The death of any child is heartbreaking and tragic, but when it’s a death that was likely preventable and was due to abuse and seeming failures in safeguarding, it is beyond comprehension.
Death of any vulnerable person hits hard upon anyone with compassion and a degree of humanity.
The recent child death has again raised issues that I have no doubt will be investigated, spoke of in Parliament and will result in a further lip service change in legislation or practice, that will impact further upon the social work profession by adding consequences without any additional provision, support or resource.
So let’s first put this in perspective, one of the major issues in the recent case was that a grandparent raised concerns but these concerns were not acknowledged, properly assessed nor investigated.
Now I, a qualified, experienced and registered child protection social worker, who has worked all over the UK for social care departments in a safeguarding child protection investigating role, as a social worker, senior practioner and team manager, on duty & assessment teams, emergency duty teams and various other longer term teams, have sadly on more than one occasion had the need both morally and professionally to make referral in regard to a close family member.
I even professionally knew the people who took the referral, including the manager of the of the first point of contact team, yet despite all of this my information was only assessed by an unqualified worker and not acted upon. I made further complaint of this, again raising the concerns and evidencing them, only to be told by the said team manager that he trusted his workers.
So why is this the case?
Well when we go back to the days when I first got involved as a member of staff in a dedicated child protection role, I was a “support worker”. This identified that I was not a qualified worker, and meant any decision I thought to make had to be agreed by my qualified line manager, and discussed with another qualified social worker.
What this meant was three separate people had oversite at point of contact. Prior to my taking it to my manager I had to check our records (originally paper ones) and then contact all the other agencies around the child, such as health – GP, hospital, mental health, midwives, health visitors, school, nursery, child minders, school nurses, in fact anyone with a professional or supporting role within the family.
If the initial checks and the information in the referral gave any concern then a qualified duty social worker or the child’s named social worker would see the child. Often this would be with the knowledge of the parents, but at times under Section 47 of the Children Act 1989 a decision may be within a strategy discussion made to visit a child in school and at times if they are implicated in the referral, without the child’s parent, or parents being informed. Quite often a police officer from the police child protection unit would accompany the social worker. This was due to the fact that in child protection there are often two investigations. One is the social care one, identifying risk and ensuring the safety of the child/children, the other to evidence the abuse in such a way that any criminal offenses may be prosecuted.
In the event a child is deemed at immediate risk of harm the social worker, manager and authority can draw upon legislation to ensure the child is protected.
The powers open to social care are to attend court, usually by giving 24hrs notice to the parent (due to Re X verdict ) but not exclusively, and seeking an Emergency Protection Order or an Interim Care Order. There are other options at this stage too, including “no order”.
The police have police powers to remove a child into the care of a local authority for a limited time.
The local authority also can if appropriate and assessed as safe ask the parent to agree to the child staying with family or friends during the investigation, or if a Section 20 (CA1989) is agreed with the parent, the child/children may be placed in foster care or accomodation by the local authority.
Now all of these procedures still apply in some way or other, but now people generally have to ring a call centre where staff initially have a tick box list to decide whether a referral is actionable. It can take hours to even get through to the call centre. It may take days for a qualified social worker to have any oversite of the case if in some cases at all.
Well the Children Act 1989 (the primary piece of legislation in UK law) is clear that lack of resources cannot be used as an excuse for the child’s identified needs not being met.
Sadly though at this point the phrase concerning not being able to “get blood from a stone” comes to mind.
So what’s caused this view of mine? Well in the period of the Conservative government things have changed significantly. Austerity was brought in as a response to bailing out the banks, and with that huge services, resources and support was completely cut from social care.
Local authority budgets suffered not only from cuts but due to the Benefits (entitlement) agency cutting out crisis loans, the social care departments under Section 17 still have a duty of care to ensure if a family is within economic need they meet that need. So money that was in a national budget now is taken from the social care budget. More cost less cash.
The cutting of resources I believe is very calculated, because suddenly local authorities were having to use private firms where agencies like Sure Start offering amazing levels of not just support but monitoring were closed down overnight. The synic in me does suspect that many of the new private providers have Conservative party donors in their lists of shareholders and owners, but at this point it’s my opinion as I have no time to evidence it as yet.
Every time we have a widely reported child death (more so than any other, yet sadly far more common failings within safeguarding that have life changing, life limiting and life defining impacts upon children) there are investigations, inquests, public inquiries, lip service changes in law, policy and procedures, with more consequences upon social workers and other safeguarding leads, but no recognition of the need for additional resources, support, and statutory provision.
If you need to take a child into care, it’s always essential you consider family and friends first as is often in the best interest of the child and has mostly the least impact upon them with stability, emotional well being and meeting their needs, however there are times a foster placement or a children’s home are the only options, and rarely a secure placement. Now, this is the correct order, and if you were placing a child with family or friends, you should do background checks of all residents within the home and be as confident as possible that the placement is safe. But if you have to go to panel for a residential or foster placement, you may not find (unlikely to find) any local; in fact you may not find any place available at all. Especially on a Friday evening.
As a social worker you then will often be expected to place the child personally, driving to anywhere in the UK at whatever time of day it is, after ensuring you have filled in all the correct paperwork on usually an antiquidated unfit for purpose computer system, and waiting until the child is settled in. Checking their room and environment. Trying to ensure all their needs are being met from diet, to medication, to social and cultural needs.
It may be 2 or 3am or later, when you get home and even then you must ensure that everything is up to date and recorded on the system.
In the meantime, you are likely to have anything between 30 and 50 other cases all requiring your attention.
Sadly now too many inexperienced and newly qualified SW’s are undertaking really tough Duty team roles. Managing too many and too complex cases with sadly all too often inexperienced and very young team managers. Service managers and heads of service only interested in tick boxes that the government insist on whilst ignoring their own gut instinct and experience. Since baby P, the only real changes have been to introduce even more lavish reams of paperwork and reducing all the support networks.
We live in a blame culture, and the true issues for social workers are ensuring that if something goes wrong they have dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s on the system, not that they have done the essential role of safeguarding.
Child deaths are thankfully very rare, but that’s more luck than good management these days. You cannot cut services in the name of austerity and expect to safeguard children and families.
Most of us more experienced workers have left either by choice or as in my case due to chronic ill health exasperated by ridiculously long hours, unmanageable case loads, poor senior management support, lack of supervision, and the biggest killer of all frontline workers….stress.
Now this covers a few of the issues this truly sad and vile death of this wonderful and innocent child has to me highlighted.
There will I have no doubt be other failings identified, possibly mistakes and poor practice uncovered, and even given all of this none of the responsibility should be focused away from the truly wicked vile and evil behaviour of this child’s father and so called step mother. They above all caused this to happen.
Time will hopefully acknowledge the failings around how this case was managed throughout.
I remain sceptical that this government, no matter what inquest and inquiry evidence, will act appropriately by relooking at budgets, funding, real training, support for children and workers, legislation that addresses the areas currently no statutory law covers, and ending their practice of privatising all protective and support provision by closing down and failing to invest in those either voluntary or publicly owned.
The workers in this case may have failed due to ineptitude, lazy case work, lack of communication and commitment, all sorts of reasons, and if so they need to held accountable, but my professional understanding is that it’s also all too likely that inexperience, poor managent, too high a caseload, and again lack of support and direction are the main underlying causes, and if this is the case we all need to hold the government, the ministers, the civil servants, law makers and the Prime Minister accountable.
No more cover-ups. Time for real effective change.