Page last updated at 13:22 GMT, Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Will children be any safer in 2010?

By Alison Holt
BBC News social affairs correspondent

Baby P
Calls to improve child safety followed the death of Baby Peter

For anyone involved in child protection the last year must have felt like a traumatic roller coaster ride.

There's no doubt it's been a difficult journey, with sackings, critical report after critical report and promises of change for the better.

The question for 2010 will be whether that journey will lead to a better child protection system, particularly when there is an election in the offing.

The horrifying details of the abuse suffered by Baby Peter in Haringey started the journey in November, 2008.

The details emerged at the end of the trial of his mother, her boyfriend and the boyfriend's brother.

Peter died at the age of 17 months after months of abuse, this was even though he was a child known to be at risk. He was monitored by health visitors, doctors and police, but it was social workers who bore the brunt of the criticism.

Screaming

At the start of 2009, a social worker, whom I'll call Anna, described to me how a stranger screamed in her face that she was a murderer. She had nothing to do with the Baby Peter case, but her abuser seemed to think the job she did was enough provocation.

She was extremely nervous as she could have been sacked for speaking to me. Anna had qualified just 12 months before but was already supporting about 20 children, some were known to be at risk.

It was a job she was passionate about, but felt under pressure and unsupported. A story I heard from social workers across the country.

Ten months later and I'm in Birmingham talking to another social worker. This time I can use her real name - Jane. Not only do her bosses know I'm meeting her, they've organised for me to sit-in on a meeting with a family.

There is still nervousness, but there's also a belief that people need to understand the difficult life-changing decisions social workers make. It is a big change in attitude

Many of the problems identified a year ago are still there. There's a national shortage of social workers, the number of child protection cases reaching court is at record levels and there are questions over the quality of training, but these problems are now being talked about.

A report by the social work taskforce, published in late November, set out a blueprint for tackling many of the long-term fundamental issues.

That will mean in future social workers will need a licence to practise. The report also says the pay of experienced frontline workers needs improving and that newly-qualified social workers will have to do a probationary year.

There's been an advertising campaign to improve the image of social workers. The unions are more vocal. And at the moment, the politicians are listening.

Savings

Does this mean there is a better child protection system right now?

The answer to that is probably not yet. It will also depend on which part of the country you live in, but if all the promises on social worker recruitment and training are kept then in future children should be better protected.

The key question is will those promises be kept?

At a time when politicians have to make huge savings, how likely are we to hear party leaders pledging that child protection will not be cut, promising that however tough it gets the accountant's rapier will not slash through the departments that protect children?

A child who is neglected or abused doesn't have a voice, certainly doesn't have a vote.

After past tragedies, child protection has always slipped quietly off the agenda. That is until the next tragedy, the next Peter Connelly.



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