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.