Social workers have said more resources and lower caseloads are the top priority for improving child protection following the murder of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes.
Over three-quarters of 3,490 respondents to a Community Care poll selected this option over better multi-agency working, lower thresholds for intervention or the creation of a dedicated child protection service.
The results come amid a widespread debate across the profession and beyond about how to keep children safe, in the wake of the jailing of Arthur’s father and stepmother for killing the six-year-old in June 2020, following months of abuse.
As with previous high-profile child killings, this debate has focused on the role of social workers, particularly after it emerged during the trial that Solihull children’s services staff visited the home two months before Arthur’s death after his grandmother reported bruising to his back. They found no safeguarding concerns. Following reporting of the case, some social workers have reported receiving abuse, which was condemned by the two chief social workers, in a letter to the profession.
Zahawi: remove children when ‘inkling of harm’
It has also seen the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, controversially say in Parliament that children should be removed from their family if there was “any inkling” of harm. This is seemingly lower than the Children Act 1989 threshold for a care or emergency protection order, which is suffering or being likely to suffer significant harm.
Also, government safeguarding adviser Alan Wood called for the establishment of a multidisciplinary child protection service, to develop specialist expertise and improve inter-agency working. The government-commissioned children’s social care review is already considering the case for separating councils’ family support and child protection functions in order to resolve perceived tensions between the two.
Meanwhile, the government has opened a national review, led by the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel, into the circumstances behind Arthur’s murder and commissioned an urgent joint targeted area inspection (JTAI) into agencies in the Solihull area, due to start next week. In addition, Solihull council will carry out an “independent verification of the council’s involvement in Arthur’s life”.
Though all three will focus on the either the circumstances behind Arthur’s case or the role of agencies in safeguarding children in the local area, the findings of the national review and JTAI will inevitably have broader implications for social work and the wider sector .
Possible delay to care review
In the light of this, the care review, which was set to publish its final report next spring, said it would now await the findings of the national review and JTAI, with a spokesperson saying these would “feed into” its work.
More on Arthur Labinjo-Hughes case
Review lead Josh MacAlister’s contract with the Department for Education states that his recommendations cannot assume more resource from government, though allows for additional investment in children’s social care so long as it saves money elsewhere in government over time.
MacAlister has indicated that this is what he will argue and, throughout the review process, has said that there is no scenario in which children’s social care will not need more money.
Research by the Local Government Association published earlier this year found that councils overspent on their children’s services budgets by over £800m in 2019-20, despite having increased budgets by £1.1bn over the previous two years.
The LGA predicted that the sector would need an additional £600m a year over the next three years to keep pace with demand, with total spend having to rise from a projected £10.9bn in 2021-22 to £12.6bn in 2024-25.
Caseloads ‘increasingly difficult to manage’
However, it is unclear how far the government’s spending review, announced in October, allows for this. While councils’ spending power is due to rise by 1.8% a year in real terms from 2021-22 to 2024-25, this is reliant on authorities raising council tax by 3% a year, with 1% of this ring-fenced for adult social care.
According to DfE figures, these have fallen year on year, from 17.8 in 2017 to 16.3 in 2020 but the department says these statistics should be treated with caution while practitioners have long seen them as an underestimate.
A separate survey by Community Care in March this year found an average of 23.9. Though this was down from 24.4 the previous year, 79% of respondents to the 2021 survey said their caseloads were “completely unmanageable” or “hard to manage”, up from 72% in 2020.
Reflecting this, and the results of our latest poll, responses by sector bodies and MPs to Arthur’s case have pointed to the need for investment to give practitioners the time to get to know the children and families they are working with.
‘Being under-resourced puts you under huge pressure’
Marian Brandon, professor of social work at the University of East Anglia, said she hoped the national review reflected on the difficulties practitioners faced in child protection cases when they had limited resources.
“I think being overwhelmed makes it difficult to think clearly. Being under-resourced puts you under huge pressure,” said Brandon, a child protection expert who has led government-commissioned research to identify learning from serious case reviews.
“The cuts to services over the years have made doing this work incredibly difficult. That can’t be overestimated, really. It’s a huge problem. And the services themselves have become fragmented and that makes it much more difficult.”
Brandon said more support services were needed as well as an increase in the number of social workers to lower caseloads in each area.
“This is extraordinarily difficult work,” she added, “Working out when things are not safe is hard. But in order to do that, you need to know the child and know the family.”
Meanwhile, more than 4,000 people have signed a petition launched last week urging the government to increase funding for frontline social workers to support vulnerable families.
One issue the national review will examine is how far Arthur was made more vulnerable by the pandemic, with the abuse he faced leading up to his murder coinciding with the first national lockdown.
In its response to the case, the Care Review Watch Alliance, a group of social workers, care experienced people, foster carers and academics that is scrutinising the review, said: “We know from practitioner accounts that there has also been a marked increase in the complexity and difficulty of child protection work during the pandemic, particularly where some children already known to be vulnerable were not seen by any professionals other than social workers – removing important protective layers from these children’s lives.
