The success of the government's new child protection guidance will rest on its ability to improve inter-agency communication.
The warm welcome for last summer's Munro review was tempered by a degree of cynicism from practitioners towards how the laudable core theme, to "reform the child protection system from being over-bureaucratised and concerned with compliance to one that keeps a focus on children", would be put into practice at a time when the demand on children's services is increasing as rapidly as resources diminish.
The government has finally announced the long-awaited revision to Working Together, the comprehensive procedure that enables the different agencies involved in safeguarding children to co-operate effectively and protect those who have been or who are at risk of being abused.
Launched with gusto by a government relishing the battle against paperwork, the new document is not so much slimmed down, but more the product of a crash diet. More than 300 pages of guidance have been streamlined into three much leaner documents.
The core expectations and statutory requirements of diverse services such as the police, GPs, midwives, health visitors, teachers and social workers shrunk to just 21 pages. Perniciously artificial assessment timescales have been replaced by social work judgments on a case-by-case basis, depending on the nature of the information to hand and the risk to the child.
The gathering of that information has always been crucial. It is here in the face of the uncomfortable and uncompromising reality of implementation, Working Together begins to run into trouble. Professions must discuss any concerns they have about a child with a social worker before making a referral. Then if one has been made, social services must respond within a working day. However, departments are under more strain than ever as social workers attempt to cope with unmanageable caseloads and high levels of stress.
It's refreshing to see the needs of children in, and on the edges, of care so high on this government's agenda. However, with Working Together as with the government's other major preoccupation, adoption, there are pitfalls in focusing on any single aspect of the system without touching the rest. Social work teams are delighted to embrace improved assessment practice but require resources to do so effectively and consistently.
Also left unanswered is the issue that is most relevant for children and their families: the threshold at which intervention takes place. The significant shift in that threshold has been driven not by governmentpolicy, research or evidence-based practice. Instead, it has been driven by local authorities remaining resolutely risk-averse in the wake of Baby Peter's death, decisions supported by an imperviously procedural approach. The debate about the fundamental issue at the heart of safeguarding, whether more or fewer children should be protected by the state, has still to begin in earnest.
Working Together emerged from a cauldron of successive child death inquiries, from Maria Colwell onwards, that revealed fundamental failings in the system of inter-agency communication, yet sadly these problems persist. At the risk of crude over-simplification, why don't professionals call each other?
Much has rightly been made of the increasing distance between social services and the communities they serve. Far less attention has been paid to the distance between social work and their fellow professions who work with and for the same families. While nominally having similar aims, each not only has different approaches and accountability/decision-taking structures, they also have diverse, deeply embedded cultures that have proved highly durable and change-resistant.
The success of this new guidance and thereby improvements in the safety of our most vulnerable children lies in the true nature of working together, advisedly without capitalisation, in developing the relationships at a local level between professionals who work with children and their families.
Many years ago, before our new neighbourhood office opened, I spent three days training alongside housing officers, home helps, benefits advisers and community mental health staff. The stereotypes we created were simultaneously hilarious and frightening, and it was a relief to break them down. It was intense, challenging and successful. We worked in the same building. We talked to each other. I don't have the statistics but I know it helped children. Invest in those relationships and Working Together will work.
Alan Fisher is director of care at FtSE member agency Supported Fostering Services and a trustee of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering. He writes in a personal capacity.
St Christopher’s is currently looking for new members to join our fostering panel, to help us assess new carers hoping to join our fostering service.
The ideal panel member would currently be a foster carer, or have recent experience of fostering, with the desire to use their experience to help influence the quality of care given to vulnerable children.
Our panel meets monthly, usually on the last Wednesday, and occasionally Tuesday, of each month, from 1.00pm to approximately 5.30pm. Travelling expenses and a fee of £100 are paid to each member attending a panel meeting. As we are hoping to build up a pool of panel members, depending on your skills or experience, you may not be asked to attend every month.
If you join our panel, you will receive all the papers at least five working days before a panel and will be expected to read and prepare yourself before the meeting.
