Time of their lives

Case chronologies safeguard children and are now a fact of life for
local authority children and families services. While at first they
can be viewed as an added burden to social workers, chronologies
are proving an essential tool in caring for vulnerable

It is thought by many that those who fail to understand the past
cannot plan for the future, and are condemned to repeat their

The failure to grasp patterns in a child’s history was one of the
key themes running through the Laming report into the death of
Victoria Climbi’. One of the report’s recommendations – just two
short lines – had huge implications for many children and families
services. Within six months of the publication of the report,
directors of social services had to ensure every child’s case file
had, on the inside of the front cover, a “properly maintained
chronology”. Put simply, this is a record of significant events in
the child’s life -Êespecially their relations with social
services such as interventions, support given to the child or their
family, decisions made on risk and other life events.

There was universal agreement these chronologies would help to
assess risk, identify patterns of behaviour and ensure safer
practices for looked-after children.

But how do you begin to put this requirement into practice in a
borough such as Lambeth, the largest in inner London? There are
nearly 1,500 child cases open at any one time, while referral and
assessment teams carry out large numbers of initial assessments
every day. Capacity seemed a major issue.

However, as we have worked through the process it is becoming clear
that initial work on chronologies is helping us to save time and
effort -Êand to deliver a better service. In Lambeth our
looked-after children teams ran a pilot project in 2002 ensuring
looked-after young people had a proper case history when they left
the care of Lambeth. During the life of the project, the Laming
report was published and we took on board the recommendations and
began expanding our pilot.

The time-consuming work of going through files paid off almost
immediately. The chronologies were used in looked-after reviews.
They helped to inform specialist resources when they were needed.
And they helped us to understand placement breakdowns. For example,
last year a young man in our care made a suicide attempt. We were
able to give the child and adolescent mental health unit his
history straight away, helping the staff there to understand what
had happened and make plans for his treatment.

On 3 November last year, the judicial protocol for care proceedings
was introduced. This requires court proceedings to be “front
loaded” with key documentation. We have ensured our method of
preparing chronologies has been adjusted to meet the standard for
the judicial protocol and are now asking our staff to prepare
chronologies on incoming cases, with the knowledge they could be
required for court. If that time comes, we are ready; if it
doesn’t, we have a document that is a working tool for child
protection conferences, core assessments, external referrals or
therapeutic work.

We have been working with our IT section to come up with a more
effective record-keeping process. A shared database is now being
built to store and update the chronologies. We will be able to
search the system to see whether a chronology contains, for
example, a child protection or court component.

Some people still wonder what goes in and what stays out of a
chronology. What we are saying to practitioners in Lambeth is to
follow the judicial protocol requirement to confine the entries to
what is significant in a child’s life and to avoid duplicating what
is already there in case recording. Getting to grips with
historical chronologies going back generations still causes some of
us sleepless nights, but at least all new cases coming in now have
a chronology started as a matter of routine.

Lambeth is moving in the right direction as regards those two short
lines making up recommendation 58 of the Laming report – but, more
importantly, the chronology and its use as a working tool is rising
steadily up the agenda for improving our practice. 

Keith Revoir is project manager for case chronologies in
the London Borough of Lambeth.

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