Want answers? Don’t ask Laming

Lord Laming’s report into the death of Victoria Climbi’ has been
criticised for being too bureaucratic and top-heavy with no serious
attention to changes in the service user and practitioner
relationship. The disappointment is clear. This report was heralded
as a “new beginning” for the service but has in fact deflated
front-line staff, who can expect greater scrutiny of their practice
and more regulation.

Many of the 108 recommendations are to be acted upon within set
time limits, many within six months. But how should we react to the
deadlines? Laming has set rigorous targets, but there seems to be
no continuity across the country and a consistent approach is
unlikely. Will every social services department formulate their own
interpretations of each recommendation?

Recommendation 43 of Laming’s report is an example of the concerns.
It states: “No staff should undertake section 47 [child protection]
investigations unless he or she has been trained to do so.
Directors of social services must undertake an audit of staff
currently carrying out section 47 inquiries to identify gaps in
training and experience, these must be addressed

This is more complex than it appears. first, section 47s are among
the most demanding and anxiety-provoking areas of social work, and
must never be undertaken by newly qualified and inexperienced
staff. We must craft a service to support a stable and mature
workforce where incentives keep experience at the front line.

There is a need for time to plan and implement minimum standards.
But, with strict deadlines, how will consistency across the country
be verified and who will judge the content of this training?

A second major problem is the lack of a knowledge base. A
literature search on “preparatory skills in child protection” found
only seven relevant references in the past five years. This
indicates that documented skills in this area are rare. With no
evolving evidence base we do not have a clear structure,
methodology or framework on which to build. Consequently,
recommendation 43 becomes a conundrum: what is important when
considering an audit of staff undertaking section 47 inquiries?
What do we include? Where do we begin?

There are at least three key areas to consider in preparing staff
for section 47 investigations. These are basic and rudimentary – a
starting point for good practice to develop. Trainers should not,
at this point, be concerned with statutory issues but should be
more focused on significant grounding in the attributes needed for
good practice to thrive.

These are:

  • Personal history. Those who wish to undertake
    investigative work must have a strong sense of themselves, who they
    are and what in their own history has led them to undertake child
    protection work. Consequently, personal process – the remnants of
    one’s own history and past traumas – should have reached some
    resolution. To not have this in order can cause problems during
    contact with service users in what will often be emotionally
    difficult meetings. Workers can be helped to identify their own
    areas of vulnerability through a range of exercises. Trainers need
    to establish the worker’s trust to explore these issues and should
    be competent to deal with the emotions participants reveal, but in
    ways that illuminate the worker’s professional life and do not
    exacerbate historical trauma.
  • Using personal and wider support systems.
    Staff enter this work with the desire and passion to make a
    difference but can soon feel overwhelmed and drained by the
    unrelenting demands of wave after wave of complex families. Workers
    must display an ability to look after their own needs, to use
    support systems and to monitor the effects of the exhausting
    emotional content entailed in section 47 work on themselves. These
    requirements overlap in several respects with those above. Hawkins
    and Shohet2 in their publication on supervision provide
    interesting ideas around mapping support systems, burn-out
    prevention and the effective use of supervision.
  • Communication skills. New workers must be
    adept at handling reluctance from users, be able to gauge
    legitimate hostility and be capable of dealing with the range of
    responses they may encounter during investigations. They need
    refined communication skills, with the ability to translate,
    interpret and negotiate while remaining focused on the primary
    task. Johnson’s publication3 is one of the most erudite
    works in this area with a range of exercises to promote effective
    communication skills.

The training context provides an ideal chance to create
enactments where a range of complex child protection scenarios can
be explored. Formal lecture style is ineffective in this type of
training. Scenarios where trainers can create learning as close to
the “real thing” as possible are vital in the preparation of staff.
Wiener is a leading exponent of this form of training and offers
sound advice for trainers wanting to develop skills in this

From such training experiences we can build a sound base of
practice wisdom. In child protection, staff must be nurtured to
work in an environment often likened to a war zone. Consequently,
they will need time to become psychologically, physically and
emotionally prepared. It is the lack of comprehension of the crises
experienced by many workers every day that erodes the optimism of
those on the front line. Carefully constructed training is only
part of the agenda. Our services are threadbare, morale is low and,
after much expectation, the Laming report has left many
practitioners with that “business as usual” feeling.

When we read Laming’s report, why should we be surprised by the
levels of ineptitude discovered by the inquiry panel? It is
unacceptable that there could be a large proportion of social work
staff untrained and ill-equipped to be undertaking child protection
investigations – but it is not surprising. We must reflect on why
we have accepted such lamentable standards.

A concluding irony is that Lord Laming – as chief inspector of
social services from 1991 to 1998 – has known the condition of
child protection for many years. His response to the death of
Victoria Climbie is out of touch with what we really need.

Jim Wild is senior lecturer at Nottingham Trent
University and worked in child protection for 12 years. He is
writing a training pack on section 47 inquiries. For further
information e-mail



The Victoria Climbie
, page 40, Stationery Office, 2003

2 P Hawkins and R Shohet,
Supervision in the Helping Professions, Oxford University
Press, 1998

3 D Johnson, Reaching
Out, Interpersonal Effectiveness and Self-Actualization

(eighth edition), Allyn & Bacon, 2003

4 R Wiener, Creative
, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2000   

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