For the past 18 months, alongside her role managing a child protection referral and assessment team, social worker April Bald has been one of the driving forces behind the development of the London borough of Southwark’s first multi-agency safeguarding hub or – to use its acronym – ‘Mash’.
The hub, which went ‘live’ in September last year, brings together staff from 16 local agencies (including social work, police, education, housing and mental health) under one roof. The network, which Southwark council believes is the largest of its type in England, is led by children’s social services and is the first port of call for all child protection and safeguarding referrals.
“The idea is that you get as much information from all the agencies up front as you can so that you can make quicker decisions, better informed decisions and therefore put the right services in earlier,” explains Bald.
How referrals are handled
When referrals come in, the Mash managers have four options on how to categorise them. Urgent cases (for example if chronic neglect or abuse is evident) can be fast tracked straight to child protection for immediate investigation. But the majority of referrals will be flagged as red, amber or green depending on their risk.
For red referrals each of the hub’s agencies have four hours to share any relevant information they hold on the case on a specially-designed central system. Amber cases get 24 hours and green 48 hours. Several TV screens positioned around the Mash office display the status of each open referral, a clock with the time remaining and an update on which agencies have provided their data.
Once all the information is available, the Mash manager decides whether the case should be forwarded for a child protection investigation or early help interventions.
Prior to Mash, it could have taken a social worker weeks to gather information from various agencies, says Bald.
“Whereas now we can set a four hour deadline if we need to. The important thing is that by the time it gets to a social worker to go out and see a family, they have a wealth of information,” she explains. “We’ve all seen so many serious case reviews in the past that have identified ‘poor information sharing’. This is a real, concrete way of trying to address that.”
The Mash model was pioneered by Devon council and flagged up as good practice by Eileen Munro in her 2011 landmark review of child protection. It has since been adopted by a number of local authorities across the UK. A recently published study analysing the performance of several London-based Mash hubs found that the multi-agency approach nearly halved the time it took to handle complex child protection referrals.
When we meet, Southwark are expecting their first set of performance data on the Mash’s impact within weeks. Bald hopes that once the model is fully bedded in, it will help cut re-referral rates by ensuring children and families get the right help the first time around. She also hopes that the information sharing will lead to quicker identification of child protection cases.
“We also want to analyse our data to better understand what’s going on with issues like child sexual exploitation, child trafficking, private fostering, female genital mutilation. We want to understand the cohorts involved, the service need, the hotspots. It’s important we’re not just collecting data. We need to think carefully about how we use it too,” says Bald.
That analysis work is a priority for what Bald calls “phase two” of the Mash project. The first phase has been “very much developmental” and about building awareness of, and buy-in to, the Mash locally, she says.
Dermot Kelly, a social worker who is Southwark’s Mash manager, has been key to this work. Kelly has overseen the integration and training of staff from the 16 agencies into one network and one office (13 members are already co-located in the Mash office, another three are set to move in imminently).
To become a Mash member agencies have to sign up to a strict information sharing protocol, explains Kelly. A major consideration is consent. Kelly stresses that when people are making referrals to Mash “they should be open and honest with families” and receive consent to share relevant information. The only exception is if child protection concerns override data protection, in which case agencies have to clearly evidence that.
Whereas a number of local authorities across the UK have opted for ‘virtual’ multi-agency hubs, Southwark’s Mash project team decided “from day one” that they wanted staff from member agencies to be physically located in the same office. It is a move that has paid off, says Kelly.
“When you actually see the dynamics and the relationship building between agencies that comes from that daily face to face interaction, I think that’s really quite powerful,” he says.
Having everyone under one roof has also helped each agency better respect one another’s roles and thresholds for intervention, adds Bald.
“It’s no longer a case of ‘send everything to children’s social care and see what they say’. Instead this is co-owned, the partners are all working together, you build those relationships,” says Bald. “Everyone has an input. You can thrash out the threshold issues together and try to find a common threshold. So people aren’t walking away disgruntled thinking ‘social care never accept our cases’”.
And how have Bald and Kelly found their respective roles in the development of Mash? Both roles are pretty different from standard managerial or frontline social work posts.
Kelly says that being Southwark’s first Mash manager has “given me a real spark”.
“I think it’s the right way forward for safeguarding children. I feel it’s safer, it’s less risk averse,” he says.
Having the support from senior management to shape the Mash project and develop it has been exciting, says Bald.
“I’m passionate about social work anyway, I’ve been in it 23 years. This is different from my other day job but so far it’s had a really positive impact on all of us – managers, my social workers, the other agencies,” she says.
“By its nature, child safeguarding will always be tough. It’s heavy stuff and we’ll always get our peaks. But I feel that our social workers sense that the Mash has created a bit of a shared response. That’s important.”