‘Why only specialist child protection teams will tackle the annual child death toll’

Child protection will only improve if we enhance the core analytical and investigative skills the role requires – which is why the social care review should recommend the creation of specialist teams, writes Sir Alan Wood

Image of Sir Alan Wood, chair of the children's social care What Works Centre
Sir Alan Wood

By Sir Alan Wood

What would most improve child protection in England?

  • Lower caseloads for child protection social workers (63%, 701 Votes)
  • Setting up expert multi-agency units to handle all child protection cases (16%, 184 Votes)
  • Improved multi-agency working without setting up expert units (6%, 69 Votes)
  • Improved practice in the police, health and/or other agencies (5%, 61 Votes)
  • Improved training and supervision for child protection social workers (5%, 53 Votes)
  • Ring-fencing child protection casework for "expert" social workers (5%, 52 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,120

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The level of expectation and ambition for the children’s social care review, led by Josh MacAlister, is sky high, ahead of its imminent publication.

The review has taken place against the backdrop of fierce and ongoing restraint on resources for children’s social care services. Inevitably, it will not be able to satisfy or agree with all the demands and challenges made of it. So, prioritising the most pressing issues will be tough. But those priorities need to be identified if the sector is to get to grips with ongoing challenges.

Also due to be published anytime now is the report by the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel into the deaths of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson. This will need to provide a forensic focus on what happened, and why, within the child protection services in Solihull and Bradford, respectively. Together the social care review and national panel report will create an opportunity to think anew how we organise child protection.

Muddled language

How can we deal more effectively with the major challenges of child protection? In some part, the challenge is muddled by our language. I think the softer phrases of safeguarding, wellbeing and welfare have unwittingly shifted attention from the forensic focus required in this area of work.

Although on a spectrum, child protection and welfare require very different approaches in relation to identification, assessment and planning. Without a change in the way we deliver child protection, the numbers of deaths and serious injuries will remain at their current stubbornly negative levels.

The NSPCC reports that, from 2015-20, an average of 58 children under 15 died each year in the UK due to assault or undetermined intent, that the homicide rate in England and Wales was highest for children under one and that a parent or step-parent was most commonly suspected of killing children in England and Wales. The number of such deaths has been of this magnitude for decades.

At the same time, councils in England made 536 serious incident notifications in 2020-21 – involving cases where a child has died or been seriously injured where there was suspected abuse or neglect – up 19% on 2019-20.

A system not learning from itself

For some, the stable child deaths figure is evidence that we have a safe system. In reality, it’s a disaster and points to a system that is not learning from itself. I believe the reason for deaths being so stubbornly stable is because we lack sufficient tools and skilled professional input to work with this group of families with complex and challenging issues

It is cases such as those of Arthur, Star, Logan Mwangi, Kyrell Matthews and Hakeem Hussain that, despite several previous reforms, continue to point to a fundamental deficit in our range of responses. The recent report on the serious injuries suffered by a child in Northamptonshire points to the lack of action and intervention by staff despite having information on the child’s suffering, and staff believing they were not empowered to act.

Up to now, we have responded with changing the names of partnerships or approaches and laying more and more process onto existing systems.

More and repeated calls for better joined-up working, more plans to improve data and information sharing and more transparency will not add one iota to improving the quality of intervention with families and children.”

The reason lessons are not learned and embedded is not just about poor leadership, weak communication, inadequate data sharing, the need to be more curious and having better multi-agency partnerships – the points raised in almost all investigations and reviews.

Moving beyond generic social work

Instead, we need to address the core investigative, analytical and decision-making skills of the key people we put in front of families. It is a glaring but silent gap that needs to be given voice.

We need to move beyond the generic capacity and skills of social work to embrace the concept of “child protection investigators”. They might be social workers, teachers, clinicians, police officers or health specialists but their skills and knowledge will have been enhanced through advanced training and support so that they become an elite group of professionals.

I am not proposing a specific model or arrangement; this should be up to the three statutory safeguarding partners in each area – the local authority, chief police officer and (from July) NHS integrated care system. I would envisage that the partners authorise and empower a specialist child protection investigation team, consisting of the most skilled and experienced practitioners, who would be accountable to the partnership. Having such a team in place would enable the sharing of expertise, professional development and high expectations.

