JimCareKnowledge editor Jim Kennedy explains why he thinks we are living through a particularly difficult time in which to be confident about the future of child care and child protection:

On one level, we seem to be following some of the direction set out by the Munro Review, with, for example, the reduction in the length and complexity of the Working Together guidance.

On the other hand we have a mounting volume of Government material setting exacting requirements – many of which seem to fly in the face of the exercise of professional discretion – in relation to adoption practice.

Now we have the Government’s response to Lord Carlile’s report on the Edlington Serious Case Review – into the serious assaults committed by children in the care of Doncaster Council – which, in some of its contents, shows a Government at least prepared to think about further prescription, in its approach to child protection.

The response is not just about events in Doncaster. It also deals with the more general recommendations made by Lord Carlile, which have implications for practice throughout England.  

Circumstances requiring care
Perhaps the most telling of those was his suggestion that “for cases where there have been 3 police reports of criminal behaviour (or comparable trigger events) on the part of a child in a given period, consideration should be given to placing the burden on the parents and the child’s legal representatives in any ensuing Court proceedings to show that the child’s welfare and best interests are served by leaving him/her in the family home.”

In its response to this recommendation, and to the separate one (no 12) on nationally imposed thresholds, the Government says it will be undertaking a review into their application so that there is clarity “on what action must be taken when children's circumstances warrant statutory intervention, including taking them into care.”

In its preamble to this specific planned response, the Government provides several paragraphs about its belief that the child protection system is too slow to act where there is significant concern about risk, that social workers need to behave more assertively with abusive and neglectful parents, and that too many children are allowed to stay with parents whose behaviour is unacceptable.

Am I the only one who sees the current Government position on these issues as having the potential to be one of the biggest double-bind operations in history? It goes a bit like this:

Let’s say we want to dilute prescription and free up social workers to exercise their professional discretion, but let’s make it pretty clear how we want them to slant that professional discretion. And, let’s not put this in the most specific of guidance, because then we can’t be accused of causing whatever problems arise as a result of these not-so-coded messages being followed.

Theoretical flexibility
So, social workers will be guaranteed to get it in the neck, whatever happens.

They have theoretical flexibility in the professional decisions they take: if they feel that more family support is the right route in more cases – and that goes wrong, the Government says “But we made it clear that a more robust line was needed on the removal of children”.

But, if social workers follow the mood music and move to take more children into care, and that is shown to have been a mistake, the Government says “But we gave these people professional discretion and they acted independently, on that basis.”

Given that decisions in this area are never 100% right, or 100% wrong, and that we don’t have the science to predict exact outcomes, practice will always be affected by beliefs, I think it’s arguable that, even if it flies in the face of supposed professional discretion, concrete guidance might be the lesser of two evils.

Perhaps it’s better to have the consequences of Government rhetoric clear and on the record in threshold guidance – than have the profession and local authorities attempting to strike the right balance, without Government ownership of its own expectations, and what they require of the system.

Implications wider than Doncaster
Leaving those specific arguments aside, the Government’s response essentially commits to further work on all of Lord Carlile’s recommendations. Of those with wider-than-Doncaster relevance, I’d pick out:
• The work already in hand, and planned, to ensure the Troubled Families programme is implemented and to monitor its impact
• The way that the new Working Together guidance is said to support local authorities in deciding the best form of joint professional assessment and intervention
• The decision taken (and announced on the publication of the revised Working Together), to appoint a new national panel of independent experts to provide impartial advice to LSCBs on SCRs; and to provide a support programme for SCR authors
• The work with the Judiciary, on the Family Justice Review, to consider the possibility of a designated family judge participating as an adviser in every SCR
• The way the new Working Together guidance emphasises the importance of information sharing and the lead roles LSCBs have in ensuring that it happens (but with nothing said on further Government intervention in this area – one on which I would have thought a central role could be played that would not compromise, but would support, professional practice)

On the implications of the review that are specific to Doncaster, Government has concluded that not enough progress has yet been made to ensure that children in the Borough are safe – although much of the improvement work to date, has been carried forward in partnership with DFE.

Government has therefore appointed Professor Julian Le Grand to consider the “most appropriate structure and governance arrangements” for delivering further improvements. He will be supported by Alan Wood, Director of Children’s Services for the London Borough of Hackney.

Retaining casework responsbility
Professor Le Grand’s work will include consideration of whether an independent organisation, delivering children’s social care services outside of Council control, would be the best way forward.

Whilst this review is underway, the Council will be expected to appoint an external partner to help it address the already identified inadequacies in its child protection practice.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the Carlile review also recommended that all managers in Doncaster (up to and including the Director) should retain some casework responsibility, arguing that more senior staff should be better equipped to deal with complex cases.

Government takes the wider Doncaster recommendations, in which this idea is set, to have national relevance and points to the social work reform programme as its core response. I couldn’t see anything, though, that reacts specifically to the idea of managers as senior practitioners…surely an intriguing thought for the future?