Munro consultancy: ‘Signs of Safety gaps already being addressed’

Signs of Safety co-creator Andrew Turnell, Eileen Munro and Terry Murphy respond to the What Works Centre's recent review of the practice model

Photo: Jakub Jirasik/Fotolia

by Andrew Turnell, Eileen Munro and Terry Murphy

The What Works Centre (WWC) for children’s social care and its partners in Cardiff University’s CASCADE team last week published an intelligent, nuanced, mixed-methods review of Signs of Safety, which provides a balanced summary and critique of the published evidence supporting the model.

The review focused on investigating “whether, how, for whom and under what conditions Signs of Safety works to safely reduce the number of children entering and re-entering care, and to increase the number of children re-unified with their family”.

Its overall finding was that there is “little or no evidence Signs of Safety is effective at safely reducing the need for children to enter care, equally, we have not found evidence to suggest that Signs of Safety is not effective at achieving this outcome”.

Based on the review’s standards of evidence we accept this assertion, and want to make three points:

  • Until the early 2010s, the international Signs of Safety community did not seek to build a formal outcome-focused evidence base. As a practitioner’s model, the primary research endeavour focused on building practice-based, case-by-case evidence of what works in actual cases across the children’s services continuum. The extensive body of published Signs of Safety practice-based evidence was not within the scope of the WWC review, which focused solely on the model’s impact on the English government priority of reducing care placement numbers.
  • The review did not include relevant published administrative data that evidences reductions in placements; nor did it explain why this data did not meet their evidence standards.
  • We share the WWC’s concern to demonstrate the effects of Signs of Safety and under what circumstances they occur. With that in mind we are already actively encouraging and supporting research projects in the UK and Ireland that address many of the issues the review has identified.

‘Gaps are being worked on’

Beyond its detailed exploration of the evidence base, the review also offers a formulation of the Signs of Safety programme and implementation theory.

The authors identify gaps based primarily on 2012 published descriptions of Signs of Safety practice and organisational theories of change.

We had already identified these same gaps and have subsequently been systematically addressing these through the revised theories of change, which are now being applied in England, Northern Ireland, Ireland and North America.

Given the scope of the review and the fact the reviewers state they didn’t read Signs of Safety practice guidance not linked with research, and it seems they did not familiarise themselves with the v2.0 Signs of Safety practice theory of change, we were somewhat surprised the review team would view itself able to analyse limitations in the Signs of Safety practice approach.

The review calls out limitations in applying the approach to cases of violence and exploitation, which are in fact explicitly addressed in the practice-based evidence that supports the approach.

It also names the issue of how to fully engage naturally connected networks in the safety planning process. These gaps in the practice theory were certainly accurate six years ago when the 2012 practice theory of change applied, but since then they are all being actively addressed.

‘Misunderstanding’ the literature

The review misunderstands Signs of Safety in formulating a parental ‘turning point’ as the key change driver in the practice approach, when the literature has clearly stated that Signs of Safety follows a systemic approach to change and problem solving.

Thus, the Signs of Safety practitioner is not so much setting out to change the lightbulb (a faulty parent) as to install a whole new lighting system of a naturally connected safety network around the child.

In their critique of the ‘practice theory’ the review team also does not seem to appreciate that Signs of Safety brings a process, not a content-focused approach to assessment.

The Signs of Safety assessment framework provides a clear structure for how to think, and what to think about, and does not prescribe what to think or what theories to draw upon.

Signs of Safety has always recognised that practitioners must bring the most up-to-date professional knowledge to the practice encounter about many contested issues such as childhood development, the impact of trauma, dynamics of grooming, power, control and violence, as well as wider social issues such as race, class, gender and sexual identity.

‘Working hard on the priorities’

The WWC review comes at a highly opportune moment in the development of the evidence base that supports Signs of Safety, and will be an important driver in helping us to focus English local authorities and agencies, and other collaborators across the UK, in building a Signs of safety evidence base that meets recognised academic standards.

We accept fully the recommendations of the report that the evidence base for Signs of Safety urgently needs developing, and that a clear, practicable specification of high-quality Signs of Safety practice is a priority.

We can assure the UK children’s services community that we and the leading English Signs of Safety implementing authorities are already working hard on exactly these priorities.

We again thank the WWC and the Cardiff team for the impetus their report provides to the Signs of Safety community in the UK. We would welcome the opportunity to work more closely with the WWC in establishing whether Signs of Safety is effective in improving the safety and wellbeing of children served by the English children’s services system.

Professor Eileen Munro, Dr Andrew Turnell and Terry Murphy’s Munro, Turnell & Murphy Child Protection Consulting is working with 10 English local authorities to implement Signs of Safety, backed by government Innovation Project funding. Dr Turnell and his partner Steve Edwards developed the practice model in Australia during the 1990s.

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9 Responses to Munro consultancy: ‘Signs of Safety gaps already being addressed’

  1. Finn November 23, 2018 at 7:15 am #

    This is an interesting response with lots of good points – but to pick up just one thing, the “relevant published administrative data” links to a video and a set of power point slides. I’m not sure I’d call that published data….and in any case, it seems to say only that one province implemented SoS and at the same time, fewer children came into care. That…doesn’t prove very much. Lots of LAs in England will have implemented SoS and had more children come into care. It would be a weak claim either way to say that SoS was either the cause of fewer children in care in one place or that it somehow caused more children to come into care in those others. I look forward to the SoS network and WWC working together to produce a proper study of effectiveness.

