Night caretaker

Hindsight may be a wonderful thing, but there are many lessons that
should already have been learned from numerous inquiry reports that
pre-date Lord Laming’s. The public and professionals agree that the
child protection system failed and must be improved.

The government is wrestling with the 108 recommendations of the
Laming inquiry report and formulating an official response in the
Children At Risk green paper. Not only will some of the lessons be
ignored but, more worryingly, it is possible that, as a direct
result of some of Laming’s recommendations, children may in fact be
placed at greater risk.

An alternative context to Laming can be provided based on data
Icollected from 53 local authorities and 112 emergency duty team
(EDT) workers on practice matters such as risk assessments and
decision-making processes.1

EDT workers cover most of the working week (128 hours a week and
more during public holidays) and provide a generic, emergency
service. Councils’ EDT teams usually consist of one lone worker who
can operate with the delegated powers of the director of social
services. These workers are often the longest serving, most
experienced and best qualified practitioners around.

With frequent publicity given to the recruitment and retention
problems in social care, EDT workers have an average of 17 years’
service and have no plans to move on.

More than 65 per cent of the work undertaken by EDT is children and
families related and usually child protection rather than family
support – section 47 rather than section 17 of the Children Act
1989. The work of the EDTs, according to the Social Services
Inspectorate, has “rarely had a high profile” and “has been out of
sight and out of mind”.2 The daytime mentality that
prevails among policy makers and authors of inquiry
reports3 is exemplified in the reporting of the North
East “scandal” in which 125 place of safety orders were taken in
Cleveland.4 But it was not acknowledged that 49 of these
were taken out of hours by a team that, after midnight, had one,
lone EDT officer covering 600,000 people. Inquiry reports
repeatedly adopt a nine-to-five perspective that ignores the
expertise of EDT workers.

This is not to suggest that the practice after hours is perfect
and, indeed, concerns should exist regarding the out of hours
worker’s practice in the Victoria Climbie case – such as the
recording of the contact between the social worker and the doctor,
as well as the destination of the referral to the EDT office filing

My own research however, shows that, faced with a similar scenario
in 2003 and post-Laming, EDT workers would be likely to make the
same decisions and their practice would not be too dissimilar to
that of the Haringey worker.5 In essence, their
rationale would be that the child is safe, there are no other
siblings at home, no attempts by the parents or carers to discharge
the child and, at best, an unclear explanation of what happened to
cause the injury. Based on these details, half of the EDT workers
interviewed suggested they would visit the child in the hospital,
with the parents, to start the child protection process. The
remaining half saw no reason to visit this child, given the lack of
immediate risk of significant harm and the fact that the child was
in a “place of safety” without threats of being removed.

But Laming threatens the very existence of the longest serving,
most experienced child care practitioners with recommendation 47.
This sees the “safeguarding of vulnerable children” as something
that must be taken away from general “out-of-office-hours”

It says: “The chief executive of each local authority with social
services responsibilities must ensure that specialist services are
available to respond to the needs of children and families 24 hours
a day, seven days a week. The safeguarding of children should not
be part of the responsibilities of general out-of-office-hours

The very concepts of specialist and expert need to be challenged
because the underpinning assertion is that a generic worker is
somehow not as expert as that of the specialist practitioners. Risk
assessment is both a political and personal process that requires
clear thinking on behalf of the individual worker as well as clear
guidance on the part of society and its institutions. To remove
from practice those who currently undertake significant numbers of
risk assessments in child protection pathologises the victims of
confusing systems.

Assessments undertaken by EDT workers are neither better nor worse
than their daytime counterparts, but they are certainly different.
Their focus is on what degree of risk can be managed until the next
working day; their assessment is holistic in that many EDT workers
are also approved social workers (under the Mental Health Act 1983)
and, because of the “emergency” nature of their work, have
developed over many years complex strategies for ensuring they do
not leave vulnerable people at risk.

These skills and practice knowledge are directly threatened by
Laming’s recommendation as it may force EDT workers to choose a
specialism – mental health, adults or child protection. Inevitably
some will not choose the latter and so the profession will lose
qualified and competent risk assessors to be replaced by less able
workers. This may increase rather than decrease the risk to
children as it is likely that “detection” of a crime in the short
term, rather than the broader “protection” of the child in the long
term, will become the focus of any investigation.

While the relationship between prevention, protection and detection
is complex and with the availability of competent workers to
undertake such work diminishing, Laming’s recommendation may
further undermine both these aspects. EDTs around the country will
recognise many features of Haringey’s out-of-hours service in their
own local authorities, namely lone working, home based, limited (if
any) access to information and limited (if any) means to consult a

I am not suggesting that out-of-hours teams remain unaltered by the
Climbi’ findings – quite the opposite. The contention here is that
the system that has managed crises after hours for nearly 30 years
can contribute helpfully to the child protection debate only if it
is included. So far EDTs have been ignored and if Laming’s
recommendation is acted upon they will become extinct in the
future. The self-audit requested by the SSI in February this year
addresses every recommendation for social care providers, except
one: recommendation 47.

It remains to be seen which aspects of the Laming report the
government will adopt and which it will see fit to omit from its
green paper. If children are to be protected in the future, it is
hoped that the expertise of those covering most of the week are not
dismissed as generic dinosaurs, but harnessed as specialist,
generic, competent risk assessors who have managed since the 1970s
to deal with dangerous, competing risks and who should provide the
foundation of a protective and supportive service in the future.

Glen Williams is a full-time local authority emergency duty team
practitioner and lectures in social work at Liverpool John Moores
University. He can be contacted at


1 Glen Williams, Out of Hours Social Work: A Study
of Local Authority Emergency Duty Teams
, unpublished Phd,
Liverpool John Moores University.

2 DoH, Open All Hours? Inspection of Local
Authority Social Services Emergency Out of Hours Arrangements
HMSO, 1999

3 DoH, Child Abuse – A Study of Inquiry Reports
, HMSO, 1991

4 DoH, The Report of the Inquiry into Child Abuse in
Cleveland in 1987
, HMSO, 1987

5 D Clifford and G Williams, “Important Yet Ignored:
Problems of ‘Expertise’ in Emergency Duty Social Work”, British
Journal of Social Work
, 32, pp201-215, BASW, 2002

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