Michael Gove launches damning attack on child protection system

Social workers have become 'desensitised to squalor' and need to be more assertive with dysfunctional parents, according to Michael Gove's damning critique of the child protection system

Education secretary Michael Gove has launched a damning attack on the child protection system, admitting the state is failing in its duty to keep children safe.

In a speech at the Institute of Public Policy Research today, where he launched Lord Carlile’s review of the Edlington torture case, Gove delivered his critique of child protection services in England.

He said too many local authorities are failing to meet acceptable standards for child safeguarding and promised to be “explicitly challenging, deliberately uncompromising and blunt” in his response to the “deeply depressing” situation.

“We put the rights of biological parents ahead of vulnerable children – even when those parents are incapable of leading their own lives safely,” Gove said. “When we do intervene it is often too late. When children are removed from homes where they’re at risk they’re often returned prematurely and exposed to danger all over again.”

‘Intrusive and inefficient bureaucracy’

He continued: “Instead of concentrating properly on the appalling neglect and abuse visited on children by those they know or who are in the family’s immediate circle, we have been pre-occupied by the much smaller risk of strangers causing harm and in so doing have established an intrusive and inefficient bureaucracy, which creates a false feeling of security for parents while alienating volunteers and eroding personal responsibility.”

Gove acknowledged that his government must accept some responsibility. “We do not support the social work profession properly, nor have we modernised its ways of working in line with other professions,” Gove said.

Local authority social workers should be more assertive with dysfunctional parents, Gove said, while family courts should be “less indulgent of poor parents”.

Social workers are too often blighted by an “optimism bias”, Gove claimed, adding that, “for perfectly understandable reasons”, professionals can be reluctant to challenge the behaviour of adults whose trust they are trying to win.

‘Social workers desensitised to squalor’

“Social workers – partly because so much of their time is spent in difficult circumstances many of us will never encounter – can become desensitised to the squalor they encounter and less shockable overall. Which is why it’s up to the rest of us to show leadership,” Gove said.

Bridget Robb, acting chief of the British Association of Social Workers, said social workers will welcome aspects of Gove’s analysis, like the lack of support afforded to social workers, and “the reality that it is not the care system that creates dysfunctional adults, but the lives young people live before being removed from their homes”.

Robb said: “What his analysis overlooks, however, is that protecting children also involves learning from evidence from around the world telling us that simply cutting them off from their birth families is not always in their best interests.

“The minister’s speech also offers no recognition of how part of the state’s ‘failure in its duty to keep our children safe’ lies in a refusal to understand that it requires sustained investment in better services if we are to better protect children, whether this is done through intensive work with parents or by taking more children into care. The latter is not cheap, and to pretend social workers can take on greater caseloads with diminishing resources is a miscalculation Mr Gove surely must recognise.”

Lord Carlile’s review

Gove discussed recent Ofsted inspections that found safeguarding arrangements inadequate or in need of improvement – including those in Doncaster – and Lord Carlile’s “compelling” set of recommendations, which he said need “careful consideration” and “time for debate”.

Lord Carlile was asked to review the situation in Doncaster, following a number of child protection failings and, in 2009, a violent assault in Edlington by two boys who were looked-after by the council and subject to a child protection plan.

Among his recommendations, Lord Carlile said all children’s services should develop triage arrangements to assess risks to children.

“This will include fast and profoundly co-operative interdisciplinary co-working, excellent written and electronic document trails, and a demonstrable ability to respond to urgent situations efficiently,” Lord Carlile said. More to follow.

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