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Posts Tagged ‘child protection’

News just in from the FLBA: The Report from Francis Plowden – the Review of Court Fees in Child Care Proceedings – was published yesterday. Francis Plowden recommends (unsurprisingly?) abolition of fees for Local Authorities bringing child care proceedings. The Government has accepted this recommendation, and will implement it in April 2011 alongside the next three-year funding settlement for English local authorities. The full report can be read here.

Although I have not had time to read it for myself I understand that Francis Plowden concludes that “the increased fees are an additional complication to an already complicated field and, specifically, added to the immediate costs of what was already more expensive than other ways of safeguarding children. The new arrangements also seem to be more expensive to administer than the previous arrangements”; he commented that he was “struck by how complex the arrangements for safeguarding are, how poorly understood the interdependencies are by outsiders, but also by some working within the area, and by the poor quality of data. These factors perhaps contributed to the decision to raise fees, which was based on a number of misconceptions.”

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Jill Kirby, Director of the Centre for Policy Studies writes a piece in the Opinion section of Wednesday’s Times entitled ‘It’s not hard to spot the children really at risk’. Self evidently it is a little harder than we would like to think or we wouldn’t have had to add Baby P to a long list of other names of dead or damaged children whose stories have hit the press over the years. But Kirby thinks we just need to apply a bit of common sense and – voila! Tell that to the social workers on the front line in Haringey (if there are any left) and no doubt they will wonder why they hadn’t thought of that before.

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With the benefit of hindsight Kirby suggests that all ‘these cases’ have common features which make it possible to predict where abuse is likely to be occuring by ticking off the number of factors that are statistically associated with abuse (single parent, addiction, domstic violence, mental illness, presence of a step parent etc). There must be someone who can design an algorithm (sp?) somewhere. I don’t argue with the stats, people in my job see it day in day out – always a different mix of the same pointers. But its where she takes these ideas of statistical probability that means she and I part company.

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Kirby says ‘its hard to see why children of addicts are not automatically referred for child protection, since the ability of their parents to reconcile their addiction with their duty of care towards their children must be severely in doubt’. But it’s not hard at all to see why this doesn’t and shouldn’t happen, and it’s not in my view as straightforward a proposition as Kirby suggests: What’s an addict? Does it include the addict who has been clean for 2 years (or 20 years)? Does it include those addicted to prescribed anti depressants or sleeping tablets, or middle class parent who has a little too much montepulciano on a weeknight and is a bit sozzled by the time they go to bed every night? I don’t suppose that’s what Jill Kirby has in mind. She just means the ‘wrong ‘uns’. Like an elephant – hard to describe but you know ’em when you see ’em. Except you don’t. That’s what social workers are for: o investigate and make judgments – about people not statistics. Of course they take into account risk factors – we all know that drug use or single parentdom or poverty are associated with poor parenting or abuse. But it has to be explored and weighed up by a real person, a person with experience and expertise. There are plenty of ‘addicts’ out there whose addiction is well managed and who are able to remain competent and child focused and who present little or no risk to their children.

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That was my first objection. The second is this: if every addict, or to take the point more broadly every family who ticks enough boxes, was automatically referred for child protection not only would we be in the objectionable position of suspecting everybody underpriveleged or from a deprived area or background of abuse (along with a good chunk of the middle class god forbid), but the whole child protection system would collapse as a result. We wouldn’t be able to see the wood for the trees. Social workers in Child Protection work are at breaking point already. In the wake of Baby P social workers can’t keep up with caseloads and new referrals, can’t find placements because so many children are being removed from home that all the suitable placements are full, can’t do anything but firefight the most serious of their cases whilst the initially less serious spiral into crisis whilst unattended. As Kirby says in her piece social workers are already burdened by bureacracy, with 80-90 per cent of their working day spent at their desks rather than visiting families. Does Kirby really expect social workers to somehow filter this vast number of new auto-referrals, to be able on paper to work out which families need to be visited by them, and more importantly, to get that right every time? Is that really the way to make our children safer?

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Kirby also complains that the Child Protection Register has been abolished in favour of Contact Point and that there is no longer any clear line between those at risk and those in need. Was there ever? Every family is different: risk is a spectrum, it changes over time, its existence at low levels does not always indicate a need for drastic action, depending on what protective features are present. And besides, the inclusion of children on Contact Point does not alter the fact that children are still registered and de-registered as being ‘at risk’, and for the duration of their registration are subject to statutory reviews and processes designed to protect them, and to regularly reassess what each child needs. That much has not changed. And what seems to be overlooked in Kirby’s piece is that ‘safeguarding’ is not something accomplished by sticking a label on a family, it is something that means different things to different families from popping round once a month to removing children permanently from home, and something that requires ongoing resources and review.

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I don’t want to be too disparaging about Kirby’s piece: she and I would agree that there is lots wrong with the system, and that we could do better for children at risk. But where I would advocate more and more experienced social workers and more resources, she would appear to advocate further overburdening already overstretched resources. I don’t underestimate the use of statistics to inform social work, but I think there are more important things to focus on. And I am troubled by the underlying implications of her approach. Labelling huge chunks of society potential child abusers because they tick the wrong boxes is insulting to all those good parents who overcome their difficult backgrounds. It does not tell us anything we don’t already know, and mere probability doesn’t assist us in picking out actual child abusers from amongst the good or struggling parents – only good and well resourced social work can do that. And taking this Minority Report approach to child protection has the potential to fundamentally undermine our own sense of responsibility as parents, as individuals, and as members of society for our children’s wellbeing. However much understanding we have of how it came to pass that Baby Peter’s Mother caused or allowed his death to happen (her own desperate background ticks all of Kirby’s boxes) her own personal culpability must always be remembered even if it is not accepted by her.

