‘England’s child protection system is at the point of breakdown’

Social work professor and former director of children's services Ray Jones says our world-leading child protection system under threat

Ray Jones

Ray Jones

By Ray Jones, social worker professor and former director of children’s services

We are now five years on from the media’s first telling of the story of ‘Baby P’, and on 12 December I will chairing Community Care’s ‘The Baby P Legacy Five Years On: What Have We Learnt?’ conference. But I am more concerned about what is happening now.

At last week’s Community Care Live event I spoke about how England’s child protection system is at the point of breakdown and this week’s Community Care survey gives further evidence of the pressure that has been allowed to build up on children’s social workers.

When three quarters of social workers say they lack the time and resources to protect children from serious harm, and nine out of 10 are very concerned that cuts are leaving vulnerable children even more vulnerable, it might be thought it was time for the government to listen. And, having listened, what might the government do?

First they might own up to the damage created by welfare benefit cuts in creating, not just deprivation, but destitution for children and families. Then there are the cuts to help for children and young people with big reductions in children’s centres and youth services.

When families get into even more difficulty and children more in danger of abuse and neglect, it is not sensible to make massive cuts to local government funding so that there is no way councils can adequately increase their social worker numbers to deal with the increasing workloads.

And just in case there is still any doubt about how workloads have increased, here are two statistics. One, the number of children in England with child protection plans has increased 47% in five years from 29,200 to 42,850. Two, the number of care proceedings has increased 70% over five years and in March 2013 there were 925 new applications in that one month.

It is the investigations and assessments that lead to child protection plans, the actions then built within the plans, and the preparation for court proceedings that are especially onerous and time-consuming for social workers.

I know from my direct contact with social workers across the country that they are often writing their case conference and court reports late at night, getting up very early in the morning to do them and regularly working at weekends. Exhausted, having to cut corners, sometimes in tears, and knowing that if a child dies they may be on the front page of a tabloid. This is crazy. It is unsustainable.

But it gets worse. Across government there are other actions that are undermining child protection. Education secretary Michael Gove has emphasised competition rather than cooperation between schools and heaps blame on teachers.

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has done the same within health services, churning them up and blaming over-stretched nurses for poor care in hospitals and GPs for the A&E crisis. Local government secretary Eric Pickles is overseeing the decimation of local authority funding and disingenuously blaming councils for the resulting service cuts.

And justice secretary Chris Grayling is about the fragment the Probation Service, opening it up to Serco, G4S and others to milk for money.

It should be known by now that good child protection requires a stable, local frontline of services. A frontline where workers across agencies know each other, communicate well together, know their communities, and have time to engage with and find out about families. Services where top managers stay close to their frontline and are around long enough to create high-performing cultures that instil confidence for those doing difficult, distressing and demanding work every day.

This is why it is so undermining when government ministers feed the media blame and bullying cultures by rubbishing serious case reviews unless they allocate ‘accountability’ for a child’s death to social workers, their managers or other professionals.

We have had one of the safest and strongest child protection systems in the world. It had taken 40 years to build. It would be truly reckless to destroy it based on a political dogma of private and profit good, public and professional bad.

Ray Jones is professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London. From 1996-2006 he was the director of social services for a top-performing council. He now oversees child protection in four areas in England rated as “inadequate” by Ofsted. His book, The Story of Baby P: Setting the Record Straight, is to be published by Policy Press in March 2014.

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