By Brigid Featherstone (Open University), Kate Morris (Nottingham Univeristy), Anna Gupta (Royal Holloway, University of London), Jane Tunstill (Kings College, London), Sue White (University of Birmingham), James Blewett (Kings College, London), and June Thoburn (University of East Anglia).
The BBC documentary on Baby Peter was extremely distressing to watch and we salute the brave and principled programme makers and those who spoke out in it.
The key devastating message that emerges is that the tragic death of a little boy was politicised by those seeking to secure electoral capital and appease unscrupulous newspapers.
Sadly, this is not a story that relates to a bygone era at which we can shake our heads, noting smugly how far we have come. Indeed, we would suggest that politicisation is a key feature of our current climate.
A danger of such crude politicisation is that it can encourage defensiveness with the consequence being that sober reflection on the strengths and weakness of systems and services to protect children is a casualty.
Thus it is to the enormous credit of a great deal of people (including, to be fair, the politicians who commissioned various reviews) that careful work was done in the years, after the death of Baby Peter, to highlight and put in place key reforms.
For many involved this work often required inhabiting an uncomfortable space between rejection of the shameful scapegoating of social workers and the evidence that was being gathered, from a very wide range of constituencies, of the need for change.
In particular, practitioners spoke of a risk averse and bureaucratised culture affecting all agencies that stopped them engaging with families meaningfully.
Educators spoke of the need to work with employers to ensure robust and integrated learning experiences and of the attendant difficulties in the context of an expansion of numbers and institutions.
Reforms were proposed and, especially in the case of social work education, action ensued; for example, changes were made to the recruitment standards and curricula of all universities.
Moreover, a number of local authorities started on diverse and often very exciting journeys involving the reconfiguration of services; brave and necessary work that often ran up against the realities of austerity.
However, politicians did not reform their own damaging practices sadly, despite establishing reviews such as the Munro Review.
That review made important recommendations on developing a risk sensible culture, but, today, the sector is even more risk averse, if not frightened, than ever. This is, in large part, because of policies that have been developed by politicians unable to resist bending events to fit their own ideological ends.
Lack of evidence
Hyper-active policy making, to which we have become sadly accustomed in the arena of child protection, continues unabated. Changes are being made to the delivery of services that are not evidence informed and rest upon a profoundly problematic narrative; local authorities are not able to protect children.
Having scoured the literature, we find no evidence to support the outsourcing of services on the grounds of quality and very mixed evidence in relation to cost. This does not seem to be posing any challenge to this narrative however.
This is all the more puzzling in a context where some of the most lauded reform programmes have occurred within local authorities. The opening up to the market of a public good such as child protection is an example, par excellence, of politicians seeking to make political capital on the backs of vulnerable children and their families.
Wide ranging changes are being made to social workers’ career pathways, roles and responsibilities. Changes are also being made to qualifying education; changes that are expensive and not informed by evidence and may result in profoundly unequal experiences for students and thus for the future workforce.
The speed of change, coupled with the fragmenting of professional standards, the demarcation of roles and attempts to narrow down and prescribe the knowledge base raise the real prospect for families that their needs will either be too great, too little or a wrong fit with the service’s remit.
We know that continuity in relationships, responsive flexible support across all levels of need and a respectful working environment (for staff and families) are critical ingredients for supporting change.
Creating hierarchal access to training, additional structures for service delivery and fragmented approaches to need simply means our capacity to help vulnerable children and families is reduced, all this at a time when austerity means needs are escalating.
Once again, in the wake of this devastating BBC programme, we need sober reflection.
The evidence that frontline practitioners and their managers were unfairly singled out and persecuted is heartbreaking but must not obscure the messages that emerged from the careful work that was carried out after this tragic death on the need for reform.
Nor can it obscure the thoughtful work already underway evidenced in changes in education, the creation of principal social workers and localised developments in relation to respectful interagency working.
But it does seem that the reform agenda has been captured by politicians who find it extremely hard to desist from business as usual. We need to reclaim this agenda in the name of evidence, social justice and humane social work with families.