Trust in short supply

Last year the then health secretary Alan Milburn signalled the
end of “monolithic” social services departments. In regard to
children, he proposed the establishment of children’s trusts. After
40 years in social work, I believe the foundations of any new
service should be as follows.

First, it should be oriented towards families. Children’s well-
being is linked with that of their parents so I shall speak of a
family service not a children’s service. It follows that this
should consist mainly of staff who are skilled in direct work with
children and parents. What makes a difference is less to do with
paper work and more with how staff relate with families.

Second, its priority should be both to prevent children being
removed from their families and also to enable them to enjoy
positive experiences with their parents. Earlier this month I was
at a conference addressed by professor David Thorpe. He
demonstrated from his research that many children with difficulties
are defined as “at risk” and placed on the child protection
registers of social services departments. The departments’
resources are then concentrated on protecting the children from
their parents with the consequence that the latter feel undermined
and threatened. Yet the majority of the children do not suffer
significant harm.

By contrast, Thorpe identified an innovative social services
department which has switched from a child protection to a
supportive approach. No more children have been harmed yet many
more have received help.

Third, the service should be headed by a social work child care
specialist. Local authority children’s departments existed from
1948-71. Some were too small and badly managed. Yet others had
impressive leaders like Barbara Kahan, Lucy Faithfull and Sylvia
Watson. Their commitment was to deprived children. They stayed
long-term in their departments and did not use them as stepping
stones to a higher status and larger salaries. They saw themselves
as advocates for children.

Although the full details have not yet been published, the
government’s children’s trusts may reflect a lack of confidence in
councils, with some ministers wanting private management to run
them. Certainly, the language is of trusts which commission
outsiders, including private bodies. By contrast, my vision is of a
local authority family department. It would serve parents with
children, give priority to prevention yet still provide quality
care for children who have to leave home. It would be in the hands
of family social workers led by committed social work leaders. Such
a service is so important that it must be within a democratic
framework in which it is accountable to the local electorate.

Although I see local authorities as the main providers, I also
believe that local community projects are best placed to run
neighbourhood services. Two weeks ago, I drove around the
Shadsworth estate in Blackburn where a Barnardo’s project has a
breakfast club, crŠche, the “Groovy Girls” group, parent
support groups and so on. The services are in the hands of 20 paid
residents. Significantly, they are viewed not as officials who
monitor your children but as neighbours who improve their lives.
The family departments should not make detailed contracts with such
projects but that they should back them with long-term

But family or children’s services are not sufficient. Most children
in care, on registers, receiving support, are poor. Even the
reduction of poverty is not enough. Behind the New Labour boast
that it has raised a few thousand children above its miserly
poverty line is the fact that it accepts growing inequality in the
UK. In 2001, the top tenth of workers received a 7.3 per cent
increase, the lowest tenth a 4.5 per cent increase while those on
benefits fell even further behind. Professor Richard Wilkinson has
shown that, in a rich society, those at the bottom of the pile
experience feelings of failure, rejection and loss of esteem which
can result in behaviour marked by withdrawal, apathy and

If the numbers of children separated from their families and the
numbers living low-quality lives are to be drastically countered
then a two-pronged approach is required. One is the creation of an
effective family service. The other is the promotion of equality
which will mean people like the health secretary receiving much
less income and those like the residents of Shadsworth receiving
much more. The two must go together.

1 R Wilkinson, Unfair Shares,
Barnardo’s 1994

Bob Holman is author of Champions for Children, The
Lives of Modern Child Care Pioneers
, Policy Press,

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