“It is vital that any child who may be at risk is seen by an experienced social worker who has the time to spend with them, to listen to them, build trusting relationships with them and understand what life is like for them from through their eyes. The pandemic continues to place additional strain on these stretched services through workplace absences, uncertainty, changing guidance and even further reduced resources.”
Door not closed on more resource
In Parliament, Zahawi defended levels of investment in children’s services, citing the 10% growth in the number of children’s social workers from 2017-20 and the increase in real-terms funding for councils in the latest spending review.
However, he did not close the door on more resource should MacAlister recommend this.
He told the Commons that, “depending on what the MacAlister review delivers, I would certainly be the first to make the argument for properly resourcing children’s social care”.
In the same appearance, Zahawi caused shock with his comment that children should be removed from their family at “any inkling” of harm, seemingly well below the Children Act threshold of “significant harm” for a care or emergency protection order”. He meanwhile did not rule out legislating to reform the Children Act 1989 in the light of the national review into Arthur’s case, JTAI or MacAlister’s review.
Shock at Zahawi comments
Since Community Care posted the story on Zahawi’s comments on Facebook, it has received over 200 comments, many expressing shock at his apparent lack of knowledge of the law and the implications of his idea for social workers’ roles, resources, the availability of care placements and children themselves.
One said: “Unbelievable, like it isn’t already difficult enough to engage hard to reach families. Let’s frighten the life out of them by using words like these. He needs to sit in a children’s social care office and consider the complexities faced by social workers and managers everyday before making such a sweeping, unhelpful and unrealistic statement.”
Said another: “Take them into care and put them where? And do what with them? Where are the resources? What’s in place to ensure that they will have positive outcomes? Will they be funding more social workers ? We have high caseloads as it is so who will be managing the extra load?”
There’s no suggestion from government that it is considering changing the law to lower the threshold for removing children from their families. But, Zahawi’s comments raise the spectre of the shift to greater intervention in family life that followed Lord Laming’s 2009 review into child protection following the Peter Connolly case. In the subsequent decade, the number of child protection enquiries rose by 129%, child protection plans by 32% and looked-after children by 24%.
Accompanying funding cuts to councils meant authorities had to shift resource from early to late intervention, reducing their ability to work with families to address their needs without recourse to statutory responses.
Reinvesting in family support to prevent the need for child protection measures is a key priority for the care review – though it said this was not at the expense of taking statutory action when required.
“In previous documents, interviews and publications, the review has highlighted the need for more decisive child protection responses as well as the need to have a proportionate system of investigations,” a spokesperson said.
“We have highlighted the ‘false choice’ between supporting families and an interventionist system and continue to believe this is not an either/or question.
“It is too soon to know what Arthur’s case might tell us about national themes that the review has already highlighted. The review is continuing to consider how best to improve how we help families and protect children.”
Social workers’ actions questioned
After the sentencing of Arthur’s father and stepmother last week, many newspapers questioned the actions of social workers and police working with the boy and his family.
The Daily Mail’s front page read: “Why didn’t they save Arthur?” while the Sun’s said: “Did the learn nothing from Baby P?”, referencing the Peter Connolly case.
It was in this context that chief social workers Isabelle Trowler and Lyn Romeo wrote to practitioners condemning abuse directed at social workers by members of the public in the wake of the case.
Meanwhile, Zahawi said in his speech to the Commons: “No government anywhere in the world can legislate for evil. But we will take action wherever we can to stop this happening again, because we must do more.”
Brandon said children’s deaths from maltreatment had remained relatively stable over the past decade despite funding cuts to children’s services “biting deeper and deeper”. Of 206 child deaths notified by councils to the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel in 2020, 36 involved maltreatment within the family.
“It is not surprising that it is distressing and people want things to improve but to say this must never happen again I think is unrealistic,” she said.
“That sort of knee-jerk reaction can create more harm than good and children will have worse lives, not better lives, is the risk.”
Social worker Richard Devine wrote in a blog about how knowing Arthur’s tragic fatal outcome makes evidence presented to social workers such as bruising seem like a clear sign of maltreatment by his father and stepmother.
But Devine pointed out that social workers and other professionals did not have access to the video and audio footage of Arthur’s abuse prior to his death.
And he wrote that social workers might have also witnessed positive and warm interactions between Arthur, his father, and his stepmother.
He said Arthur’s father and stepmother “may have been perfectly pleasant, welcoming, and seemingly cooperative with the social workers visiting providing a convincing, plausible, albeit false account of the bruising he sustained”.
Brandon added: “The review that’s going to be undertaken needs to be done in a considerate way. And whatever happens to these parents needs to be separated out perhaps from what happens to all children in the future. But it doesn’t always help to have this high level of scrutiny.”