Professor Eileen Munro’s final report has been widely welcomed but child protection consultant Perdeep Gill and social worker Julie Sheppard believe she has failed to offer concrete solutions to key questions. In a response Professor Munro defends her approach and recommendations
(Julie Sheppard, left and Perdeep Gill)
Munro’s final report is certainly a long, prestigious looking document; but is it really going to herald a new radical approach to child protection?
The report offers a good analysis of the state of skills, knowledge and practice in child protection social work, but didn’t we already know this?
One can hardly disagree with what Munro recommends with regard to reducing bureaucracy, focus on skills, reflection, knowledge and working effectively with children and their families.
Our bone of contention is the lack of substance to her recommendations, which fail to provide any detail about the realities of how it will be implemented.
Also, Munro comments critically on the thick manuals of procedures but what has she offered us? Three manuals of rhetoric, which, infuriatingly, tell us where we are in great detail but do not offer the path to a better child protection system.
Munro fails to engage with the key issue of how we do and should benchmark thresholds. Effective protection of children begins, we believe, at the time of defining and debating risk and abuse and when and how the state should intervene.
The lack of clarity regarding thresholds means that judgements are made on shifting sands. This risks making judgments seem sound according to whatever is the prevailing political winds – one day applauding high thresholds, another day low ones.
Munro alludes to the dangers of over-reacting and under-reacting, but frustratingly she goes no further. What we need is a clear threshold of what should constitute suspicion of significant harm and when the state should intervene in the lives of children.
On the issue of localism, while good when it works, it can lead to a great disparity across local authorities when it comes to setting thresholds. This creates a postcode lottery with similar cases being handled very differently. We believe Munro does not address this potential risk sufficiently.
True, there can be a huge amount of complex need in an area, as shown in the Peter Connelly serious case review. One of the consequences of this complexity is that, for example, neglect becomes normalised for professionals and the threshold for significant harm is lowered.
On the other hand, we also know that when a tragedy occurs or the media highlights a case, there is the danger of a knee-jerk over-reaction. And so, for example, an anonymous referral alleging a mother pulled a child by the arm and slapped her becomes wrongly deemed a child protection enquiry. Such a referral in other areas would be considered to require no further action, if the child was not known to social services and it was one, possibly malicious, anonymous referral about a case of not very severe physical abuse.
Lowering thresholds to such an unreasonable level means it is not only possible to consider everything we come across as a case of child abuse – babies with dirty nappies will start being referred – but also that section 47s will pull in huge amounts of the population, only to find significant harm unsubstantiated. Professionals will be swamped with unnecessary work. This risks significant harm going unrecognised.
We need an honest, open discussion with our politicians and within society generally about thresholds and our expectations of the level of harm children can endure before the state intervenes. This discourse needs to consider what we actually mean by the rights of parents/family to privacy.
Good practice models
It’s good that the review recognises and analyses why, historically, child protection has worked well in some local authorities and not in others. But we would have welcomed more in-depth analysis on systems that are functional and those that aren’t.
Munro gives examples of effective interventions working with parents and children, though she only lightly touches on the fact that not all parents may respond to learning. The jury is out in relation to the long-term impact of these solution-focused, cognitive behavioural interventions and we simply do not know if these parents can sustain long-term change.
We are also concerned that these models could pose a potential risk because they can hypnotise professionals into thinking an antidote exists for all maltreatment, leading them optimistically to believe all abusive parents want to change.
This leads to Munro’s championing of the early intervention cause. While we accept that early intervention is an excellent concept and approach, we must question how this is going to work within the context of cuts. What should local authorities do when faced with a finite pot of money: promote protective services or fund early intervention?
We would like a more in-depth discussion from Munro of what early intervention should look like. Should there be a focus on children’s centres or more targeted early intervention to families profiled as high risk? Also, early intervention by its nature can only work if the families accept it – what happens if they don’t? The result of early intervention will take years to establish. Surely, we cannot reduce protective/reactive services until there is the proven evidence that investment needs to be greater in early intervention than protection.
Munro gives much of her backing to the notion of a systems and learning approach to improving services, but what if an organisation has no insight into its dysfunction and feels certain that it has embraced these approaches when it hasn’t? We need much more dialogue about issues like how the state will conduct health checks on the systemic nature of an organisation.
Disappointingly, Munro does not see the need for independent chairs of safeguarding boards. While some may be functioning well without independent chairs, the risk is high when the roles are blurred, as in Peter Connelly’s case where Sharon Shoesmith was both director of children’s services and chair of the local safeguarding children’s board. This presented a huge conflict of interest. We are deeply alarmed that some of the lessons from that case could now be swept away.
Overall, we believe the report is quite surface-orientated; it lacks detail and depth. For example, Munro says timescales should be changed but not to what or how we should do that. It is disappointing that she does not engage with the critical issue of what constitutes suspicion of significant harm and when a section 47 should be triggered. At the very least, Munro should tell us exactly how the workforce is going to be developed and what we do until then.
Instead, we now await children’s minister Tim Loughton’s response.
Response from Professor Munro
Carrying out this review, I heard lots of feedback from professionals that there is now such a heavy degree of prescription that they are hindered in using their expertise. This is why most of my recommendations look to reduce statutory guidance so that there is more space in which professionals can exercise their professional judgment and take responsibility for their practice. This emphasis is balanced with reforms to the inspection process and revising management’s responsibilities to improve accountability and support for professionals.
Precise instructions and centralised control can work when dealing with simple problems, but child protection is complex. There are no simple rules that capture the rich variety of responses needed from professionals and while, for example, a threshold for referral to child protection can be specified in general terms, expert judgment is needed at individual case level.
Decisions about families are rarely made on the basis of a single item of information but on an overall pattern, and the more experienced the worker, the better they become at recognising these patterns. Guidance can help but, at the frontline, it is the skilled professional who brings formal knowledge together with their experience and what they observe in families.
Working in child protection can be both rewarding and daunting because you cannot always predict what will happen in the future. My review stresses the importance of investing in social workers’ training throughout their career and, by having a principal social worker in each local authority, creates a promotion ladder for those wanting to stay in practice and develop their expertise.
Anxiety is a major driver of child protection work – which is understandable. The way to deal with this is not to create standard rules because all that does is give adults some feeling of being safe from criticism. It doesn’t keep children’s safety and welfare at the heart of the work. There needs to be sound and shared understanding of how to manage risk so that professionals make well-reasoned decisions, based on evidence, and often in partnership with others.
While it is important that professionals be given more freedom to exercise their judgment, it is also crucial that they continue to be monitored rigorously. My report praises the ability of independent chairs of local safeguarding children boards to provide scrutiny and challenge. My proposals about inspection make clear that monitoring systems should be improved to enable the local authority to know whether they are helping children or not.
The best check on the quality of a child protection service is not whether artificial timescales have been met, but whether the children show any benefit from receiving a service. Inspectors should give more attention to the effectiveness of the services and should also consider whether the organisation is learning and improving. A move to unannounced inspections should further help to improve accountability overall, as do proposed changes to the focus of serious case reviews.
The aim of my report is not to give a detailed manual on what to do, but to create the work conditions that allow professionals to use their expertise, learn from experience, and keep a clear focus on children.
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