No quick fix for the child protection system

11 May 2011 by

The Department of Education today published the final report of Professor Eileen Munro into the child protection system in England. After extensive consultation, the report concludes that the social work profession needs to be freed from a compliance culture and stifling levels of central prescription in order to allow social workers to have more time to work with families and to restore the heart of the work.

Professor Munro was asked in June 2010 by the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove MP, to conduct an independent review to improve child protection.   The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children & Families (Tim Loughton MP) stated that the fundamental review should pose the question:

What will help professionals to make the best judgments they can to protect vulnerable people?

The review was intended to be in-depth and wide-ranging and, whilst set against the background of the Climbié and Baby P tragedies, was the first review not to be initiated as a direct response to the death of a child.

The review had previously published two interim reports, the first setting out the systems approach of the review and the features of the child protection system that would be explored in detail and the second examining a child’s journey from needing to receiving effective protection from abuse and neglect.  The earlier reports had concluded that the child protection system had become defensive due to the strength of public reaction to the death of a child; the readiness to focus on professional error without looking deeply enough into its causes; the undue importance placed on performance indicators and a belief that the complexity and uncertainty of child protection work could be eradicated.

Focus on the Child

The thrust of the reforms proposed by the Munro Review is a stripping away of the regulatory and bureaucratic framework surrounding the provision of social care, including:

  • removing the specific statutory timescales for completing assessments of children, young people and families:  on the basis that, whilst the underlying principle of timeliness is important, the prescribed timescales distort practice – a position that was previously considered controversial by Kirsten Anderson, Head of Research and Policy at the Children’s Legal Centre;
  • revising the statutory guidance that social workers must follow: Professor Munro had previously commented that the guidance is 55 times longer than when it was published in the mid-1970s, leading to a culture of “doing things right” (i.e. following procedures) rather than “doing the right thing” in helping children and young people.  A clearer division between core rules and professional advice is encouraged;
  • reducing or removing national procedures and approaches – such as assessment forms, IT systems and performance indicators in order to encourage local innovation and the exercise of professional judgment.  Leaders in local authorities should have more autonomy and greater responsibility for the range of services and methods of working.
  • ceasing to hold announced OFSTED inspections: because social care teams currently spend too much time preparing for OFSTED inspectors, inspections should be on an unannounced basis only.   The new inspection framework should have a wider remit including effectiveness of the help provided and the efficacy of the contributions of all local services, including health, education, police, the probation service and the justice system.

The report also recommends new proactive measures including:

  • creating a duty on local authorities and their statutory partners to secure the sufficient provision of local early help services for children, young people and families: Professor Monroe considers that preventative services do more to reduce abuse and neglect than reactive services.  Consequently, the Government should specify the range of professional help that should be available to children, young people and families through statutory, voluntary and community services against the local profile of need.  Professor Munro’s vote of confidence for early help services may, however, come too late for beleaguered services such as the Sure Start Centres, which face public funding cuts;
  • changing the career and management structure:  to correct the faultline between frontline and management staff, which Professor Munro describes as a fundamental error in the profession.  The review considers the development of expertise is currently hampered as senior social workers cease to have frontline experience once promoted to a managerial role.  The review recommends that a more varied career path is implemented to allow both practitioners to become specialised and maintain practice skills amongst senior managers;
  • increasing focus on a learning culture:  including a greater emphasis on continuing professional development and a radical improvement of the knowledge and skills of social workers with greater emphasis on the Professional Capabilities Framework created by the Social Work Task Force and the Social Work Reform Board;
  • clarifying accountabilities: the greater emphasis on local autonomy and responsibility should be supported by clear line of accountability, and the review considers that roles such as the Director of Children’s Services are vitally important and should be protected in the face of public services reforms;
  • improving analysis of performance measures – performance indicators should not be treated as an unambiguous measure of performance and should be subjected to greater analysis – for example, low numbers of children being removed from their birth families can arise either from skilled help to protect children or poor assessment of risk;
  • amending the approach to Serious Case Reviews:  Serious Case Reviews [SCRs] occur when a child dies and abuse or neglect is known or suspected to be a factor.  Professor Munro considers that OFSTED should no longer evaluate SCRs as its approach is too formulaic, and instead accredited, skilled and independent reviews should be appointed to work on SCRs.  The panel should adopt the in-depth, systems-based and causation-focused approach used in the healthcare and aviation industries;
  • creating new appointments at a national and local level: a Chief Social Worker, equivalent to the Chief Medical Officer, should be appointed at a national level and each local authority should designate a Principal Child and Family Social Worker to report the views and experiences of the front line staff to all levels of management.
All or nothing?
The review warns against a piecemeal approach to the proposed reforms, stating:
The recommendations in this review are geared towards creating a better balance between essential rules, principles, and professional expertise. Helping children is a human process… The recommendations are ot be considered together, and the review cautions strongly against cherry-picking reforms to implement… The review also cautions against taking a short-term approach to reform – the depth of change recommended in this report means it will take time for the necessary knowledge and skills to be developed and for experiences of working to accumulate to the point where they can be fully effective.  Taken together, these reforms will redress the balance between prescription  and the exercise of judgment so that those working in child protection are able to stay child-centred.” [§21]
This approach has been welcomed.  The Children’s Society in its response, considers that:
For the Munro report to truly make a difference to children’s lives, these reforms will need to be implemented in full with clear support for frontline staff and backed with appropriate resources.”
The provision of appropriate resources will undoubtedly be a major issue, in a time where serious financial constraints are in place across the public sector and local authorities still struggle to recruit sufficient social workers.  The issue of resources may, in particular, be of concern in regards to the provision of early help to children and young people – an aspect of the report that was applauded by Action for Children:

We wholeheartedly agree with Professor Munro’s recommendation that getting early and local help to children should be a priority. We know that quick responses to children’s problems work best through the intervention work we do with troubled families across the country.