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This piece reads to me as coming pretty close to saying that large numbers of underpriveleged parents are very likely to be bad parents or abusers (we know that all the risk factors that Kirby identifies tend to cluster together wherever there is underprivelege). Marie Stopes once proposed that the poor should all be sterilised (she’s not the only one). Whilst I’m sure that Kirby would never support or suggest such a view, I can’t help feeling that, ideologically, the distance between the two views is not so very great.

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The NSPCC has seen a dramatic increase in calls about suspected child abuse since Baby P – referrals from the NSPCC to the police or social services are up by a third in two years. I was astonished to read that between April 2008 and March 2009 the NSPCC passed on 11,243 suspected child protection cases, up 3,063 on the previous year. Action in response was taken in 98% of those cases (although I would guess that in many of those cases ‘action’ might be as limited as a quick house call and then NFA). But that is almost 1,000 cases per month that the NSPCC has taken seriously enough to pass on to the authorities and according to the information I have read a large proportion of those cases relate to children not otherwise known to social services – so children that had been falling through the net. Its good to hear that something positive has come from Baby P – perhaps people are feeling the weight of their own social responsibility more and making that call where in the past they might have just considered it someone else’s business. But it’s also frightening to think of the numbers of cases of unseen abuse and unprotected children that these statistics hint at.

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The Guardian reports that 7% of CAFCASS Guardian appointments in care cases are unallocated. That is 653 of a total of 9060 cases. The only surprise there is that the figure for unallocated cases is so low. You can’t get a Guardian for love nor money round these here parts, and Judges have all but given up trying to appoint them in private law cases, along with s7 reports from either social services or CAFCASS, opining ‘but what’s the point Ms Reed, they won’t do it?’. Although I have heard of some other creative judicial attempts at plugging the gap it is truly a sorry state of affairs when a justice system that is founded on the paramountcy principle is unable to secure a Guardian to guide the court how to achieve it’s ultimate goal by making orders that are in the best interests of the children.

 

But what I want to know having read this article is – what portion of the 739 applications issued in March 09 (79% up on the same month in 2008) have a Guardian appointed? And in how many of those cases issued in March have the children been removed without a Guardian being appointed or at court? The new duty CAFCASS Officer system doesn’t do justice to the seriousness of urgent removals and I have done at least one ICO hearing where the application was for removal where there was no duty Guardian at court, and another where the duty Guardian had not read any of the papers.

 

On one level 7% unallocated doesn’t sound too bad, but I would hazard a guess that of new applications the proportion is much much higher, and of the 6090 total cases the majority of ‘old’ cases have a Guardian. Crucial – and sometimes irreversible – decisions are made at early hearings in care cases and it is vital that the children’s needs are properly protected. And of course the 7% figure does not include Guardian appointments in private law cases under r9.5 FPR 1991, or the dire situation with respect to s7 reports.

 

Whilst it is right to prioritise cases in circumstances where CAFCASS are simply unable to meet demand, this really does an injustice for the families which fall in the ‘serious but not that urgent’ category, particularly in private law cases where what might previously have been a short interruption in contact remedied by a swift and robust s7 report can turn into a protracted interruption in the parent-child relationship, which is a massive disadvantage to the parent seeking a contact order, and of course a failure for the children involved. 

 

I wonder when CAFCASS leadership will stop telling us all ‘we can manage’ and admit that the system is in crisis and needs an urgent increase in its staffing levels? I don’t know what Anthony Douglass means by suggesting CAFCASS is providing a ‘proportionate’ children’s guardian service: either a child needs a Guardian or they don’t and when they do CAFCASS are ordered to appoint one – there is not then a discretion on CAFCASS as to whether or not to comply. As a matter of public policy a child is deemed ALWAYS to need a Guardian in care cases, as set out in the Public Law Outline. Under the PLO CAFCASS are ordered by the court, to appoint a Guardian before the first hearing in every care case. There is a good reason why a Guardian is required to be active before first hearing – a hasty removal in those feverish early days can have a ripple effect that can affect the direction and outcome of a case and can have a long lasting effect on a child’s life.

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Camilla Cavendish writes an excellent article about (amongst other things) the tendency towards back-covering in child protection and the consequent fear of professionals that many good parents now have. She is right – I am anxious each time I take my son to the GP for a routine appointment that whatever minor knock or scrape he may have about his person will be mistaken for abuse.

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A report published by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust this week entitled ‘The Database State – Scrap it Fix it or Keep it?’ has given the ‘red light’ on privacy grounds to several databases used to track children for child protection purposes, namely ContactPoint (details of every child in the country and who is working with them – recently remarked upon by Lord Laming in his second report on child protection in the wake of Baby P as a database which ‘will have particular advantages in reducing the possibility of children for whom there are concerns going unnoticed’.) and eCAF (assessment of children in need). The Integrated Children’s Services (social work case management tool) database which has already been the subject of criticism from Lord Laming and Social Workers for distracting social workers from the social work judgments they need to make to keep children safe and filling up their time instead with data entry received an amber light.

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Various articles today but read for example this article in The Guardian. I for one find it creepy that before his first birthday data is built up, stored and circulated about my son which years later may affect him and the way agencies relate to him.

POSTSCRIPT: And now work on ContactPoint has halted because its not secure enough to protect vulnerable children. See here.

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Lord Laming’s Report in the wake of the Baby P tragedy was published this week. It can be found here. Of particular relevance to family lawyers Lord Laming recommends an urgent review of the £4,000 fees for the issue of care proceedings and that steps should be taken to reduce the average case length in care cases. Other recommendations include the proposal that all new social workers should have some hands on experience of working with children and families before being ‘let loose’ on a full caseload (I for one am shocked it possible for this to happen in the first place).

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