The essential requirements of this role are:
Fostering Panel Adviser
St Christopher’s Fellowship
1 Putney High Street
FtSE Member News: Foster Care Fortnight - Free PACT Guide to looking after children - for day, a weekend or longer
ADOPTION and fostering charity Parents And Children Together (PACT) has produced a free Guide to share some wisdom around looking after children for a short time, and to mark Foster Care Fortnight (14 – 27 May).
PACT staff have collected some tips on how to care for children who aren’t with their birth parents. The Guide is for any one in loco parentis, including grandparents, aunts, uncles, step parents or family friends.
Top tips include:
To see PACT’s daily tips – follow PACT on Twitter and Facebook, or download the PACT Guide to looking after children for a day, a weekend or longer at www.pactcharity.org/info.
Over 8,000* new foster carers will be needed over coming months to support and love the children who sadly can’t live with their birth families. When children are away from their birth families they need careful parenting and nurturing to help their self-esteem to develop despite the disruption in their home lives. (*Fostering Network)
To help meet the national demand for foster carers, PACT is expanding its fostering service to include short term and respite, as well as long term fostering. PACT’s Assistant Director for Fostering, Jean Smith, appealed for more people to come forward to consider supporting a child through fostering.
She said: “If you have a spare room, love being with children and could dedicate the energy and commitment needed to care for a child for a short while, get in touch.”
The last few weeks have seen a renewed focus from the Government on the system of care for children in England and Wales and, specifically, an attempt to fundamentally reform the adoption system. The Queen's Speech outlined elements of the Children and Families Bill that aim to make the adoption process faster and the Children and Families Minister, Tim Loughton, has recently unveiled Local Authority Scorecards. These have outlined how Local Authorities are performing with regard to the placement of children with adoptive parents and allow the Government to take action against those Local Authorities deemed to be failing.
These are all positive steps which build on the Government's Action Plan for Adoption published in March and the appointment of Martin Narey as the Government's adoption Tsar. They also build on recommendations set out by Policy Exchange on the collection of data on adoption.
However, we must not lose sight of the fact that adoption is only one part of the whole system of care for children. Indeed, as has been recently outlined by Martin Tapsfield, adoption is not the right choice for all children who come into care. This makes the Fostering Association's Foster Care Fortnight, which ends this week, a vital event to highlight the equally large challenges that are present in other parts of the care system.
A recent Policy Exchange report outlined the scale of some of these challenges in the foster care system and the devastating implications for the 48,500 children within it. It found that, as with the system of adoption, some Local Authorities have severely lacking information on the children in their care and that, all too often, placement choices were made on the basis of costs, rather than the best interests of the child.
It also found that because of a severe shortage of carers, significant numbers of children are waiting for long periods of time for a placement that meets their needs. Indeed, some of the country's most disadvantaged children are waiting for over a year for a suitable placement. Placement breakdown is also a major concern and an upcoming report will outline evidence from Freedom of Information requests that shows some children in the care system can experience more than 10 and sometimes more than 50 different placement over their time in care.
These failings lead to a situation where children in the care system are at severe risk of poor outcomes and life chances. Only a third of children in care achieve the expected Key Stage 2 level in maths and English (compared to 74% of the general population) and over a quarter of all adults serving custodial sentences previously spent time in care and almost half of all under 21 year olds in contact with the criminal justice system have spent time in care.
To tackle these problems significant reform of the foster care system is needed. These must boost the number of carers in the system; ensure that Local Authorities are making the best use of private and third sector providers of fostering services; and make it clear that the Secretary of State is prepared to take action where Local Authorities are failing the children in their care.
As well as this we need to realise that children that come into care have varied and often deep disadvantages. This means that there is no one-size-fits all solution to providing a care system that helps these children achieve all that they should. The implication is that, instead of focussing on just adoption or fostering, reform needs to come across all of the care system and create a better diversity of care that meets the needs of all of the children that come into it. Without this, we risk continuing to let down the some of the most vulnerable children in society. The Government has made a good start with adoption, it must now be equally radical in all other parts of the care system for children.
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