The challenge of setting the right child protection thresholds is an issue that rarely goes away.
In recent weeks, Sunderland’s children safeguarding board announced it had reviewed its thresholds in response to findings from multiple serious case reviews.
Ofsted has also picked up problems, with a recent inspection of Wirral’s children’s services warning that “poor application of thresholds” existed at “every point” children accessed social care.
The issue is being felt on the frontline too. A year ago, social workers told Community Care they were feeling pressured to downgrade child protection cases to child in need, a part of the system where children are likely to receive less support.
In a world of decreasing resources and increasing caseloads many were uncomfortable about the risks of downgrading some of their cases.
So how can services make the right judgement calls on where children should sit in services, particularly borderline cases that aren’t necessarily clear cut?
Northumbria university researchers Guy Kirk and Robbie Duschinsky recently analysed what happens to cases on the fringes of the child protection system.
Their report found that children deemed below child protection thresholds, but at the upper ends of children in need, could see their cases drift because the divide between the two categories often took no account of the nuances of individual cases.
“It is well known that those children assessed as falling just below the [child protection] threshold can still have high levels of need and risk, requiring a level of social work involvement beyond the low-resource and low-oversight model that generally accompanies a child in need categorisation,” their report said.
Kirk said one problem is that the child in need category can often be seen as a “residual” category.
“If they’re in the child protection category then they are serious and we need to do something about them, if they’re child in need, they’re not,” he says, explaining how services may think in these circumstances.
“Social workers clearly recognise if you sit down and talk with them that of course children on child in need are not all the same.
“However they also recognise that there’s a tendency within the nature of social work, particularly the pressurised children and families work, to have to prioritise what they are seeing as more important, and that’s child protection cases.”
Adam Birchall, principal social worker for children in Solihull, says there can be a difference in the support offered between the categories.
The issue of thresholds is linked to this, Birchall says, as is the fact they aren’t nationally agreed.
“Each [Local Safeguarding Children’s Board] has their own. I think it’s really a peculiar dynamic. It means children in different places get different services based on what’s around.”
On a social work level, Birchall doesn’t feel there’s a huge difference in how social workers treat cases, but he feels other professionals can be a bit “panicky” about some cases being on child in need rather than child protection.
“In child protection there is a really clear format, there are meetings, and a child protection plan can only stop when everybody has a say.
“Particularly, as referrals go up, and we’re in this position in children’s social care where you’re going to have to concentrate more on your high end cases, professionals get a bit nervous about wanting a social worker to be involved.”
A team manager in child protection, who chose to remain anonymous, said social work can become dangerous when categories of risk become too “prescriptive”.
“You should visit according to the level of risk, not according to what plan they are on.”
On thresholds, she is unsure about their place in a social work setting, instead saying social work assessments should determine risk, and support and responses should follow the finding of the assessments.
However, she says if people don’t know where things sit it could increase anxiety. “As a tool it can be useful at times, as a bible, no.”
Kirk found similar things in his research: “[Social workers] are talking in terms of categories and thresholds rather than what are the needs here? What do we need to do? What are the risks? How do we best engage with and work with families?
“If you go right back to Munro, she was highlighting the need for social workers to emphasise their professional judgement.”
He says there needs to be a shift away from the discussion on thresholds and categories that would lead to teams of social workers bluntly asking “well is it a child protection?” about a case.
Bridging the gap
A larger part of Kirk’s research was analysing one local authority’s attempt to bridge the gap between child protection and child in need.
The unnamed authority established a ‘Complex Child In Need’ category for cases where the threshold for child protection hadn’t been met, but there were still concerns over the level of risk. It didn’t cost anything, and the protocol helped formalise work for complex children in need cases, which was aligned with child protection procedures.
“What they aimed to do was improve the management of child in need cases where they had ongoing concerns about the safety and welfare of children,” Kirk explains.
“What it seemed to do was operate as a holding space for those families who were just on the borderline – just beneath the threshold in child protection – and it enabled social workers to do some high quality work with families in a relational way.
“It enabled them to either achieve enough change so they were placed back in the ordinary child in need category, or it identified that actually that things were more concerning that they did have to do work with the child protection processes, or alternatively move directly into court proceedings.
“What it seemed to do was enable effective social work practice, or more discerning practice, to take place”.
Birchall shares the view that thresholds should be seen more as a guide for practice, allowing issues to be responded to based on need.
“Children’s lives are fluid, so it’s hard to categorise them because what could be child in need one day may escalate to child protection the next day, or vice versa.”
Plan ‘fairly irrelevant’
The team manager agrees: “Some of them can go into crisis really quickly, we might need to visit [a child in need] more than we visit a child on a child protection plan, the plan is fairly irrelevant in a lot of ways, and sometimes people get hooked on it.
“It’s more about what’s the impact on the child, what’s the risks to the child and us having to respond accordingly. It could be a child on a child protection plan is being visited at the statutory minimum, but you could have a child on a child in need plan where it’s more important to get in and do that work because they are hitting crisis.”
However, Birchall says thresholds are still important for referrals from partners. “Thresholds are a bit better at setting out if this is the case, this is your responsibility to contact somebody other than children’s social work services.”
But he warns sometimes they can be used to help social workers feel more comfortable about prioritising child protection cases.
“Give me child protection cases all day long and I will work them. Give me a child in need plan, and I hate them. I hate them for the reason they can be borderline, they can go on forever, sometimes you can’t quite get the evidence you need…those cases are really difficult.”
Kirk agrees social workers should be wary of the natural human tendency in such cases.
“What social work is about is identifying needs, risk, what is going on with this family in this particular context and then working out well how do we actually engage with and support that to make some changes. That’s what social work is about rather than simply trying to categorise.”