How many more must die before front-line issues are addressed?

The long-awaited report on Victoria Climbie has as its “big idea”
national regulatory frameworks cascading down to a local level, but
fails to recognise the crisis in staff retention or consider any
way out of it. Why? Lord Laming’s preference is for a model of
accountability that seems to exclude substantial development on the
ground, an approach that will only exacerbate the problems.

Like many professionals who have an interest in child protection I
waited with eager anticipation for what the Laming report would
offer our service. So, having read the key findings, the important
question we must ask is: did we get something likely to make a
difference and transform child protection services? I fear that the
answer is likely to be confusing.

The key and most substantial recommendation is of a children and
families board overseeing the implementation of policy and
legislation and rooted in government with “a clear and unambiguous
line of managerial accountability within and across public
services” (recommendations 1-16). It will work with a national
agency for children and families, which will in turn service
committees for children and families at a local level. It is likely
that area child protection committees in their present form will be
replaced by this new local tier of appointments.

Laming was uncompromisingly blunt about ACPCs in their present
form. He said they had “become unwieldy, bureaucratic and with
limited impact on front-line services” (page 8, recommendations)
and that the shake-up might result in some new impetus. In reality,
ACPCs have never had a mandate to impose significant change when
concerns have been identified.

The consequence of existing structures is that ACPCs are reactive,
slow-moving bodies, chasing local and national directives. We must
wonder what the complexion of these newly formed local committees
will be. Almost certainly a good proportion are likely to be drawn
from the members of the former ACPCs, but we must hope these new
local committees will have a range of new faces to help propel them

There is a danger that the new structures will offer the daunting
prospect of more regulation and systems of accountability bearing
down on an already exhausted and depleted workforce.
Recommendations for emergency rapid response services seven days a
week with deadlines on interviewing children (probably within 24
hours) create the prospect of more stressful demands placed on
social services staff.

Laming’s idea of an overarching structure, disseminating down to a
local level is an attempt to create genuine power and authority in
response to the awful revelations of failure and ineptitude
resulting from the death of Victoria. The desire to form fail-safe
systems of control from above must be compelling.

But this report seems to lack conviction when we reach the raw
interface between agency and user. The concentration on systems
emanating from the top down, with no comparable recommendations at
the sharp end, is bitterly disappointing and must be contested.
There will be few social workers reading this document able to
identify anything much they can take away and feel comforted by.

Before the report’s release, there was much talk of multi-agency
teams and these would seem to fit more compatibly with the overall
framework Laming suggests. However, he shows no interest in teams
of this sort.

Laming’s scepticism is clear when the report states: “I am not
persuaded there is an untapped source of talent standing ready to
operate a national child protection service. It is likely that
staff would simply transfer from their current employment into the
new organisation” (page 7, introduction).

However, as if to contradict this point, health secretary Alan
Milburn’s statement to the House of Commons on the day the report
was published invited tenders to form children’s trusts. Can we
assume this issue remains open for debate? The danger here is of a
range of provision emerging without uniformity across the country
to “link” with the proposed national structure. If nothing else we
must have faith that a “source of talent” already exists in part
and, given the opportunity, can be both developed and maintained in
the longer term.

In reality, child protection staff rarely stay long enough to
consolidate or enhance their skills and we all know of talented
front-line workers who have left child protection because the
personal sacrifice has been too great. It is also true that locums
and inexperienced newly qualified workers carry some of the most
complex cases likely to be encountered. The pressures they face are

The trick must surely be to cultivate and nurture talent at the
front line and create such advantageous conditions of service that
collective wisdom will evolve over decades into stable and mature
practice. This vital issue does not resonate anywhere in Laming’s
report and we must wonder whether the authors fully comprehend the
problems on the ground. We have appalling conditions of service,
lamentable support and training, with no occupational standards
mapped or any national qualifications in child protection shared
across the multi-agency system.

Whatever emerges over the next two years as Laming’s
recommendations take shape there must be action to support social
workers in this most difficult of tasks in social work.

The sum of all recent high-profile inquiries into child deaths
contains a familiar range of recommendations and we must wonder why
we have not learned to avoid fatalities like Victoria’s. But deaths
of children “in the system” recur with astonishing regularity.
Conditions on the ground must be given precedence or at least equal
reflection to Laming’s central idea.

The consequence of failure to address this, the most critical of
issues, will result in yet another damning report further down the

Jim Wild is senior lecturer in social work at Nottingham
Trent University. He worked for 12 years in child protection

– For extensive background information on the Victoria Climbie
Report go to

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