Fixing ‘Broken Britain’?

In March this year, Lord Laming reported on the progress made in child protection since his own report into the death of Victoria Climbié, published in 2003. Laming, a former head of the social services inspectorate, was disappointed with the continuing failings of the system, lamenting that ‘it cannot be beyond our wit to put in place ways of identifying early those children at risk of deliberate harm, and to put in place the means of securing their safety and proper development’.

Laming added that society should ‘support children as soon as they are recognised as being “in need”, averting escalation to the point at which families are in crisis’.

Some of this is common sense. Family support is something that social services have been doing for a very long time. How well they do it and how it relates to other aspects of social work such as child protection and taking kids into care is a point for debate.

But early intervention is something else, because it suggests that we can not only foresee the risks children face – whether it be abuse or a life of crime – but that we can act early and decisively to prevent those ‘bad things’ from happening. A letter from assorted ‘experts’, politicians and children’s organisations, for instance, published in the Guardian following the Baby P case, called for a ‘long-term inquiry to examine how we can stop some of today’s children becoming the abusing parents of tomorrow’ (1). The government’s flagship extended schools, which provide additional services on top of regular schooling, and Sure Start children’s centres are built entirely on the notion that by intervening early in children’s and families’ lives, problems (and problem families) can be nipped in the bud.

But we can never intervene early enough or extensively enough to protect all children all of the time. And nor should we. The Guardian‘s Polly Toynbee asks ‘Is every child death preventable?’ She responds to her own question: ‘Possibly. But it would come at a social cost the likes of the Mail and the Sun would certainly not tolerate.’ (2) Minette Marrin, writing in The Times (London), agrees: ‘We could do something, if we as a society would accept some extreme intrusions into our personal freedom. And if we can’t tolerate such measures, then I think we have to accept there is indeed not much we can do to stop something like this happening again’ (3).

To his credit Laming recognises this. It ‘would be unreasonable to expect that the sudden and unpredictable outburst by an adult towards a child can be prevented’, but he argues that this is not the same as the ‘failure to protect a child or young person already identified as being in danger of deliberate harm’. This isn’t the prevailing view amongst the bulk of self-appointed experts in the media, in the child protection industry and in the political class.

For example, Minette Marrin makes the remarkable claim that, ‘the neglect and abuse of babies and children damage them not just in some loose psychological way, as everyone has always assumed. It also damages them physically; it permanently affects the development of their brains, leaving them with cognitive and emotional impairments that will cause grave problems to themselves and others.’

There is a very real danger that such wrong-headed and unfounded views legitimate not only an intrusion into people’s lives, with the ultimate sanction of removing children from their families, but it can also mean giving up prematurely on people with complex problems, that are not necessarily insurmountable (4). The popular notion that the clock is ticking and there is little time to prevent permanent damage creates an unnecessary pressure on social services to act. But for all the messages to the contrary, there is nothing inevitable about the continuation of dependency, or the cyclical hopelessness of apparently ‘chaotic lives’.

Martin Narey, as chief executive of Barnardos (a charity ostensibly lobbying on behalf of disadvantaged children), claimed that ‘It is children like Baby P who, due to disadvantage, neglect and abuse, could grow up to become the troubled youth of today…Had Baby P survived, given his own deprivation, he might have become unruly by the time he had reached the age of 13 or 14, and become the child that so many people refer to as “feral”, “parasites”, “yobs”.’ (5) Marrin concurs, comparing Baby P to the two young boys who tortured, sexually assaulted and left for dead two other youngsters in a quarry near Doncaster earlier this year. ‘Perhaps it might really be best if such babies were compulsorily taken away at birth and adopted. Had Baby Peter survived living with his mother, he might well have grown up to be something like the Doncaster boys, but if he’d been adopted at birth he might have grown up undamaged.’

Narey and Marrin clearly see these cases as unexceptional, but it seems more likely a projection of their own attitudes on to Britain today. As Polly Toynbee argued in the wake of the Baby P case: ‘Everyone finds in this rare horror the “proof” for whatever it is they already think about society.’ The exceedingly rare instances of depravity inflicted on Victoria Climbié, the Soham girls, Baby P, Shannon Matthews and now on the victims of the Doncaster boys are flattered with a significance they simply don’t deserve. They are treated as yet more evidence of just how ‘broken’ Britain really is.

So Narey’s belief that ‘we can’t keep trying to fix families that are completely broken’ is more than a criticism of social workers’ reluctance to ‘call it a day’ and start care proceedings. There is a defeatism about his comments (6) – something that has more do with the profound social pessimism of our times, particularly with regards to the supposedly poor wellbeing of the nation’s children and what that says about the fecklessness of the adults supposed to be looking after them.

In fact, just 55 children ‘were killed by their parents or by someone known to the child’ in 2007/08. Over the past decade, the figures have gone up and down from a low of 35 to a high of 85, bearing little (if any) relation to wider trends in society (7). Of the 11million children in England, the latest figures show there are 235,000 children in need, and in whose families there is consequently some social services involvement; 60,000 children at any one time are in the care system for a variety of reasons, the majority of them living with foster carers, and mostly for relatively short periods; and 29,000 children are subject to child protection plans – in other words, where there is a suspicion of, or thought to be a risk of, abuse or neglect, but no immediate danger to the child.