Better family support is not enough

The imaginative and wide-ranging ideas of supporting children and families the social care review has considered so widely is both encouraging and positive. With the necessary resources this can bring a fresh and more multi-agency approach to early working with children and families up to the point of referral to child protection. But alone, change in these areas will not be enough to ensure that the focus on child protection is improved, and to seriously challenge the annual toll of deaths and serious incidents.

This will not happen until our answer is “yes” to this key question: “Do we have a highly skilled high performing group of staff that can ‘smell’ the cases likely to lead to death and serious injury?” This is the key challenge for the three statutory safeguarding partners in each area of England. They must urgently rise to meet it.

Sir Alan Wood is a former government adviser on safeguarding children and past president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services.

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33 Responses to ‘Why only specialist child protection teams will tackle the annual child death toll’

  1. Christina curley May 20, 2022 at 11:53 am #

    I’m sorry but absolutely disagree as in all the social workers I know have the skills but what’s needed to improve child protection is if senior management listen to staff on the frontline, value us stop over loading social workers with to many cases scale down the paperwork, this includes partner agencies putting together referral forms that are to long and allowing social workers time to actually work with families. This just blames the social worker who’s working above and beyond giving there free time until there burnt out and leave

    • Diane Galpin May 20, 2022 at 4:42 pm #

      Agree with previous comments. Working with safeguarding leads across health And social care for the last 6 months the one blatantly obvious resource practitioners lack is TIME….If I read one more report blaming social workers/health professionals for ‘lack of professional curiosity’ I may well spontaneously combust !

      Demonstrating professional curiousity requires significant amount of time and space to absorb the whole scenario, to work proactively with other professionals and families , to establish the meaning of the information being shared and to then manage complex care planning and risk management with a multitude of professionals , agencies , families and support networks.

      This all takes an enormous amount of time and cognitive and emotional energy … employers do little to support ‘professional curiousity’ because if they did it authentically it would result In A backlog due to the shortage of workers who are leaving the profession because they have no time to do the job they trained for…. Do not even get me started on the 2nd most important thing they need…. RESOURCES…. Is it me or Do I smell burning ….. ?

      • Diane Galpin May 20, 2022 at 5:05 pm #

        P.s Given Sir Alan’s background this definition provides context :

        Learn to pronounce
        (of a phrase or idea) having been overused; unoriginal and trite.
        “hackneyed old sayings”

      • Al May 21, 2022 at 8:27 pm #

        Well said!

      • Rob Kinahan May 27, 2022 at 7:48 am #

        As a SW with 12 years experience: Agree Diane 100% – well said.

    • Janice Jones May 23, 2022 at 10:26 pm #

      I agree with what you say, lower the paperwork
      Lower the caseloads
      Include partner agencies
      But I believe unannounced visits should be the way to go, so the social workers can’t be manipulated or the child, this happened to poor little Arthur and to the social workers who visited and did not come back to check on this angel
      Also, the threshold for removing a child should be changed or stopped
      Also only talk to a child away from the house so he or she is taken out of the situation
      If that happened to Arthur he may still be here

  2. G Mahoney May 20, 2022 at 1:59 pm #

    I am so frustrated and flabbergasted that this review fails to acknowledge the most obvious failure impacting upon service provision – overloaded, overworked, stressed frontline practitioners. Rectify / fix the system – protect your staff. Stop putting unreasonable expectations on your social workers to work outside of their contracted hours, give them manageable caseloads so that they can spend time with the children and families in question – and enables the space / capacity to attend ongoing professional development.
    Pay for effective out of hours service so that workers who are paid up until 5pm can return to their own children and families without the expectation that they stay out until 9pm at night – and never get time to take their toil back!! Support and protect your staff!!

    I have the skills and experience to do this work but wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole. I value my health and my time with my own family too much to re-enter such an unhealthy and unrealistic working environment/contract.

    • David May 20, 2022 at 4:29 pm #

      To be fair, Alan isn’t part of the review – and The Case for Change does highlight the issue of social workers being vulnerable to burnout, with high workloads, high levels of stress, poor working conditions, too much bureaucracy, too much paperwork, not enough time to work directly with children, and staff working regularly over-hours (on page 78-79). I’m as sceptical as the next person about whether the review is going to make a meaningful difference, and will wait and see what they recommend in relation to these and other problems – but it’s not quite true to say that the review fails to acknowledge the things you quite rightly list here.

      • G Mahoney May 20, 2022 at 9:05 pm #

        This “article” – or review of a review? You got my point though…..?

