Is the vision clear – or blurred?

It’s the $64,000 question, according to David Thorpe, professor of
applied social science at Lancaster University. Is the children’s
green paper the real chance to focus on preventive work with
children and families that professionals have waited years to see?

Throughout the 1990s, practitioners were caught between, on the one
hand, exhortations from on high to “refocus” on prevention, and, on
the other, the constant demands of urgent child protection cases
and the clamour of a blame-hungry press ringing in their

If the proposals are to work, then they will have to overcome
obstacles that have stood in the way of developing widespread
family support and preventive work throughout the 1990s.

The most fundamental of these has been lack of resources. Deryk
Mead, chief executive of NCH, who was director of social services
in Gloucestershire in the 1990s, recalls implementing the Children
Act 1989, which introduced the concept of children in need. He
says: “The Children Act basically got it right but there wasn’t
much money allocated and what there was ended up elsewhere. As a
director I didn’t get any extra money to implement it.” Anthony
Douglas, director of health and social services in Suffolk, agrees.
“We struggle to deliver an effective child protection service to
the 27,000 children on child protection registers. There are nearly
20 times that number of children in need, many of who need a
specialist service. It is a question of volume and

And when resources are tight, already complex decisions about
prioritising cases become a matter of rationing as well. Douglas
explains: “A child at measurable immediate risk will always take
precedence over a child in medium or long-term need, even if better
outcomes would follow from focusing on the second child. It’s
similar to whether we invest in rail or road safety. Far more
people die or get injured on the roads, but it would be heresy not
to give rail safety a higher priority. No government in the world
has been able to give an equal priority to short-term and long-term

The magnetic pull of short-term crises is felt from practitioner
level to policy level and everywhere in between. John Ransford,
director of education and social policy at the Local Government
Association, says: “In the past, there has been a commitment to
preventive work but the sheer weight of intervention has always
taken over, because everyone has been frozen by what might happen
to them if it goes wrong. I would include myself in this. No one
has had the confidence to really go for this [prevention] because
preventive work has a very, very long-term pay-off.”

The combination of inadequate resources and political demands for
short-term achievements is made even more problematic, as Ransford
hints, by excitable media. Mead recalls: “Everybody knew, the first
case that went wrong, heads would be on the block again.”

On top of this, the Department of Health’s efforts to encourage
prevention in the past were directed solely at social services
departments, who had severe difficulties in getting partner
agencies to engage with child protection – never mind an apparently
less urgent family support agenda. Ransford says: “There has not
been the right level of commitment from other agencies. The agenda
has been driven by good professionals and good work, not by
organisational commitment.”

So will all these daunting and entrenched problems disappear in the
brave new world envisaged by the green paper’s authors?

For a start, the green paper shouldn’t be seen in isolation,
according to Brian Waller, director of Home Start, a voluntary
agency providing support to parents, which the green paper has
given a leading role in developing family support around the
country. “The government is running big programmes alongside this,
like the chancellor’s anti-poverty initiatives, neighbourhood
renewal, Sure Start, programmes related to the social exclusion

He adds that the green paper’s concept of childhood is far wider
than in any previous initiative from government, necessitating the
involvement of all services affecting children. “The government
needs credit for doing such a thorough job. I very much like the
wider view of childhood, not just childhood as seen by social
services, but a view of all children. This in turn will break
social services out of their siege or trench mentality.”

The green paper is clear that the NHS and education will be
compelled to invest people, resources and planning in both
supporting families and protecting children. Perhaps even stronger
than this statutory requirement is the fact that inspections and
performance indicators will evaluate whether or not they do so. And
this, Mead believes, “raises the profile of children, and will
ensure that children’s services will move up the political

Furthermore, there is no doubt that initiatives like Sure Start,
the Children’s Fund and Connexions have increased the overall pool
of resources available to support families. At the press launch of
the green paper, minister for children Margaret Hodge made clear
that she believes there is sufficient money in the system. Waller
supports this view. The challenge, he believes, will lie in
appropriately redirecting the money that is already there.

Others are not so sure. All professions involved in implementing
the green paper have recruitment problems, but the crisis facing
social care is the most severe of all, and the scope of the
proposed recruitment initiatives is not yet defined. Meanwhile,
Mead is concerned about the fact that existing projects that are
doing precisely what the green paper wants may already be at risk.
NCH runs many projects funded by Sure Start and the Children’s
Fund. He says: “I’m really impressed by what’s happening. But it’s
not funded from mainstream budgets. One concern people in
Children’s Fund projects have got is that we are already talking
about tapering and clawback and all that. And what does
‘mainstreaming’ actually mean? I want to know how the pounds are
going to flow into the mainstream.”

