Scrapping child protection timescales ‘may cause case delays’

Pilot study finds more flexible deadlines for assessments welcomed by social workers but warns of risk of cases drifting

Giving councils more control over how child protection assessments are conducted may encourage delays in the processing of cases, a study for the Department of Education has found.

The study by the Childhood Wellbeing Research Centre examined the work of the eight local authorities that are testing the Munro Review’s recommendation that statutory guidance on children’s safeguarding should be reduced to give councils and practitioners greater freedom to decide how they conduct their work.

It found that councils had used the trials to replace initial and core assessments with streamlined single assessments and to introduce more flexible deadlines for completing these assessments.

The research found the changes were welcomed by social workers and had led to more family visits. Before the trial 35% of cases involved three or more visits but during it there were three or more visits in 72% of cases. Visits were also reported to be happening at times that were more convenient to families.

But the study found mixed views about the benefits of streamlined assessments. “While some social workers perceived that the single assessment had reduced the time spent on case recording, thus freeing up more time for targeted work where appropriate; others thought that the flexibilities meant they were collecting more information which in turn needed to be analysed and recorded, thus offsetting any gains from a streamlined assessment process,” said the report.

There was also evidence that the lack of clear deadlines meant cases that would have been closed quickly before were now being kept open longer. It also warned that the less rigid format of the single assessments meant that social workers needed more time to complete them and unless they were freed up from other activities this could cause delay and drift in cases, undermining practitioners’ ability to offer early help or carry out extra visits. It recommended that managers work more proactivity to prevent drift in cases under the more flexible arrangements.

But the study’s lack of analysis about how the changes affect children sparked criticism from Ian Wise QC, head of the public law team at Doughty Street Chambers.

He said. “The impact on the child is of course the overwhelming concern and must be properly understood before any changes are brought into force.”

Wise said more analysis was needed before this approach was taken any further: “The potential danger for vulnerable children was recognised in a risk assessment the government did. I am very concerned that risk is a very real one and would call on the government to not implement these proposed changes without proper understanding of the potential risk to vulnerable children.” A campaign to defend statutory child protection timescales was launched yesterday.

The eight councils trialing the new approach are Cumbria, Hackney, Hammersmith & Fulham, Islington, Kensington & Chelsea, Knowsley, Wandsworth and Westminster. The pilots allowed them to break free of statutory rules requiring two stage child protection assessments and setting timescales for completing assessments, arranging initial child protection conferences and holding the first core group meetings.

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