  3. Anon May 20, 2022 at 2:11 pm #

    High caseloads are a massive issue. Yet this is no acknowledged. Who says 20 is a satisfactory figure? Wheres the evidence to back this up? Let along many social workers gave 25 to 30 and sometimes more. Then of course recruitment and retention is another issue.

  4. Christine May 20, 2022 at 4:00 pm #

    However reframed this is in a long line of re-hashing the usual top down we know better strategy. “Forensic ‘skills’, undefined, is just opinion a phrase for impressing conference audiences. What we “smell” when we do our jobs are poor housing, benefits dependence, substance misuse, addiction, skewed power relationships and yes inadequate adults more often than not willfully abusing children. No extraordinary special suoerhero skill required for that. Heard the one about the team manager who said “never mind what you want to do I am under pressure to close cases so close this. Here’s your next case”. Neat pictures of ‘highly skilled’ specialist social workers with magic in their fingertips might impress political masters and bolster self regard of ‘experts’ ofcourse and no doubt careers are going to be maned and enhanced by the “Review” but our reality is not this. My ‘radical’ suggestion? How about the great and the good ADCS represent actually allow us the time to spend with families rather than punish us for not “closing cases” fast enough. The only forensic skill I lack is not having control over how to be a social worker.

  5. Tony May 20, 2022 at 5:57 pm #

    Hmm, this seems odd. Ofsted’s current inspection regime finds that 12% of Local Authority Children’s Services are rated as outstanding and 38% are rated good. Only 14% were found to be inadequate. Sir Alan Wood, on the other hand, says the current system is a ‘disaster’.

    It can’t be… It surely doesn’t mean… Are you telling me Ofsted is a nakedly political institution with a vested interest in painting a rosy picture of children’s services for the Government?

  6. Liz May 20, 2022 at 7:03 pm #

    Fine in principle. Do you want to properly fund it? So that case remain low. Can you also change funding streams – the white elephant isn’t just the front line worker. It’s the local authority that doesn’t want the cost of proceedings. Let alone (for those not adopted) the cost of SGO placements and Foster care. Pay for that by central government and you’ll see a drastic increase in proper safeguarding as envisioned in CA89

  7. Sandra Walsh May 20, 2022 at 7:11 pm #

    I wish people who have never worked a day in their life as a social worker would stop commenting on what social work should be. This guy, Alan Wood, was a teacher. Social workers dont go around telling teachers how to teach. About time teachers stop telling us how to do social work. Alan Wood’s Hackey model where he last worked as a director has failed spectacularly. I dont think we should be taking advice from somebody who talks but cannot deliver.

  8. frustrated May 20, 2022 at 9:20 pm #

    It is the managers that downplay safeguarding concerns. I had a manager tell me it was my job to downplay the concerns of other professionals. I replied but ‘I share them.’ Did she take any notice no, could I continue working for her, no. Did it help the children?

  9. Gemma May 20, 2022 at 9:45 pm #

    Im really worried that this misleading article could influence policy makers. I am also very frustrated that this article yet again frames Social Workers for failings. This is a gross misunderstanding and simplistic view of what is needed and WILL NOT reduce the number of child deaths that sadly take place every year. This undermines social work practice, and will feed and breed defensive practice – which we know is ineffective in protecting children. I do agree that there is a problem with embedding learning, but this has to be considered within the context of austerity and cuts year on year (note the figures referred to are from 2015-2020). It is impossible to implement and embed learning when caseloads are high, staff retention is low and there is an over reliance on agency staff. Resources are needed within early help and childrens services – this is the answer, it’s not a new or flashy idea, however this is never listened to.

  10. julia May 21, 2022 at 8:19 am #

    It’s Saturday and I am about to start writing paperwork for court that is already very late.
    I am expecting to be slated in court for the delay. If I worked 90 hours each week, this would not give me the time to get everything done. I want my life back but can’t see a way out.

    • Andy May 23, 2022 at 6:38 am #

      I’m afraid this is the sort of situation which led me to take the tough decision to prioritise my health and personal life and leave my longstanding SW post. If you’re consistently working excess hours, your hourly rate of pay effectively drops to unacceptable levels.

  11. T. De May 21, 2022 at 10:43 am #

    Social Workers need the capacity to spend regular focused time with children and families. The current system and time does not allow this.

