Who’s in charge here?

“Who’s going to lead on this one?” Everybody looks down at their
papers. Finally, a social worker speaks up. “I’ll take this one

An unlikely scenario for a meeting of child care professionals?
Perhaps not if green paper proposals for a lead professional become
a reality.

The motivation behind the idea is simple. Of the countless
professionals from various agencies Victoria Climbi’ came into
contact with, none of them voiced their concerns enough to prevent
her death. A lead professional, so the government believes, will be
able to pick up on any warning signs they or a colleague from
another agency spot with a child. Following on from this, it will
be down to the lead professional to decide what intervention, if
any, is necessary.

So what do practitioners working with children think of the lead
professional concept, who should this person be and will any one
want to take on the role that could be seen as a poisoned chalice?

Jane Held is the Association of Directors of Social Services
co-chairperson of the children and families committee and Camden
Council’s social services director. She is very supportive of the
lead professional idea and says the ADSS promoted the concept in
its joint report Serving Children Well published last

Social care professionals are not its only supporters. Community
Practitioners’ and Health Visitors’ Association director Mark Jones
says: “It makes tremendous sense as various agencies don’t know who
is leading on what aspects of children and families cases.” Jerry
Bartlett, assistant general secretary at the National Association
of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers, agrees. He says there
is too much opportunity for cases to be “mishandled because of
failing communications” and a lead professional should halt

The green paper does not dictate which professional should become
the lead in a child’s case, although it says for most children the
role may be “best fulfilled” by someone from the service they have
most day-to-day contact with. It suggests the lead professional
also act as “the ‘gatekeeper’ for information-sharing systems”.

The service most children and young people, regardless of their
individual circumstances, have regular contact with is education.
But Bartlett argues that although teachers are “uniquely placed” to
identify children with care needs, their qualifications and
experience do not equip them to co-ordinate the work of other care
professionals or respond immediately. He adds: “If you are
timetabled for a maths lesson at 10am on a Thursday you are not
capable of responding to an emergency at that time. A lead
professional should be able to respond.” Instead, Bartlett adds,
schools may be a suitable location to base lead

Jones says that it is up to those professionals involved in a case
to decide who leads the team but says sometimes health visitors are
best placed. Held agrees that a lead professional should be the
most appropriate individual working with a child but warns this
will be harder for some professionals. “Teachers are used to
working collectively with groups of children and are not used to
having individual case responsibility.” Social workers, she adds,
are “uniquely placed” to take on such a role.

But do social workers really want to have sole responsibility for
ensuring a child accesses the necessary services and for making
sure other staff attend the correct meetings with the correct
paperwork? As it is, social workers on child protection cases who
make errors are publicly berated.

It is this level of responsibility that concerns Natalie Cronin,
policy adviser at the NSPCC, about the lead professional role. She
questions how potentially lower ranking staff – such as junior
social workers – will get other agencies to co-operate with them.
“Accountability needs to go hand in hand with authority in order to
make things happen,” she says. “The lead professional needs to have
the same authority over other professionals in order to follow
through the plans for the child.”

Ensuring that leadership and co-ordination are their only
responsibility is one way of making the lead professional operate
effectively, believes Bartlett. He says they should not be expected
to do the job alongside their existing commitments.

One social worker who would happily become a lead professional is
Catherine Watkins, who works as a children and families assessment
team manager at a council in southern England. She says her council
already has experience of allocating what they call key workers to
children involved in its identification referral and tracking
trailblazer pilot: “From a social services point of view it means
there is a shared responsibility among agencies.”

Watkins would be “absolutely delighted” if another professional
offered to be the lead professional in cases where social services
do little more than co-ordinate services. However, she believes
social workers should maintain the lead role in child protection
cases because of their expertise.

Regardless of who becomes the lead professional, Watkins says that
social workers will always be in the firing line: “We can’t win
either way because if we are the lead professional and things go
wrong we are blamed and if we aren’t then we’ll be asked where we
were when our help was needed.”

Before the government goes ahead and introduces the requirement for
a lead professional to be established, Cronin advises they listen
to what children themselves want. She says children are unlikely to
report any problems or abuse to a professional because of
confidentiality issues. She recommends: “Independent advocates
working to different thresholds around confidentially are likely to
be more useful.”

Introducing the common assessment framework for all professionals
to adhere to fits neatly together with having a lead professional.
Jones says that while no system is foolproof, having a common
assessment framework is the lynchpin of both approaches working
successfully: “It obliges professionals to share information.”

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.