    • David November 23, 2018 at 9:24 am #

      Ask the Western Australian Gov through the Freedom of Information Act for the 3 year evaluation that was carried out by Dr Mary Salveron Centre for Child Protection. In South Australia. You won’t get it, never published, horrific outcomes. The home of SoS. Been on the go 10 years. It’s worst than ever.

      • Nora December 2, 2018 at 8:48 pm # you know if there’s any reliable AU data available or grey literature and if it is still being used in AU?

  2. Andi November 25, 2018 at 6:27 pm #

    The SOS groupies have been stating the obvious – go in , explain concerns, assess, plan, put into action, monitor, review, take required action – hasn’t this been peddled since 1987 (?) And is the basis of social work.
    This desperate buying into what is seen as a panacea is very frustrating – the only way to break the cycle is to remove children from damaging families sooner rather than later – when there is still a fighting chance of improving their life chances- bending over backwards to keep them at home is why we have the referral revolving door, and of course keeping them at home suits councillors and the Govt looking at the short term gain of immediate financial costs and votes.
    Social workers need to be allowed, and supported, to do social work – save the money paid to ‘consultants’ and increase the number of social workers so they can social work. SOS is no more effective than anything else – stop wasting money

  3. Robin Sen December 1, 2018 at 1:19 pm #

    This article throws up many more questions than it answers for me. We know that local authorities in England are under unprecedented funding constraints as well as unprecedented service demands which are seriously affecting the delivery of frontline children’s services. Prof. Munro herself spoke very articulately about the funding cuts facing local authorities on Radio 4’s PM programme a few weeks ago. In this context I call on the Munro, Turnell & Murphy Consultancy to make public what monies they have received from any UK local authority to deliver Signs of Safety since the Consultancy was established, and, what personal income they have derived from this work. It seems to me to be crucial to have this information in the open so that we can start to have a reasoned debate about whether the funds spent on Signs of Safety in the UK represent a sound use of the scarce resources available to children’s services under austerity, or not.

    Secondly, we need a wider debate about the generation of evidence in social work in English social work. There are well established concerns that drug companies’ involvement in clinical drug trials can compromise their integrity, because the drug companies have a vested interest in a drug being shown to be successful as they will profit from its sale (e.g. ) It seems to me that we face a similar issue in social work when private consultancies are involved in trying to establish evidence for a product whose use they will benefit from. This is only one viewpoint, and I’m open to counter-views. But it is striking that – with the exception of stalwarts such as Ray Jones – we don’t seem to be even much engaging in the debate on this in the SW community currently.

  4. G December 3, 2018 at 8:33 am #

    “We accept fully … that the evidence base for Signs of Safety urgently needs developing”

    This line should ring alarm bells, and it’s one I’ve seen (in very similar wording) in the literature for numerous interventions within and outside social work.

    It seems to put the cart before the horse, suggesting that a well established and funded approach or programme then needs to have its evidence base ‘developed’ when it’s hard to see how this can be done impartially by people who have invested so much in its success.

    Anyone evaluating something they’re a part of should ask themselves: ‘if we find this is ineffective, are we willing to walk away from it and do something different?’. I’d like to hope that people would answer ‘yes’ to this, but that’s surely not always the case.

  5. Chris December 4, 2018 at 7:19 pm #

    ‘we appreciate your attempt at a critical review of SOS, but we were ‘surprised’ at you decision not to include some of the most important practice-based data and your the fact that you clearly misunderstood the SOS literature and treated it as some kind of content-based approach, with pieces you could choose to pick up and use or not rather than a completely new value system and process of assessment’ translates as: the limited understanding of SOS you demonstrate in your report shows, you are not really qualified to assess the efficacy of SOS, let alone expect anyone take your conclusions seriously.

  6. Bob December 4, 2018 at 8:17 pm #

    There’s always that handful of burnt out child protection workers, who long for the good old, punitive days of doing minimal work, just demonizing and writing off parents, so they can throw their kids in care and walk away. They hate the SOS approach even though it is more effective than previous, problem-based approaches (as the majority of valid and reliable peer-reviewed evidence shows) because it involves actually doing some work with the families, putting in effort building trust, working collaboratively, addressing underlying influences as well as immediate needs, and being guided by evidence not just personal prejudice.The fact that the WWC reviewers didn’t bother to do any of their own research (they just read and (mis)interpreted the results of other people’s research), and didn’t bother to read the SOS practice guidance book (just made (false) assumptions about what they though SOS practice it would look like) before reporting on the limitations of SOS practice, makes me think they don’t like do the hard work either.

    • Andi December 8, 2018 at 5:59 pm #

      What a delightfu creature you are Bob, landing on cheap criticism. There is a bottom line in Social Work, CP and best interests of children, should not be confused with the Human Rights of an adult, or, to sink to your level of criticism, allowing The unresolved issues of those in the profession to impact upon decisions to safeguard children. Nothing I’ve read has anything to do with ‘burnt out social workers’, therefore I assume you are the former, if indeed you are a social worker.