Children & Young People Now reports that Matt Dunkley, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services considers that some of the reforms should be immediately implemented but current funding will be insufficient to do so:

 If local authorities and their partners are to invest in early help, in developing the workforce and in developing a broader vision for providing help to children and families, central government will need to provide additional funding to make this possible.”

The Children’s Society, meanwhile, considers that reform is not solely an issue of resources:
It will also require a change in culture that genuinely supports professional practice and does not seek to blame social workers when things go wrong”
Such a cultural shift is undoubtedly out of the scope of anything that the Government can hope to swiftly implement.   Barnado’s, meanwhile, whilst welcoming the report’s recommendation for a shift away from process-driven practice, considers that an even wider cultural shift is required – one that brings the protection of children within the remit of the entire community:
Keeping children safe must be a shared responsibility, and the Government needs to do more to address how we make child protection and safeguarding everybody’s business. The message must be clear to everyone – doctors, teachers, parents, neighbours and the community alike:  don’t look the other way if you suspect a child may be ‘at risk'”.

The process of implementation, even if commenced immediately, is likely to take some time.  To achieve the undoubtedly laudable aim of increasing the amount of meaningful contact social workers have with children, young people and their families, a greater level of responsibility will be placed on local authorities at a time when the report recognises that many social workers require a radical improvement in knowledge and skills and managerial staff lack frontline experience.   How successful this shift will be is a matter of great import for children and young people, their families and the wider community alike.

The courts may also find they face a shifting and increased burden in balancing Article 8 (family life) and Article 3 (protection from inhumane and degrading treatment) rights of children and parents as the changes are implemented.

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  1. ian josephs says:

    There is only ONE country in the whole world where government agents regularly take away mothers’ new born babies and toddlers for” risk of emotional abuse”,and threaten them with jail if they protest publicly .
    That country is THE UK !!!!! What shame,what disgrace,the cradle of democracy the only country in the world to kidnap children and legally gag their mothers ! Who should be punished ? Well,I say the social services and the judges who misinterpret the much derided Human Rights Act and use it as an instrument of repression by the State instead of the protection of family life that it was clearly intended to be !

  2. Alastair Patterson says:

    There is in fact only two regulatory documents. They are the Framework for Assessment of Children in Need and their Families and The Children Act 1989, Guidance and Regulations, Volume 1, Court Orders, 2008.

    The first describes the correct evidenced based approach for child protection. The second describes how that proper evidence should be presented to the court. The HOL/Supreme Court, Re B [2008], says that they should be followed.

    This guidance makes the whole process, evidence based, transparent, open and accountable.

    This guidance is not worked to as social work practice, it as simple as that. There is no other regulation. Where is all this regulation, when social workers’ practice is completely unaccountable. You cannot be over regulated and unaccountable.

    Laming got it badly wrong and introduced a layer of administrative and reporting bureaucracy in an attempt to correct inadequate practice. Munro is removing Laming’s layer. We have just moved back to pre Climbie.

    Alastair Patterson

    Alastair Patterson

  3. Stephen says:

    As a complete amateur I make the following points:

    Professor Munroe is correct to highlight the inappropriateness of the central civil service seeking to manage social workers from afar. Whitehall took control of teaching some years ago and it has made no difference – employers are still belly aching about the failure of the education system.

    Information Technology should be used to support social workers. That IT should have a support role is true in any organisation, be it private or public. It seems the IT used by LAs, which was designed centrally by central government, was used to control social workers so that it dominated rather than supported their practice. This is a fundamental error and is an example of why civil servants must be kept out of running organisations. IT can bring massive benefits when it is concieved, designed, and implemented correctly.

    Social work training must improve. Attachment theory must be emphasised and must inform practice. It must not be regarded as “something we were taught in college” and then completely ignored in practice.

    Some university social work teaching departments seem intent on propogating feminist, or similar, agendas. The field practice of social work graduates who have been indoctrinated in this way tends to be distorted such that the child’s interests become secondary to the mother’s. This can. and has, imperilled the well being of children who are known to be at risk, sometimes with very tragic consequences.

    Child protection (and other social work services) should be taken out of Local Authority control and placed with a national agency. Perhaps the NHS could serve as the model. This would enable standardisation, economies of scale, and shared expertise. It should be free of government and civil service strategic and operational influence.

  4. IAN JOSEPHS says:

    Social workers in “child protection” are now reviled throughout the land as “childsnatchers” TAKING CHILDREN FROM PARENTS WHO HAVE NOT BEEN ACCUSED OR CONVICTED OF ANY CRIME WHATSOEVER ! Instead of “helpers” they are known as bullies who intimidate single mothers and whose main intent is meeting “adoption targets” not keeping families together . For ths image to change vital reforms are needed…….;

    1:-Abolish the family court secrecy that gags parents who wish to complain.
    2:-Abolish “emotional harm” and “risk” as justifications for putting children into care
    3:-Abolish “forced adoption”if a parent opposes an adoption in court
    4:-Abolish decisions by family court judges to take babies and young children into care.(let juries decide)
    5:-Abolish the power of social services to regulate and control contact between parents and children , to censor their conversation or to restrict phone calls.The court must control the frequency of contacts.
    6:-Abolish the restriction preventing a lay advisor from presenting a case for parents refused legal aid
    7:-Abolish hearsay evidence in family courts and require witnesses to stick to facts without “speculation.”
    8:-Abolish the removal of children from parents who have NOT commited or been charged with any crime. In cases of non life threatening forms of neglect such as absences from school or insanitary dwellings children should not be removed unless a written warning has been served and the situation has not been remedied.

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