In other words, just two per cent of all children have on-going contact with social services and 0.2 per cent in families where abuse or neglect is suspected. This rather suggests that the need for early intervention is overstated.

Nevertheless, there are clearly some problems with those services that we expect to protect children and to work with those families who are struggling to look after them. That’s why for all his opportunism and his defeatism, I have some sympathy with Narey’s view that there is too much ‘fixing families that can’t be fixed’. While they are a minority of a minority, there are cases – involving prostitution, violence and drug dependency amongst other things – where the home circumstances are genuinely ‘chaotic’ and potentially very dangerous for a child. In such circumstances, sometimes the best thing to do, for all involved, is to remove the child rather than intervening with ever more intensive packages of family support.

Narey is also right to insist that social workers should be ‘brave’ and ‘courageous’, if they aren’t already, and more decisive in their interventions. It might be easy for armchair critics to say as much, but this is an incredibly important part of social work, and of child protection work in particular, and something that is too often lacking, if the conclusions of numerous investigations into avoidable child deaths are anything to go by.

There is a growing concern about the quality of social work practice itself and not just the structures and systems, and about the ‘services provided for the most vulnerable children and young people’ (8). But the neglect of these things is in large part a consequence of subsuming child protection and social work into a political agenda built on an apparent concern for ‘Every Child’ in the country (all 11million of them), and a commitment to a heavily bureaucratic approach to safeguarding them, something to which Laming, the government and its inspectors are still very much wedded.

But as even Laming acknowledges, ‘ultimately the safety of a child depends on staff having the time, knowledge and skill to understand the child or young person and their family circumstances’ and this ‘too often depends on the commitment of individual staff and sometimes this happens despite, rather than because of, the organisational arrangements’. This is why Children’s Trusts, which integrate all children’s services into one big department and which were introduced on the advice of Lord Laming after the Climbié case as part of the Every Child Matters reforms, have belatedly come in for some serious criticism. A report by the Audit Commission found: ‘On the ground, professionals are working together, often through informal arrangements outside the trust framework. Trusts get in the way.’ (9) Good working relationships across agencies and between professionals are indeed vital, but Balls and Lamings’ insistence on yet another layer of bureaucracy with the requirement to set up local multi-agency Children’s Trust Boards (10) only suggests that they aren’t learning any lessons either.

It is the social work intervention itself, based on the sound judgment of the professional(s) concerned, that is key to protecting children from abuse and neglect, and working with families who need support. As Harry Ferguson argues in the Guardian, ‘before any information can be shared, someone has to find it out. And making such inquiries inevitably pitches social workers into remarkably difficult, unpredictable and often dangerous encounters with parents and carers.’ (11).

Reportedly ‘one in seven social worker posts [are] now vacant across England’ (12). In addition, ‘one-third of those studying social work at university do not go into the profession and a further one-third leave after a year in the job.’ Huge caseloads, low morale, poor training and supervision, insufficient resources – all of these things were a fact of life before Baby P and long before Climbié too. Despite recent efforts to tackle these problems, the political pressure being put on children’s services is likely to make it even harder for social workers to do their job effectively.

The irony is that we’re worrying about what social workers do and don’t do at precisely the time when they are seemingly chained to their desks. They spend typically between 60 per cent and 80 per cent of their time at their computers rather than with their clients. One recent study confirmed the view that the focus on the completion of ‘workflows, “tasks” and forms’ and the meeting of government targets, means that social workers spend more time processing cases than doing social work. The ‘complex sense-making’ that is so important to good social work is easily lost in the churn of information (13).

But even this discussion, while important for those children and families who desperately need social services help, detracts from the probably more important one not being had about the safeguarding role played (or that, at least, ought to be played) by ordinary people in their everyday lives. For safeguarding to be truly effective, it needs to be a part of the social fabric, not an institutional response to referrals or a technical exercise in risk management.

Despite our apparent obsession with child abuse and ‘feral’ children doing unimaginable things to each other, the business of child protection itself is largely conducted behind closed doors. For all the column inches devoted to Baby P and the Doncaster case, serious case reviews – the very investigations that should tell us what goes wrong when children do ‘slip through the net’ – are conducted in private. Since Baby P, the Tories have challenged the government to make their findings publicly available (14). Those cases ‘concerning care, supervision and emergency protection of children’ that don’t reach the criminal courts are also closed to the public, and conducted without a jury. ‘In 2007’, according to the Guardian, ‘the family courts heard 20,000 cases’ (15)[15]. Yet it was only a few months ago that these courts began to open their doors to journalists – never mind the public – and even then with restrictions on what they can and can’t report, and only with the permission of the presiding judge.

This culture of secrecy needs to be challenged so that we can begin to have a sensible conversation about protecting children and promoting their welfare, and about the appropriate role of social services in people’s lives. We also need to challenge the assumptions and prejudices of those who want the state to step in earlier and more often to remove children in a vain, or at least misdirected, effort to mend ‘Broken Britain’.

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