Child Protection

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Children Act 1989

While the protection of children from harm has always existed in legislation in some form throughout the 20th Century, the Children Act 1989 is seen as the first significant law which put in place most of the child protection structures and principles we use today. These included ensuring the needs and safety of a child is always put first, that professionals should initially attempt to work with parents to keep the child safe and that children should always be placed with their own family rather than in care unless it would put them at risk of significant harm to do so.

However, numerous child abuse cases over the previous two decades have prompted a series of overhauls to child protection procedures.

Victoria Climbie, Every Child Matters and The Children Act 2004

The most high profile case was the death of Victoria Climbie in February 2000. She died with 128 separate injuries on her body after months of abuse at the hands of her grant aunt Marie Therese Kouao and her boyfriend Carl Manning. Despite coming into contact with health, police and social services on several occasions and twice taken to hospital the abuse was not discovered until her death.

In the aftermath of her death and the court case convicting Kouao and Manning of murder, Lord Laming was instructed to undertake an iquiry into the circumstances leading up to Climbie’s death and make recommendations on how the system should change.

As a result of this report the government published a green paper entitled “Every Child Matters” and consequently passed the Children Act 2004. The changes it put in place included scrapping child protection registers in favour of child protection plans and creating an integrated children’s computer system (ICS) to ensure information was more routinely and robustly collected.

Structural changes included creating the post of a director of children’s services in each council who would ultimately be accountable for the safety of all children in their area. A common assessment framework was created so practitioners within health, education and the police could instigate better support for families not deemed to reach child protection thresholds. Local safeguarding children boards were also set up taking on the responsibility for multi-agency child protection training and investigating the causes of deaths and incidents of serious harm which may have been preventable in their area. For more information see expert guide on children’s services in England.

Jessica Chapman, Holly Wells and Vetting and Barring

In August 2002 two 10-year old girls, Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, went missing from their home in Soham, Cambridgeshire. Less than two weeks later their bodies were found in a ditch at Lakenheath, Suffolk. In December 2003 Ian Huntley, a school caretaker in the village, was found guilty of the murders. After Huntley was convicted, it was revealed that he had been investigated in the past for sexual offences and burglary, but had still been allowed to work in a school as none of these investigations had resulted in a conviction.

An independent inquiry into the events was conducted by Sir Michael Birchard which questioned the way employers recruited people to work with vulnerable groups and in particularly the way in which background checks were carried out. One of his recommendations was for a single agency to vet all individuals who want to work or volunteer to work with children or vulnerable adults. The Vetting and Barring Scheme, run by the Independent Safeguarding Authority was set up and began rolling out voluntary registration in all countries except Scotland in 2009. However, business, community groups and others claimed the scheme was disproportionate, overly burdensome and infringed on civil liberties. Charities were concerned about it affecting recruitment of people to work with children.

In May 2010, following the change in government, coalition ministers put the scheme on hold pending a review which has so far yet to report. See also expert guide on Vetting and Barring

Baby P, the Second Laming Report and Working Together to Safeguard Children

In 2008 Peter Connelly (originally and still often referred to as Baby P or Baby Peter), a 17 month old toddler, died after suffering extensive internal and external injuries over a nine month period. Despite having been seen by a range of professionals on numerous times and been the subject of a child protection plan, social services were never aware the mother had a new boyfriend who who, along with a friend, were largely responsible for the injuries and the child’s death. Because Connelly died in Haringey, the same borough where Victoria Climbie had also died it prompted a media frenzy, which resulted in major scrutiny of child protection procedures in England. For more information see Expert Guide on the Baby Peter case in Haringey.

Lord Laming was instructed to conduct a review of child protection procedures. As a result of his recommendations the government’s official child protection guidance Working Together to Safeguard Children was strengthened and the ICS system guidance was relaxed. However, much of the issues identified lay in failures of practice rather than policy. As part of his review, Laming recommended the recruitment, training and supervision of social workers as a key issue to be tackled. The government set up the Social Work Taskforce and later the Social Work Reform Board to overhaul the profession and make it fit for purpose. For more information see expert guide on social work reform.

The Munro Review

Following the election in May 2010 the incoming Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government asked Professor Eileen Munro, of the London School of Economics, to review all child protection procedures in England on the basis that previous changes had now made the system too bureaucratic and stifled social worker initiative in making difficult decisions. Professor Munro published her first report analysing the problems in October 2010. These included issues around poor IT systems, high caseloads, limited supervision and not enough emphasis on reflective practice and decision making. She also highlighted that she wished to take a “systems approach” that would allow feedback on any unintended consequences of recommendations. Professor Munro will publish two more reports in 2011.

Relevant legislation and policy documents

Children Act 1989

Every Child Matters

Children Act 2004

The Victoria Climbié Inquiry

The Protection of Children in England: A Progress Report by Lord Laming

Working Together to Safeguard Children

The Munro Review: Part One

Key organisations

Department for Education (formerly the Department for Children, Schools and Families)


Association of Directors of Children’s Services

Local Government Association

Independent Safeguarding Authority

The Munro Review

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