Reforms have been imposed at the expense of protecting children
A baby dies, a million Sun readers sign a petition and a government swiftly exploits a new platform to further its Every Child Matters agenda, which separates prevention from protection and focuses on children as at risk of being a trouble to society, rather than as victims of child abuse.
Central to this policy is state surveillance of children’s lives through the mass accumulation of data about them. Social workers are required to conduct detailed assessments of children and their families on the basis of concerns, rather than harm, and spend most of their time entering the information onto computer databases.
Those of us who have studied the demise of child protection systems since the mid-90s and the neglect of children at high risk of abuse have predicted tragedies again and again.
Lord Laming’s statement that he was struck by the robustness of the foundation on which current children’s services are based demonstrates how out of touch he is with the impact of his own recommendations, which have led to serious flaws in current practice. Laming, who chaired the Victoria Climbie inquiry, is to review the implementation of his recommended reforms but what is urgently needed is a multi-agency panel of child protection experts to examine professional practice post-Climbié.
The Baby P case demonstrated the exact same dynamic that Lisa Arthurworrey found herself implementing in responding to Victoria Climbié‘s carers when she followed the family support model so vigorously promoted by government.
Arthurworrey said she thought child protection was only for emergencies and, despite numerous indicators of child abuse at the point where she began to work on this case, child abuse investigation was sidelined as a result.
The Victoria Climbié inquiry led to a raft of new reforms which the children’s secretary, Ed Balls, so confidently said have significantly strengthened the framework for safeguarding children. Much depends on the definition of the word safeguarding, but it has to be recognised that these reforms have been imposed at the expense of protecting children from harm.
Social work assessments now take priority and require completion within strict timescales. While these processes, rather than child protection investigations, go into action, there is high risk of children remaining unprotected and perpetrators being hidden from professional view.
Most reporting of the Baby P case refers to his name being on the child protection register yet last April, on Laming’s recommendation, this register was abolished and child protection professionals lost their most important child protection procedure.
The register statistics, particularly related to sexual and physical abuse, had already fallen dramatically as government targets forced authorities to drive the numbers down. Every device was used to remove children’s names, such as them being already in care or of an age to supposedly “take care of themselves”.
Balls will no doubt try to convince us that a child who is the subject of a child protection plan is just the same thing as registration - when it clearly is not.
Some authorities have retained the alert system to hospitals and police identifying children at high risk of harm, but in others this vital alarm bell no longer rings.
IT consultants have replaced the specialist child protection manager role as custodian of the register and what was a highly guarded list is now far more widely accessible within the database systems. Abusers will have little difficulty in gaining sensitive information about vulnerable children.
Agencies failed to work together to protect Baby P, but it was Laming’s report that recommended police should focus on criminal investigation, which diverted police attention from the joint investigation with social workers of significant harm.
It was surely this policy shift that led to Haringey whistleblower Nevres Kemal being alone as a social worker investigating a case of child sexual abuse based mainly on children’s statements.
Very few child abuse referrals begin with evidence of crime. Social workers need to work closely with the police at every stage of a child protection investigation not just at the clear moments when a crime may have been committed. Whether the police remained involved throughout the many incidents of injury to Baby P or solely intervened at moments of “crime” requires close scrutiny.
Laming in his review will surely have to admit that recommending the abolition of the register, the change in police role and the database for every child in the UK, has undermined the use of reliable, tried and tested child protection systems and overturned practice built steadily on inquiry recommendations since the 70s.
He should be praising those authorities that have gone against the tide and kept a secret child protection register or retained specialist child protection social work teams to prioritise investigation of abuse conducted jointly with the police.
• Liz Davies is senior lecturer in children and families social work at London Metropolitan University