Baby P

I work with children with disabilities. Part of my job, as someone who works with children, is to be on the look out for children who are at risk – and to take every possible action to ensure that they’re protected when something goes wrong, or could go wrong.

The death of ‘Baby P’ is tragic and upsetting, and I’ve done what many health and social care professionals will have done – I’ve gone through the timeline and tried to work out who made a mistake and when. Having done that, I’m still not sure what happened. It may be that individuals did make mistakes; I’m not certain, and it’ll take a detailed independent enquiry to know.  When individuals get it wrong, though, there’s almost always a bigger picture. The tabloids are shrieking for individual social workers to be sacked. That’s just pointless and stupid.

The sense of responsibility and the understanding of what can happen to a child when you make a mistake are really difficult sometimes. I’m lucky – I deal with child protection cases occasionally. For social workers, they make incredibly complex and difficult judgement calls on pretty much a daily basis. This isn’t a job I’d want to do.

A senior social worker in Haringey has complained about huge caseloads and a culture of bullying. That isn’t the best work environment to be making life and death decisions on behalf of vulnerable children. If we want to stop tragedies like this happening, we have to make sure that social workers get the resources and the support they need.

Haringey isn’t alone in this. I’ve worked with social workers in a few London boroughs now, and they have genuinely shocking stories to tell. Caseloads way too big to allow social workers to do a careful and safe job are now the norm. A lot of social workers – maybe including the best people – get out because they hate not being able to safeguard children in the way they want to.

There are other problems. I know of at least one area that’s gone down a ‘skill mix’ route, so a lot of the frontline work is done by unqualified staff. Qualified social workers are employed mainly in a supervisory role. Sensible? Not really. The pressure on all staff in this situation is sky high. The risks to children are increased. Senior managers claim it’s a high quality service. They must know that isn’t true.

A social worker told me once of the constant pressure that she and colleagues were under to get children off the child protection register. I couldn’t understand this, and asked why. She explained that if a child died or was seriously injured while they were on the register, the Social Services Department would be considered more culpable than if they could show they’d assessed, intervened, sorted everything out – and got the child off the register. In a target driven system, the illusion had become more important than the reality. It’s senior managers who determine the culture of a social work department. Downplaying risk and managing budgets can co-exist quite nicely.

Health visitors have always played an incredibly important role in child protection work, too. This used to be a supportive ‘public health’ role – giving the ongoing universal support that prevents neglect and abuse. We can’t afford that in a modern NHS, apparently. Numbers of health visitors are at a record low, and services are directed only at the families where things have already gone wrong – but typically with completely inadequate resources to do a decent job. The health visitors I work with tell me routinely of the massive caseloads and the stress levels that are now routine in the profession. This is about Government policy and the decisions made by strategic managers in the NHS – but it’s individual children who pay the price when the modernisation and ‘reforms’ let them down.

There’s other stuff that’s just plain daft. In April this year, the Government imposed a 32-fold increase (yes, 32-fold) in the court fees charged for care proceedings. It used to cost £150. It now costs £4,825. Cafcass, the children’s legal charity, has found that 600 fewer applications have been made by local authorities to take children into care compared with the equivalent six month period last year. It may be coincidence – or it may be that Government policy has placed an additional 600 children at risk.

And it’s genuinely appalling that one in three children in the UK lives in poverty. The Government had promised to halve child poverty by 2010 and end it altogether by 2020. Without a fundamental policy change, this is now an impossibility. The thing that was unusual about the Baby P tragedy was the apparent sadism and deliberate violence from the adults involved. In the abuse and neglect cases I’ve known, children have been harmed when families are under pressure, not coping, and needing support. Poverty and rotten housing are big, big factors in this. I was disgusted to see Labour careerists Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper attacking the concept of a London living wage earlier this month. Apparently paying Londoners £7.45 an hour is not “necessary or appropriate”. It’s hard to know if this is stupidity or ignorance – but these people aren’t going to safeguard the interests of small children any time soon.

Is it all bad news? No – and this needs saying too. The Laming enquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié changed things for the better. Communication between teachers, a range of health workers, and social workers has improved out of all recognition. Training and support and systems to give backup to professionals who are worried about a child – all of these things are significantly better than they used to be. Laming’s recommendations have almost certainly saved lives.

Laming didn’t fix everything, though. His 2003 report was powerful because of its breadth and its honesty. He argued that you can’t separate the protection of children and support for their families, and that the best protection for children is often achieved by the timely intervention of family support services. That means adequate resources and enough skilled staff. My experience is that often it’s still very, very hard to get the right support put in place.

Laming also fiercely attacked the senior managers and strategic decision makers who leave children at risk by passing the buck. His comment five years ago was, ‘…the greatest failure rests with the managers and senior members of the authorities whose task it was to ensure that services for children, like Victoria, were properly financed, staffed, and able to deliver good quality support to children and families’.

Some lessons were learned after Victoria Climbié died – but there’s a long way to go yet.

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