Tag Archives: child protection

Where next for vetting and barring scheme?

As the new government continues to unpick the legislation put in place by the old Labour administration, today it is the turn of the vetting and barring scheme (VBS).

When the government unveiled its policy plans last month, it said that it would be launching a review of the VBS, with a view to scaling it back to “common sense levels”, whatever that means.

Now, with the scheme set to roll out in 6 weeks time, the government has postponed it until after the review is completed – when this will be has not been announced.

I suspect that this move will be warmly received by those involved with children and vulnerable adults at all levels, because the scheme has never garnered much popularity.

When it was first announced, there was outcry in the national media, with concerns that authors visiting schools and even parents who give lifts to their children’s friends when going to football practice would have to register. It was said to be disproportionate, overly burdensome and infringed on civil liberties

Sir Roger Singleton, head of the Independent Safeguarding Authority and – as of today – the ex-adviser to the government on the safety of children, completed a review of it and watered down measures such as those mentioned above, to widespread approval, although many felt there were still other problems that were not addressed.

For example, I spoke to Sue White, professor of social work at Lancaster University, who was concerned that decisions about whether or not to bar someone were down to 200 case workers based in Darlington, who would be using ‘soft’ information about the applicant, such as work history, arrests where no charges were bought, and any unfounded allegations in their judgement process.

Prof White didn’t believe that those case workers could make such important decisions – which a forensic psychiatrist or experienced social worker could struggle with – based on information on pieces of paper.

Others, such as Andrew Holman from Inspired Services, an accessible information provider, were worried about the potential effects on employment, especially of people with learning disabilities. He said the VBS did not make clear whether employers or employees working with vulnerable adults had to register with the scheme. As a result, he believed most employers would err on the side of caution and not employ someone with learning disabilities.

This matter was further complicated because there is no concrete definition of what constitutes a ‘vulnerable adult’. Indeed, many people with learning disabilities would refute such a negative label.

That was just 2 of the concerns I have heard about the scheme. I suspect those 2 issues will be addressed in the review, although with no concrete detail (as yet) on what the review will focus on, this is just speculation.

In addition, I think the review will play to the populist vote, so it will look at scaling back the numbers involved, currently said to be 9 million, so the definition of ‘frequent’ contact – currently once a week – will be revised backwards.

Any measure that involves parents registering – such as those who help out at a children’s centre – will also go by the wayside.

But whatever is involved, the reviewers will have their work cut out to devise a scheme that does help to keep children and vulnerable adults safe, but isn’t seen to be too draconian or too lenient – it is a fine balancing act. Imagine the outcry if there is another Ian Huntley.

But whatever the review comes up with, while it will stop people with a history of abuse getting jobs that allow them contact with children/vulnerable adults, it still won’t stop then – they will just find other ways to access them.

So, allied to the VBS, surely there is no substitute for teaching children how to keep themselves as safe as possible as well as old-fashioned vigilance from parents and carers, as well as, as former rugby star Brian Moore, who suffered abuse himself as a child, called for in the recent Panorama programme Are You a Danger to Kids?, mechanisms to ensure abused children can come forward in confidence to report what has happened?

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Yet another review of child protection coming

Child protection still isn’t working well enough. That’s the message from the Department for Education today, and, as is traditional with such things, is setting up a review of the profession to address this.

But the focus of the review is not on the quality of social workers, but on cutting bureaucracy and the barriers that prevent social workers spending more time with vulnerable children.

“Hallelujah” I hear social workers cry…

So, could this be an end to the much-disliked ‘box-ticking culture’ that has developed within social work in recent years? Let’s hope so. I’ve spoken to many in the profession over the past couple of years, and a constant theme is the amount of admin and paperwork they have to do – some have said it is as much as an 80-20 split on paperwork to spending time with children.

The initial signs that change might be coming are good. For example, the choice of Professor Eileen Munro to lead the review is positive. She is well respected within the profession and will not pull any punches or follow any particular political agendas.

In addition, the review will be informed by successful child protection systems from other countries.

The review will also look at how effectively children’s social workers and professionals in other agencies work together. From what I have written in the past, this is patchy – some are very good, others not, with a whole range of issues affecting this – but a drive to remove barriers to working together more makes sense – they are all pursuing the same goal, after all.

Nevertheless, social workers are in general a cynical bunch and will greet this review like they have greeted others in the recent past: I’ll believe it when I see it.

Many reviews have come and gone in children’s social work – most recently the Social Work Task Force – and often they have had little effect on frontline practice. I imagine this will be treated in the same manner until things actually start to change.

Elsewhere, children’s minister Tim Loughton also confirmed that serious case reviews are to be published in full but with redactions and anonymised ‘except where it would affect the welfare of any surviving children and their siblings’ and that ContactPoint is to be scrapped.

Both these are controversial. I won’t go over my standpoint on SCRs again – see SCRs – to publish or not to publish for that. But it does seem odd that the government is advocating more integrated working, but at the same time getting rid of ContactPoint, a database that should help that. It also seems like a huge waste of money, given the millions spent on it – and will anything be put in its place?

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Panorama sums up vetting and barring complexity

Last night’s Panorama ‘Are You a Danger to Kids?’ on BBC1 gave a pretty balanced assessment of the government’s new Vetting and Barring Scheme (V&BS).

While the focus was clearly on the child protection aspect, rather than vulnerable adults – as with the majority of mainstream media coverage – it outlined many of the pros and cons of the scheme in an accessible way. It didn’t go down the emotive route either – no stories about children killed by paedophiles were used, which would have been an easy trap to fall into.