  12. Claire May 21, 2022 at 10:47 am #

    I see it so clearly now. Strong ? versus soft and gooey is the choice. I’m shamed to admit that I hadn’t realised how seduced I’ve been by wishy-washy soap bubbles. If only I had realised the skills I need are so clearly demonstrated in American “procedural” TV shows. So obbious now really. Social Workers? Not needed. Its a Dr House world that’s needed. Stand out, unlearn everything that the seemingly learned have been telling you. The world is made up of the shamelessly manipulating, distrust them all. Embrace your inner Columbo. Don’t stand nonsense, be a maverick, hone your sense of smell, crush through pretend complexity.
    Become an unashamedly shouty CHILD PROTECTION INVESTIGATOR. So much better than being a mere plodding social worker. I really really understand that it’s the soft lads and lasses who are the problem. Could Sir Alan also tell us how to make a lovely tripe linguine for 30 pence please?

    • Maisie May 23, 2022 at 10:41 am #

      Brilliant response. ? ? Gotta laugh or I would cry ?

  13. Thomas Hughes May 21, 2022 at 12:54 pm #

    Sir Alan advised on the “disaster” he describes in his own article! I don’t think he is really fit to comment. Would you let the designers of the Titanic have another go? What success has he had? Seems a specialist in failure.

    The reason for the review is because the system isn’t working, but I’m sure ex teacher and university based academic Josh McAllister will solve problems in social work…

    As many actual Social Workers have stated, the real issues are a lack of resources and time. Most reports take weeks to write for court, with little time for real investigation. In the criminal world, investigations go on for years, but for kids, you get 12 weeks if that. That is with a full caseload of vulnerable kids.

    The Government and their advisers need to get real and be honest that it is resources that are simply insufficient. Changing structures is simply a comfort blanket that keeps the money rolling in for advisors and consultants.

  14. Jay May 21, 2022 at 1:22 pm #

    I want to pre-text this by saying that for children and families subject to child protection investigations, and to other forms of state intervention in family life, there are a wide range of factors that can be at play. Deliberate intention to harm a child (which can overlap with deliberate intention to harm other human or sentient beings) is one of the factors to be considered.

    I want to talk about protecting children from adults who have highly sadistic personalities…

    As far as I can tell, and perhaps to state the obvious, there is a link between child homicide – also other forms of extreme, deliberate harm caused to children – and the perpetrators being adults who quite often seem to have highly sadistic personalities. To say that forensic skills are needed within the child protection field is a very reasonable point in this sort of context.

    I think most people would agree that a goal of society should be to prevent children being significantly harmed or killed by individuals who have highly sadistic personalities.

    The question is how best to tackle this. I think its fair to say that society is still working this out, and there will continue to be debates (including ethical debates) around this. Some possible responses that I can think of…
    …raising awareness among the general population of how people with highly sadistic personalities may tend to function, and how they may interact with children (e.g. as a parent or step-parent)
    …those working in the child protection field having access to psychologists, who can, for example: provide training around identifying and working with people who (are suspected to) have highly sadistic personalities, and inform best practice to protect children who are (potentially) exposed to them
    …those working in the child protection field to have access to all the other resources (including time) that will enable them to protect children from this group of individuals

    There is growing awareness in society about adults with highly narcissistic personalities – maybe we also need to start talking more about adults with highly sadistic personalities and how the child protection system and society responds?

  15. Alan May 22, 2022 at 8:56 am #

    So a past president of ADCS blames hapless and underskilled social workers for protection failures rather than “poor leadership”. Well ofcourse he would.

  16. Janet May 22, 2022 at 9:16 am #

    Things are wrong, children are failed, there needs to be a new elite with specialist forensic skills to make it better. Then? Apparently its up to others to find a way apparently. It must be so satisfying pointing out “failings” from the sidelines but offer no practicalities on the pathway to tackle them. Pointing vigorously from the sidelines is equvilant to the kids Sunday rugby dads who always know better and can pinpoint who is doing it wrong. Shouty dads always know better apparently. As for the coaching, the equipment, booking the pitch, transport and the rest of the mundane reality, we’ll that’s for the little people. The really important important bit is ideas, strategy, analysis, cajoling and the “I’ll tell you what makes an elite performance” speech. For the men obviously. When you don’t even notice who washes the kit, you are bound to think the problem is in not having enough elites.