Anthony Douglas is concerned about human resources, both in sheer
numbers and in experience and expertise. “I do wonder whether we
can deliver the outcomes that everybody wants. When you translate
it into what individual staff do I can’t see who is going to do
that work. I can see how the management will change but not how the
work will be picked up on the ground. The Children’s Fund and Sure
Start have just picked up a fraction of it.” Furthermore, they have
largely been fishing for staff in the same pool as mainstream

There’s another, perhaps more fundamental problem. Sure Start, for
example, has so far increased the numbers on child protection
registers. It is not clear whether this has led to children at risk
being helped at an earlier stage. Over time, however, support from
Sure Start should overcome the problems of many children who would
otherwise later find themselves on the register – thereby reducing
the numbers on it. The problem is, we don’t yet know whether it can
have this effect or not.

But many proposals in the green paper are based on just this
assumption: that if we cast the net widely, provide support to a
wider number of families with lower level problems, and ensure
children are tracked through the system, we will ultimately reduce
the level of significant harm to children, and also cut offending,
truancy and early pregnancy.

David Thorpe believes this assumption is a fallacy. First, he says,
“you have to be clear what you are trying to prevent” – and who you
are trying to target in order to prevent it. The green paper, by
contrast, hopes to prevent a wide range of problems across the
board. He warns against using statistics based on the outcome you
want to avoid, in order to diagnose who is likely to arrive at that
outcome in future. “Say you take 1,000 kids. You might predict that
50 will commit offences by a certain age. So you single out 50. But
in fact 25 of those will commit an offence and 25 won’t, and
another 25 who you didn’t identify will commit offences.”

He adds: “There are no direct cause and effect relationships that
we are aware of.” He argues that it is only possible to identify
which children need help if a boundary is being crossed, for
example, behaviour that will lead to exclusion from school, or the
first instance of harm at the hands of a parent. You then make sure
you intervene, and must have a range of options available.

“The green paper is setting us up to fail again,” Thorpe says. “You
need to focus on the children who are about to have their life
chances severely diminished by virtue of a decision that is made
about them by a youth court, by care proceedings, by being excluded
from school. Those are the children who are about to step over the
boundary that diminishes their life chances. Look at children
expelled from school at 13 or 14. They might have been naughty
children at age five. They might not. These are not natural

As well as the fact that generalised prevention is meaningless,
according to Thorpe, it has significant implications for
stigmatisation and possibly even for civil liberties. “Predictions
assume there is a norm. Anything that deviates is seen as a risk.
How else do we end up with more than 50 per cent of investigations
involving single female parents? As soon as you start on the
prediction game you have got nothing to work on, you can only judge
things against a norm.”

Waller shares these concerns. “At Home Start we of course say that
if signs of child abuse or concern about child development are
there, we will pass it on to social services or health. If that’s
what tracking means – improving those processes – then that’s fine.
But I don’t like to think about a sort of great database in the
sky. Every child who benefits from a service like ours doesn’t need
to be on a database. If a child is seen to be at risk that has to
be because of evidence, not by identifying risk factors. It’s true
that you can see the families that are struggling early on. But I
would be cautious about anything too mechanistic, that said any
family with a certain problem would be referred on.”

John Ransford agrees that the concept of tracking has dangers: “It
could easily be pushed beyond its competence.” He does not believe
the green paper’s aim of extending family support should be
justified in terms of preventing abuse, truancy or crime. “But we
can change the climate and the context in which children drop out
of school, or turn to crime, or whatever.”

Perhaps the real $64,000 question is whether Ransford’s description
of the aim of the green paper will ultimately satisfy either the
public or the government: “It’s not about preventing child abuse,
it’s about improving the quality of life of young people.” This, as
Mead says, is something “we can all sign up to”. But by “we”, he
means the range of professionals who work with children – he
doesn’t, for example, mean the media who have almost universally
portrayed the green paper as a plan for preventing abuse and other
social problems.

If you stop trying to argue that widespread support for parents
will directly prevent abuse or crime, there can be no case against
it. “Of course it will work,” says Waller. “All the research and
what we know about child development tells us about the importance
of the beginning of children’s lives. You can see the benefits 20
years later for children who have been looked after better for the
first five years.” Mead agrees: “We’re not just focusing on
offending, drug abuse, and so on. We’re looking at health outcomes,
educational achievement, and helping to educate communities.”

There’s no doubting the courage of the green paper’s vision.
Whether it will emerge intact from the political turmoil of the
parliamentary process, and the public expectation that we guarantee
nothing like Victoria Climbi”s terrible suffering can happen again
– and while we’re at it can we cut youth crime and other unpleasant
phenomena too, remains to be seen. Because – at last – it’s about
making things better for all children, not removing the problems
children pose for adults.

Ransford concludes: “When the first child dies with these new
structures in place, people will say it could have been prevented.
And that will happen. You cannot control human nature. But you can
change the climate, the environment, the accountability of
agencies. We started the green paper process with the idea that
‘this will never happen again’. But the government has listened to
people who understood and we have got a better outcome. I’m a
pragmatist – so I’ll go for that.”

He adds: “I think this is the chance for breakthrough, I really

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