Part of the aim of the programme was to inform viewers of exactly what it is and who will need to register under it – there is still a lot of confusion about it among the public – but it did not ignore some of the harder questions the scheme raises.

For instance, I was interested to see the vetting process investigated, especially that the case workers who will decide the majority of applications will be able to access ‘soft’ information about the applicant, such as work history, arrests where no charges were bought, and any unfounded allegations.

This is usually skipped over by the media and it was good to see the concerns highlighted, including the human rights angle and whether someone in an office in Darlington can make a correct decision based – in some cases – on rumour. The Independent Safeguarding Authority, which is in charge of the scheme, disputes these concerns.

A quick conclusion from the programme: the V&BS does have its faults – not least that it won’t stop predatory paedophiles – but it will give some assurances and help to ensure that those with convictions can’t get into jobs that give them easy access to children or vulnerable adults. It is hard to argue that this isn’t a good thing.

However, as former rugby star Brian Moore, who suffered abuse himself as a child, pointed out, there needs to be mechanisms to ensure abused children can come forward in confidence to report what has happened, and this doesn’t do that. Surely there should be more focus on this, as well as giving children the knowledge of how to keep themselves safe?

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SCRs: to publish or not to publish?

In the fallout from the Edlington case – where 2 brothers subjected 2 other children to a sustained attack – aspects of social services have again come under the public microscope. This time, it is serious case reviews (SCRs).

The Conservatives, and others, have called for the full Edlington case SCR to be published, rather than just the summary. Labour has rejected these calls.

As reported by the BBC last week, Conservative leader David Cameron believes fully-published SCRs would lead to a greater understanding of what went wrong and result in quicker action to prevent such events happening again in the future.

In the report, he said: “There is a sense at the moment that it is a sort of establishment stitch-up where all the people who have taken part in this issue are not named, they are not having to take proper responsibility, the public isn’t able to see what has gone wrong and the pressure isn’t there to put it right.”

It seems to me that Cameron is indicating that SCRs should be about ‘naming and shaming’ – to use a tabloid buzzphrase – and damning those who were at fault for the case going wrong. The assumption being that the SCR is there to do that and that there is always someone to point the finger at.

There is a common misconception that SCRs are there to apportion blame. They aren’t. They are – or should be – about learning from mistakes so they don’t happen again in the future. They apply to local conditions and social work practice – out of this context they lose some of their relevance. This should be explained better by the sector.

Secondly, cases are anonymised for a reason; there are child protection factors to be considered, as well as protecting the social care professionals involved. If they were public, would the media pass up the chance to splash the details? The Baby Peter case, for one, indicates otherwise.

Social workers do take proper responsibility; if there is proved to be negligent practice, for instance, they are disciplined. But again, that is not the job of the SCR.

I would argue also that there is pressure to “put things right”, not only from the public, but from within the sector. Ofsted makes regular inspections and there was the recent Social Work Task Force report, but surely all social workers want to ensure that practice is as good as practically possible?

SCRs are not perfect by any means – critics say they often focus on protocol rather than frontline practice – but to open them up fully could create more problems than it solves.

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Baby P effect sustained

For about a year now, social workers have been talking about the ‘Baby P effect’ – the rise in applications for children to be taken into care. While many thought it would be a temporary blip, which would die down when the furore over the case did, it is proving to be sustained.

Care demand from April to December 2009 was 46.1% higher than the same period in 2008, according to Cafcass, the organisation that represents children’s interests in the family courts. November 2009 saw 753 care applications – the third highest monthly figure since Cafcass records began in 2005.

Not only this, but Cafcass reports that applications are starting to stabilise at this higher level.

These figures can be viewed as something of a double-edged sword. On the plus side, it means more children are being protected and not left in potentially harmful situations.

Also, while this news could be grist to the mill of the anti-children’s social work brigade – those who perceive children’s social workers as child snatchers – a Cafcass survey also concluded that local authorities had taken the appropriate action in making the applications. While the survey did attribute the increases to the Baby P effect, it doesn’t mean that they are making spurious applications.

It also should be remembered that this still represents a tiny minority of the children who come into contact with social services.

But, as ever, there is a downside. And, as usual, it’s money, or the lack of it; the Local Government Association estimates that the cost of taking children into care will rise by £226 million this financial year.

With local authorities already tightening their budgets in anticipation of swingeing cuts in 2011, and also having to find £250 million in ‘efficiency savings’ to fund the government’s free personal care at home policy, this is extra expenditure they can literally ill afford.

Ironically, there is talk of early intervention schemes being cut to pay for the increase in children being taken into care – which could cause more problems than it solves, given that prevention is usually better (and cheaper) than cure.

However, what cannot be allowed to happen is social workers avoiding, or being discouraged from, making applications because of cost concerns. There was anecdotal talk of this happening in some local authorities pre-Baby P and it cannot happen again.

Child protection is paramount and local authorities – and government – need to find the resources to do this without impacting on other services. But whether they will, or can, is another matter.

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Children’s social work in balanced TV show shocker

At last, a terrestrial TV programme about children’s social work that provided an accurate portrayal of the day-to-day work of those on the frontline.

Last night’s Panorama programme (http://news.bbc.co.uk/panorama/hi/) on child protection social workers in Coventry was a welcome snapshot of social work teams; overworked, dealing with complex cases where the truth is hard to find and – crucially – dedicated to protecting children.

Social workers have been on the receiving end of some astonishing vitriol from some members of the public – who I’ll wager have no idea of what really goes on in a child protection team – in the months following Baby P, and this should have given the critics food for thought.

While there is a long way to go to improve the perception of social workers among the public – the overwhelming tide of social work news is still negative – this was a good start.

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