  17. Professor Andy Bilson May 22, 2022 at 3:29 pm #

    This article would be laughable, if it wasn’t that Wood is so connected to government and likely to be involved in the implementation of the review through his role in the What Works Centre.
    His idea that we could have an elite group who can “‘smell’ the cases likely to lead to death and serious injury” is truly laughable, especially coming from someone responsible for evidence based practice. This suggestion would mean that it’s possible to find or train people able to “smell” the “50-60 children per year who die or suffer serious harm while receiving input from children’s social care” (analysis of serious case reviews by Brandon et al 2020) from amongst the current level of 679,000 children in need during the year.
    Outside the realms of crime fiction the idea of individuals with these sorts of detective superpowers simply do not exist. I sincerely hope that tomorrow’s review report does not indulge in such fantasy.

    • Fiona MacLeod May 22, 2022 at 10:57 pm #

      A specialist child protection stance, where parents are viewed with suspicion – unwarranted in the vast majority of cases – presents the greatest risk to safety and wellbeing of children and families.
      There are many skilled social work practitioners and managers working hard to enhance family lives, frustrated by systems which are experienced by families as alienating and punitive.
      There will be individual responses to the tragic circumstances of a child death. Reacting to the few to support an investigative system response is counter-productive.
      For the majority, we have work to do to level the field and recover from the damage experienced by parents as a consequence of statutory intervention. Listening to and learning from parents, and Parent Advocacy organisations such as IPAN & PFAN, we can and do experience the power and impact of Parent Peer Advocacy, lifting parent voices, with better engagement in decision-making, improved relationships between parents and professionals leading to better outcomes for children and their families.
      This is an approach which is beginning to makie a real difference to parents and families and professionals.
      Let’s give it a good go. We’ve played out the other scenarios. Old ideas dressed up in new costumes don’t cut the mustard

  18. Andrew Collins May 23, 2022 at 10:24 am #

    Hmmmm…… I used to work on a dedicated Child Protection Team in the late 90’s early noughties. Many LA’s had them but they were disbanded with the advent of the Assessment Framework and the “refocusing” debate.

    Research by an academic from Lancaster University concluded we were doing too many Section 47’s in what he described as a smacking city. The Team was disbanded off the back of that paper. 3 years later that Authority ended up in Special Measures…….

    I’m not saying it was related to that decision. However, in my view it did relate to senior managers not listening to staff and partner agencies and a lack of understanding of the local culture.

    Once again, the merry go round turns full circle but no matter which systems are in place, unless government attitudes and policy undergo a radical overhaul and managers and senior managers are experienced and capable, very little will change

  19. eggypants May 24, 2022 at 10:26 am #

    The only thing I can smell is the path to privatisation oh and a bit of BS

  20. Rob May 27, 2022 at 8:25 am #

    You cannot think critically if you are exhausted.

    You cannot think critically through a zoom call.

    You cannot think critically if you are waiting for your manager to call yet again to ask/pressure you into taking more work on… if I do this I will burn out, if I don’t… it will be given to the NQSWs who cannot yet say no and they will burn out.

    You cannot think critically if you spend most of your day working and neglecting your own family.

    I honestly hate that I am stuck in this profession. Not because of the families… but because of the cartel (and this is how I see it) of senior managers (Ofsted, gov advisors, researchers, universitys, grad schemes) who sit a top of this crumbling system lining their pockets.

    What we have is a Russian type of kleptocracy in children’s social care with: Gove, Trowler, Deloitte, and company, all with their snouts in the trough of public money giving nothing but taking everything.

    P.S. Community Care you need to be much more critical of all this.

    • Curlygirly May 28, 2022 at 7:05 pm #

      I agree. Much more investigative journalism from CC and others is needed to highlight the political masters who exploit and denigrate social work. The work of Christian Kerr and Joe Hanley needs to be much more mainstream.

  21. Andy May 27, 2022 at 12:47 pm #

    I think CC is way down the list of who should be critical of our political masters. Start with holding our ‘leaders’, our managers, our PSWs to account before journalists.

  22. Kat June 7, 2022 at 8:55 am #

    The response to the Review from Assn Directors of Childrens “We didn’t design the ‘old system’ and are not the custodians of it” is not impressive. A major review has set out huge problems with the services they all lead and this is their first comment – nothing to do with me!!!
    It is no wonder workers dont feel supported with a response like this from directors (on a 3 figure salary) who lead them – what are you guys doing to change the current system? – Never mind waiting for outsiders to come in and do reviews!