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Martin Sewell: We must trust the professional judgments of those involved in child protection (and not shackle them to procedures designed to protect the bureaucracy)

Martin Sewell Martin Sewell is a Kent-based family lawyer specialising in child protection.

Lord Laming’s report into the death of Baby P repeated a number of the lessons which should have been learnt from similar enquiries from his own into the death of Victoria Climbie, to that of Maria Colwell in 1973. If there is a single golden thread that runs through each of these reports it is surely the necessity for there to be a free flow of information between the agencies charged with the responsibility of identifying children at risk of significant harm.

Unfortunately my current impression of the response "on the ground" causes me concern that the bureaucratic response is not yet focused upon the principal objective: we are not "keeping the main thing", the main thing.

The first important objective is to identify those children with significant risk factors who have slipped below the protective radar. This can only be done if the first rung of the child protection hierarchy are "out in the field" and talking to each other. As a military friend of mine once observed "time spent on reconnaissance is never wasted".

What this requires is for school teachers, health visitors, social workers, police and medical centre staff, to be in regular and purposeful contact both formally and informally. The latter is important because the throw away comments of neighbours family and friends may never have the weight to end up in a formal report but shared in the context of a general conversation may be just what places another seemingly unimportant fact or observation into more worrying context.

Often the staff on the lowest rung of the child protection ladder are the least experienced, and the most vulnerable to fear of complaint. They also tend to know that when a problem arises, the responsibility is devolved to the lowest level.

As a result, we are finding that health visitors are no longer making unannounced visits, they are being told not to talk to other professionals without a senior present.

Record keeping of the mundane becomes a kind of insurance policy to testify to conscienciousness. Human rights worries about breaching the right to privacy inhibits schools and medical staff who may not appreciate the breadth of immunity in such circumstances. Above all, less time is being spent on field work and more on the computer.

This represents a flurry of activity that confuses action with effectiveness.

Few appreciate that now, every application for a Court Order relating to children secretly triggers a child protection response - in each and every case - with a degrading of the service for those seriously at risk.

If unimpeachable parents disagree whether to send their child to Eton or Harrow, they could ask Court to resolve it. That would have the following improbable result. The Court would scrutinise the application to see if it had a child protection component. It would be passed to the Team of Cafcass - the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. They would read the papers again and are obliged to commission a Criminal Records check. When the first arrived the file would be again reviewed, not necessarily by the same member of staff, and the same would apply upon the arrival of that from the second parent and in relation to any grandparent who might care for the child. If Social Services are involved, the same material is scrutinised yet again.

So much bureaucratic effort to so little purpose. It does however tick the box for a high level of procedural compliance.

Cafcass is the body that controls the work of the Children’s Guardians, a group of specialist Social Workers charged with the responsibility of representing those children whose cases have already been deemed serious enough to warrant the institution of Legal Proceedings. This highly trained and experienced group of workers are the very people best suited to help discern the everyday from the seriously unsafe and yet they are currently being badly deployed and demoralised by undertaking dross work under the direction of administrators who have little experience or feel for the true task in hand. It wil surprise nobody that sick leave has risen.

The example is symptomatic of much that is wrong with our Child Protection Services.

Since the head of Haringey Council was dismissed, the drive has been to put in place a raft of procedures of which my above example is but one. They are not however, primarily about protecting children but bureaucrats.

At the root of this culture of complex inutility however are two simple philosophical misconceptions. The first is that an equality of response to all children’s problems is beneficial. The second is that procedures are the Philosopher’s Stone of good Governance.

They are equally false.

It is important to remind ourselves that when Parliament enacted the Children Act of 1989 it placed a high burden upon the State before permitting an interference with family life. The State had to prove the presence or likelihood of "significant harm". The unpalatable fact of life, particularly to the egalitarian, is that implicit in that requirement lies the possibility of some harm being beyond the reach of Social Engineering. With this definition, Parliament laid down that there are many undesirable aspects of parenting, to your or my mind, that we just have to live with in an imperfect world.

Unfortunately we have permitted the bar of acceptability to be lowered, not least by political correctness. We are equally worried about the overweight child as the seriously injured. The one may be a chronic problem - but the ones we are not picking up so easily are those at acute risk of serious injury or death. These are often socially isolated, and their parents avoid , plausibly dissemble, and are often detached from the mainstream by lack of social or family ties, addiction, language or culture. By definition they are cost and resource intensive to find and engage.

Time spent on them drags compliance figures down. If your priority is hitting targets, the low hanging fruit of child protection - the children of the learning disabled - are far more productive to address, though statistically less likely to actually injure their children.

The faith placed in procedures is illusory. A few relevant pieces of data are more valuable than a plethora of unsorted observations, however scrupulously recorded.

If we are to offer real hope to those children seriously at risk within our society, we need to listen less to the Consultants and more to those who undertake the work on a day to day basis.

It is ironic that we have educated generations in the foolishness of First World War Generals who never went to the forward positions to see for themselves the conditions under which they were planning campaigns. Yet when we seek to shape our Public Services, the last people we consult are the equivalent of the experienced Non Commissioned Officers.

Not only is this the best way of securing our various social purposes, but politically the last bastion of the Labour Party is the Public Sector worker. Yet nothing would open them to the possibility of serious change of political allegiance than a promise to listen seriously to their frustrations at not being able to undertake their work in the way they know it needs to be done. Above all, they want to be trusted to exercise their professional judgments without being shackled to procedures that have been designed for the protection of the bureaucracy rather than the vulnerable.


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