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 Perniciously artificial assessment timescales have been replaced by social work judgments on a case-by-case basis, depending on the nature of the information to hand and the risk to the child.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.
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