Break down the front door

Victoria Climbie’s case could and should have started and finished
in Ealing, says Lord Laming in his report into her murder by her
great-aunt Marie-Th’rŠse Kouao and boyfriend Carl Manning:
“The only reason Kouao was referred to Ealing social services was
because of Victoria’s needs – but these were ignored and the focus
was on Kouao.”

The reason for this was that Ealing’s front-door services (Laming’s
shorthand for a family’s first point of contact with social
services) were poorly organised – a pattern that was repeated with
all the agencies with which Victoria came into contact. So it is
far from surprising that Laming wants all local authorities to
prepare a statement on the true picture of the strengths and
weaknesses of their front-door duty systems for children and

Laming wants children who are the subject of allegations of
deliberate harm seen and spoken to within 24 hours of the
allegation being reported to social services. But many believe this
should already be happening as standard good practice.

Ben Jones (not his real name), a team manager of a children and
families team, agrees, but adds that there has to be an element of
discretion for the system to work. “Any trawl of child protection
referrals will show that there’s ambiguity or conflicting
information about the extent of harm or risk of harm. The main
issue is for social workers and managers to have the right
post-qualifying training, resources and management systems within
which to practice, and to be given the autonomy and respect to
decide whether that child needs to be seen that day, a week later,
or whether a conversation with the teacher or health visitor over
the phone is sufficient for that day.”

And, rightly or wrongly, staff resources help to create the
threshold, says Jones. “If a teacher rings in to say a six-year-old
boy has said his mother often hits him but there’s no sign of
injury, and a referral comes in about a six-month-old baby with a
suspicious fracture and another where a mother has left her two
young children on their own for seven hours, and you only have two
social workers available, the boy at school doesn’t come anywhere
near top of the priority list.”

Such timescales are a minimum standard, says Steve Love, assistant
director and head of children and family services at Hampshire
social services department. And, although they need to be in place,
he is cautious about a minimum standard being set and then everyone
thinking everything is going to be all right. “You could have one
case where waiting one hour is too late, while for another
situation, spending a week assessing the case and talking to people
might be better than going in with heavy-handed panic.”

Laming has much to say about improving the quality and
effectiveness of front-line social work. A key measure in keeping
children safe is an accurate assessment during a home visit.
Recommendation 34 says that social workers must not undertake home
visits without being clear about the purpose of the visit, the
information that needs to be gathered and the steps to be taken if
no one is at home. No visits should be undertaken without the
social worker checking whether other child protection agencies have
any information about the child.

Lisa Arthurworrey, Victoria’s allocated social worker at Haringey
social services department, made two announced home visits.
Although she didn’t talk to Victoria during the first visit in
August 1999, her impression was that she was happy. By the time of
the second visit in October, Victoria was already sleeping in the
bath, but Arthurworrey noticed nothing untoward. Manning later
admitted that the flat had been specially cleaned for the

The opportunities for being manipulated on a home visit are great,
says Janet Foulds, deputy chairperson of the British Association of
Social Workers and a team manager in a children’s services
department. Untrained, unqualified or inexperienced social workers
may take things at face value. Without proper back-up from a
experienced supervisor who can question the evidence, they run the
risk of getting it wrong. While assessing the situation, a social
worker can be victimised, bullied or manipulated by the family to
see things through their eyes, which can take the emphasis away
from the child.

“If you are going to be in contact with people who may be abusing
their children you need to be fully trained and aware as to how
you, the worker, can be drawn into these abusing dynamics,” says

A social worker needs to be a skilled communicator and know the
signs and symptoms of child abuse – for example, recognising
bruises from normal play and those that are non-accidental, and
understanding that a child clinging to a parent does not always
mean they are close.

It is asking a lot of them, says Foulds. “The quality of the
assessment is as good as the person’s ability to perceive.”

As a front-line social worker for London’s Westminster social
services department, Keith Warren is well aware of the difficulties
in a home visit. “It’s very difficult to gauge [abuse] when the
parents will not leave the room. I go there with a remit to speak
to the child. You have to reach the client on their level, inform
them of the power you have as the worker and the repercussions if
they don’t allow you access.”

Good front-line services need trained social workers and competent
supervisors, he says. “Social workers will make mistakes. You need
a supervisor who can pick up on them and look at what is being

Victoria’s case had an inexperienced worker, no supervision, lack
of communication and a couple determined to keep the truth from the
worker, which ensured a catalogue of wrong turns, says Foulds.

The greatest irony, says Laming, is that Victoria’s case was closed
by Haringey on the day she died. Hence recommendation 26, which
states that social services directors must ensure that no case
involving a vulnerable child is closed until the child and the
child’s carer have been seen and spoken to and a plan for
safeguarding welfare agreed. If this had been good practice
Victoria’s life might have been saved. In the last few weeks before
Victoria died a social worker called at her home several times.
When there was no reply she assumed they had moved. “It is possible
that at the time Victoria was in fact lying just a few yards away
in the prison of the bath, desperately hoping someone might find
her,” says Laming.

Part of Laming’s new vision for children’s services is a
recommendation to replace the child protection register with a plan
to safeguard and promote a child’s welfare. Whether Laming wants to
scrap registers altogether is unclear, but most agree with the
sentiment in his proposal that removes the emphasis from
registering to planning. As Love says: “Registering a child is no
use at all unless you have a child protection plan.”

Jones agrees: “The focus of the child protection meeting should be
on what is going to be done by whom and when, and not primarily
whether the child fits a particular category.” He, and others,
would be reluctant to see the register scrapped as it is an
important indicator, not just for identifying need but also the
type of abuse being perpetrated.

Will Laming’s vision for front-door and front-line services work?
It will, if the government puts its money where its mouth is, says
Foulds. “A lot of it is about making sure that resources and
training are in place to equip front-line workers. Then you can
start holding people to account. If they don’t come up with the
goods we will struggle on until the next tragedy.”

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