Page last updated at 10:49 GMT, Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Red tape fears for child services

By Ingibjorg Thordardottir
BBC News

Baby P
Baby P's death prompted another review of England's social services

On Thursday, the government's expert on children's services, Lord Laming, will outline how he thinks his own recommendations for change have been implemented following the Victoria Climbie case.

He is also expected to say what more can be done to protect England's vulnerable children.

But social workers worry that with so many high-profile cases - such as the deaths of Baby P in Haringey and Baby A in Doncaster - the government will feel pressured to order another complete overhaul.

The public outcry about how the cases were handled and the conduct of the social workers involved put the spotlight back on children's services in England.

One social worker who declined to be named told the BBC: "If whenever a child dies we are going to re-invent the system it's not helpful because we spend the next five years or however long it takes getting to grips with the new system. That is not going to help with protecting children."

Climbie legacy

The horrific death of Victoria Climbie in Haringey in February 2000 brought about a complete change in the way social services operate in England.

The extensive inquiry conducted by Lord Laming made 108 recommendations, most of which were adopted in the 2004 Children's Act and Every Child Matters policies.

The emphasis on prevention rather than protection has overloaded the social services with paperwork

Liz Davies
Lecturer and social worker

Social workers now want him to reassert that the Every Child Matters policy is the right one - but look in more detail at certain aspects of the policy that could be tweaked.

"We believe that this is the right context in which child protection should operate - integrated services allow early identification and intervention for those who need them," Dr Maggie Atkinson, president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, told the BBC.

Among the key areas some professionals in the field of social care would like to see reviewed are:

  • Increased red tape and a lack of resources
  • Multi-agency co-operation, especially the lack of joint investigation involving police and social workers
  • The decision to supercede the Child Protection Register in April 2008 with new database ContactPoint
  • Training and support mechanisms for social workers

In a recent speech Children's Secretary Ed Balls said there was strong support for the introduction of the new ContactPoint database. He listed many organisations he said were in favour of the system.

Serious concerns

Every Child Matters shifted the emphasis of social work in England to a broad safeguarding agenda where prevention and early intervention were the key elements.

In fact the word protection hardly features in the document.

Baby P, 17 months old: Died in Haringey in 2007
Baby A, 10 months old: Died in Doncaster in December 2007
Brandon Muir, 23 months old: Died in Dundee in March 2008

Although many in social work have embraced the policy - the sacked director of children's services in Haringey, Sharon Shoesmith, told the BBC she still believed in it - others voice serious concerns.

In its evidence to the latest Lord Laming review, the NSPCC said it was worried the emphasis on prevention "could inadvertently have had the consequences of reducing the focus on protecting the most vulnerable children".

Liz Davies, a senior lecturer at London Metropolitan University and a social worker, says family support and child protection should not be considered as an 'either or' approach.

Instead it should be left to the social worker to decide which route should be followed.

It should not, she added, be dictated by government targets.

"The emphasis on prevention rather than protection has overloaded the children services with paperwork and data entry and social workers are now looking into low-level 'concern' cases that would be better dealt with by other professionals."

Doncaster Council
Doncaster council has come under fire for shortcomings in social services

The serious case review into the death of Baby A in Doncaster found social workers with "unmanageable workloads".

It said 10 referrals were made to children services about fears for the safety of the baby boy and his sibling, but that the response had been "grossly inadequate".

A social worker speaking on condition of anonymity suggested to the BBC that social workers were spending as much as 80% of their time dealing with paperwork and only 20% on practical social work.

She added that the extra caseload was causing delay in vulnerable children being given a child protection plan - often by months.

Early intervention

Much of the caseload has been added since the introduction of the Common Assessment Framework, say professionals working in this sector.

The idea behind it is simple - an assessment should be completed by community professionals such as health, education or youth workers. They would then deal with the early intervention and only if necessary should they refer cases to social services.

But after Baby P's death there has been a sharp increase in these referrals as community workers opt to pass the case straight to children services rather than doing the early intervention work for which the system was designed.

With public confidence in the sector at a low, BASW chief executive Ian Johnston believes that social workers are more in need of trust and support than ever before.

One social worker told the BBC: "All social workers have sympathy with what happened in Haringey - it could happen to anyone. There is always a risk and there are near-misses we all recognise and accept that.

"There is no science to what we do - we make calls and have to hope they are the right ones.

"It can be really difficult - you're damned if you do and damned if you don't."

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