agency working than could ever be achieved
through the pursuit of joint protocols, joint planning or
information sharing. And by seconding staff into the team with the
option of returning to work in their chosen profession, the spread
of child protection skills among all relevant agencies would be
It is, of course, neither possible nor desirable to ring-fence all
the activity associated with safeguarding children from neglect or
abuse into the work of a single body. Nor should the work of a
child protection service be solely investigative, divorced from the
traditions of social work’s family-based approach. But a dedicated,
specialist team could take on the most difficult of cases and have
responsibility for section 47 investigations, freeing up others to
devote more time to preventive work.
A dedicated child protection service would need to be locally based
and accountable to local government. But the wide national
variation in standards suggests there is also a case for a national
body to oversee standards. Such a body could play a role in sharing
information and analysing performance, building on the work of the
General Social Care Council.
The government’s response to the Laming inquiry should recognise
that lessons from successive child abuse inquiries suggest that
improvements could be made and the creation of a dedicated child
protection service may be part of the answer.
Lisa Harker is deputy director of the Institute for Public