By Gordon Carson
An exclusive Community Care poll has highlighted the scale of opposition within children’s services to some of the government’s major reforms.
Headline findings from more than 1,000 responses include:
* Almost 90 per cent oppose plans to scrap the child protection register;
* Only two-fifths thought the government’s reforms would make children safer;
* And only a quarter thought health professionals should have more discretion than other children’s services staff about when to share information.
Proceed with caution
The findings “largely mirror” the views of members of the British Association of Social Workers. Its professional officer for England, Nushra Mapstone, says it’s not the right time to abolish something as “critical” as the child protection register because there are so many other changes taking place in children’s services.
“We should not entertain this until other changes are at least bedded down and we can confidently say we have something better to replace it with,” she adds. “The welfare of children is too important to gamble with. There should be no shortcuts or compromises when it comes to meeting the needs of those who are at the greatest risk.”
Andrew Webb, co-chair of the Association of Directors of Social Services’ children and families committee, also urges the government to proceed with caution, but ultimately he thinks the register should be replaced.
“In the past it has served a very useful purpose in ensuring information is shared appropriately between agencies on children at risk,” he says. “But times have changed and the concept of a separate register, something that stands alone, is no longer valid.”
However, he says the transition from the register to using electronic social care records to store all serious child protection concerns, as the government wants to see, must be handled carefully.
Three-quarters of respondents to the survey did not believe their departments would be ready to go live with electronic records on the 31 December changeover date, and Webb acknowledges that social services departments have encountered technical and financial problems in developing electronic records systems.
“We need to be very clear about what’s going to be in its [the register’s] place and there needs to be transitional arrangements,” says Webb.
Both Webb and Mapstone back the majority view that health professionals should not have more discretion on information sharing. A government consultation that closes in November suggests that health professionals who have reasonable grounds for believing that children may be being harmed by abuse or neglect, but have insufficient evidence to justify full disclosure, can contact other services, without divulging the substance of their concerns, to establish whether there is other relevant evidence.
But Webb says: “I see no justification for health professionals having separate levels of responsibility than anybody else.”
And Mapstone says the proposal is “ludicrous”, asking: “How can this be squared with the welfare of the child being paramount when those charged with undertaking child protection enquiries could be hindered by professionals who may be holding back vital information?”
In addition, only two-fifths of respondents believed guidance about information sharing was clear and made it easier for them to work with other agencies.
While the survey points to major opposition to government plans, there is also recognition that changes are necessary.
For example, more than 70 per cent say area child protection committees have failed to protect children and should be replaced by statutory local safeguarding children boards.
Webb says the “wider scope” of safeguarding boards to look at general safety issues for children will be of benefit on issues such as accident prevention, and believes they will also improve the co-ordination of services for children in each local authority.
He takes issue, however, with the finding that two-thirds of respondents thought the child protection system was biased against poor families.
“Evidence is very clear that children and families suffering a range of different problems are much more likely to go on to the child protection register,” he says. “Children from areas where there is significant disadvantage have always been over-represented on the child protection register and the looked-after population. These issues are complicated and inter-related.”
The government is pressing on with reforms, but Mapstone says a major problem for BASW members is the sheer volume of information being produced by the Department for Education and Skills.
She claims it is an “impossible task” for staff to read, absorb, and implement so many different pieces of policy, adding: “Let’s not forget the context in which social work is being carried out in; we are still very much in a recruitment crisis.
“What is really needed to protect children is bodies on the ground; competent, confident, skilled, experienced and well-supported social workers. There is no substitute for this.”