The relationship between child protection social workers and local police is key. In Wimbledon better joint working is producing tangible improvements, writes Andrew Mickel
Transferring any case involving a child from a police officer to a social worker is guaranteed to involve a lot of paperwork.
At Wimbledon police station in south London, for example, a police officer concerned about a child they have encountered has to complete a lengthy form and forward it to the station’s public protection desk. All case details are then entered into a computer system, before cases are researched and considered for referral.
Not only is this a time-consuming process, but there is a risk that a case might not end up with the right agency. To address this, Wimbledon police station is working with Frances Henry, assistant team manager for the access and assessment team at Merton children’s services, who now sits on its public protection desk two days a week to provide background on cases and help officers decide what to do next.
Level of risk
Detective inspector Mike Parker, who runs the public protection desk, says that getting a new perspective helps. “Traditionally we’re just fire-fighting and don’t see anything beyond that incident, whereas the social worker sees what happens beyond that,” he says. “Children’s services know the background to the family of the child, and it helps you massively to get a feeling for the level of risk.
“What we aim to do is – rather than send all the files to the overworked team – apply common-sense when a social worker can come in to do reviews at the same time so we can quickly assess the risk more accurately.”
Henry says the collaborative system is allowing the police to look at referrals to other agencies too. “Instead of it coming straight to the access and assessment team, once they’ve got secure e-mail systems then it could go directly to other agencies such as Phoenix, which supports nine- to 18-year-olds,” she says.
20-30 cases a day
With between 20 and 30 child-related cases a day passing through the public protection desk, the new way of working means busy professionals are quickly able to grasp a better idea of what is going on.
In one recent case a man abandoned his wife and child who contacted the police. With just the paperwork provided by the frontline police officer, it would have been difficult to decide whether or not to forward it on to children’s services. But Henry was able to investigate the family’s history of contact with children’s services on her laptop to provide more background information.
PC Margaret Brownlie, the missing persons officer who also works for the Local Safeguarding Children’s Board, says that closely working with Henry has helped the police develop a better understanding of social workers’ legal powers and duties, and of what they can and can’t do.
Learning from each other
“Ten years ago there was no connection to social care whatsoever,” Brownlie says. “Then, if I called social care, I wouldn’t know who was who and I didn’t know what they did. I didn’t know what I could ask them or what we could give each other.
“We deal with crime and they deal with families and that’s how it works, which is why we end up with problems. But people are now learning from each other. We’re getting to be more like-minded people.”
The hope is that the initial good work together could be extended to both bringing in other key agencies and to deepenening the mutual understanding of the roles and responsibilities of children’s services and the police.
“Staff also come down from here to our duty desk, to go through duty cases and the system to see the interaction between the duty manager and staff,” Henry says. “They also have the opportunity to go to case conferences to make sure everything fits together.”
Risk assessment training
Later this week, Henry will start risk-assessment training with all 500 officers in Merton in order to further improve how cases are picked up and transferred to children’s services.
Welcoming this development, DI Parker says: “We don’t work in social care. Police work has always been about crime and stopping criminals, so assessing children is new territory.
“But thanks to what Frances is teaching us, we’ll get more of a feel for assessing children and won’t waste time.”
This article is published in the 8 October 2009 edition of Community Care under the headline “On duty with the Met”