Set up to fail

The renewed effort to protect the children of parents who misuse substances risks over-burdening children’s care services. Rebecca Norris reports

Hidden Harm – Next Steps is the Scottish executive’s attempt to tackle the increasing number of children who are being abused or neglected by parents who misuse drugs.

Its proposals include earlier identification of at-risk children, even at pregnancy; multi-agency assessments; contracts between parents and services that may include random drug-testing; more information sharing, especially between adult and children’s services; retraining of social workers and other front-line staff; and a new national fostering strategy.

Michelle Miller, chair of the Association of Directors of Social Work’s children and families committee, is in total accord with Hidden Harm’s aims for better integrated, co-ordinated services at an earlier stage. But she says she struggles to see how this can be squared when recent research suggests children’s social services in Scotland are underfunded by £161m. She warns: “In the light of this financial landscape, to shift to something else that requires additional resource, and do that without properly establishing the financial implications, and without proper funding of it… is just going to set everybody up to fail, not least the children involved.”

Patricia Russell, policy manager at Aberlour Childcare Trust, says those who put the plans into practice will need to keep children at the centre of decision-making.

“Putting the child at the centre means facing up to the strong possibility in some cases that the child will have to be  removed from the family home. But there should be a robust set of principles and indicators to support and govern that – it should not be an automatic decision at any point.” This means, adds Russell, looking at the type and level of substance misuse of the parents; the level of past, current and future involvement with services; and how safe the environment is for the child.

Maggie Mellon, director of children and family services at charity Children 1st believes the removal of large numbers of these children into care is not realistic. She adds: “There aren’t the places: they’re certainly not geared up to it. It wouldn’t be good for removing them from one damaging situation into another.”

She calls for more focus on family group conferencing and kinship care. “We think this document misses a link in that the  option seems to be birth parents or care. Too many children come in [to care] and grandparents haven’t been asked [to help]. We haven’t included the whole family and then we wonder why people feel alienated by social work decisions.”

Hidden Harm talks about retraining social workers, but Miller says “the training applies to everybody” if the aim of the plans is to encourage all agencies to take responsibility for children.

Russell adds that services for adults need to recognise their responsibility to be aware of the needs of children in those families. “It may not be within their remit or skill-set but they do have a responsibility to refer or to pass on information about the child to other appropriate agencies.”

She points to the Highland pathfinder which has begun piloting an integrated assessment framework for children by implementing Getting it Right for Every Child. This will involve the the council, NHS, police, children’s reporters and the voluntary sector developing a single assessment, record and plan. Rather than focus on a national database, it will allow details of children held on existing systems to be accessed by respective agencies where the need for a multi-agency approach has been identified.

Miller says society needs to debate what it is prepared to spend on children’s services.

“On the one hand we’ve got a situation where we all believe that the protection of children is our biggest priority. But voters out there on an individual level don’t want an increase in council tax. We have to have some clarity about what standards we want as a society for our most vulnerable children and how much we’re prepared to pay for those. If you can get a balance between those two things then that’s fine, we would want to deliver. Without that there’s a really big piece of the picture missing.”


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