Applying corporate parenting principles to looked-after children and care leavers

Location: England

Author: Department for Education

Year: 2018

Summary:

This guidance is for local authorities and their ‘relevant partners’ (as defined in section 10 of the Children Act 2004) and others who contribute to services provided to looked-after children and care leavers.

It is designed to help local authorities consider the kinds of services that may be offered with regard to the corporate parenting principles.

What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?

It is easy to be cynical but the Covid-19 crisis has shown that generally we are not cynics. Kieran Breen FRSA argues that people’s kindness could be harnessed to drive agile, creative and deliberative democracy.

When I worked in Tanzania, I often came across tourists in Zanzibar who had been advised by their expensive hotels that for safety reasons they should not venture from the hotel beach area and never use private taxis. So scared tourists would pay five or 10 times the going price to go on excursions via the hotel in the mistaken belief they were protected from hidden danger. Most of these hotels were foreign owned and little of the huge profits they made went back into the local economy. In short, the hotels were scaring their guests and then ripping them off and giving no real benefit to local people.

I was reminded of this when I heard the Dutch historian and writer, Rutger Bregman, discussing his latest book Humankind as part of the RSA’s Bridges to the Future series of podcasts. He argues we have been misled into believing that beneath the veneer of civilisation, people are individualistic, selfish and cruel, and that we need a strong and controlling state to keep us all in order. As the seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously wrote, life without the state would be “nasty, brutish and short”.

Bregman disagrees and argues most people are kind and cooperative and it is this ability to cooperate that gives humankind its added advantage. The widespread community-led response to the Covid-19 pandemic suggests he is right. Across our cities and towns people have been looking after one and other through organic social action groups. As I have argued elsewhere, the lack of red tape, rules, working directives combined with enthusiasm, motivation and human connection all powered by the internet made this happen. It has been living proof that those best able to cooperate survive. Ingenuity, collaboration and a sense of community have been at the heart of it.

As we start to consider life after the pandemic there does seem to be a real desire to think about new ways of doing politics and of addressing the inequalities that the pandemic has thrown a harsh light on. Recent ONS data (from the 22 May) shows that people are expecting a kinder and more united and equal society to grow out of the pandemic. Boris Johnson, the UK’s Prime Minister, has made it clear that “the coronavirus crisis has already proved … there really is such a thing as society.” This all seems a long way from the neoliberal rhetoric that has dominated political discourse for the last 40 years and seen a huge rise in inequality. For me, the question now is how, at a practical level, we turn these good intentions into positive actions that reduce inequalities and improve people’s lives?

It has also made me think that what I saw in Zanzibar could be a metaphor for the way people are encouraged to view politics and the world. Viewed through the lens of social and much mainstream media, politics is not the place for faint-hearted liberals who wish to gather facts, discuss, and reach consensus for the good of all. As James Williams of the Oxford Internet Institute shows in his award winning Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy, ‘clickbait’ algorithm-driven attention grabbing headlines are the currency that funds social media. The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica data scandal seemed to show that small groups of very rich and powerful people use social media to manipulate and divide people and to create fear and a desire for ‘strong man’ government. It is little wonder that, post-Brexit, many commentators talk of a UK divided between young and old, graduate and non-graduate and city and town.

Yet, we know that experiments with citizens’ juries and deliberative democracy have shown that when given the facts and space to discuss, people often change opinions and consensus is reached. This does make me wonder – if rather like the rich hotel owners in Zanzibar – there are vested interests who do not want empowered citizens involved in decision-making and coming to a consensus. Might it be this type of deliberative democracy is viewed by them as a threat that could lead to them losing power and control?

Sadly, it is not only the stereotypical tax-evading super rich who are against power sharing.  As Isabel Hardmen’s 2018 book, Why We Get the Wrong Politicians argues, our current political system is often run by cliques in parties. MP’s – or perhaps more importantly the party managers – see their role as delivering their manifesto commitments; even if often they fail to do this. Within this set up deliberative democracy is seen as a time-consuming fudge.    

Yet, when our politicians reach outside their sectarian interests and start to engage with people in a meaningful way they discover the public are a huge resource of ideas, expertise, skills and lived experience that can lead to far more effective decision-making. They find that people can hold mixed – sometimes contradictory – views that do not fit neatly into a manifesto but most are willing to reach a compromise. Which is why organisations such as Compass, the RSA and others talk of progressive alliances, building bridges between people and encouraging the growth of bottom up democracy.

Organisations like Shared Future have an impressive track record of facilitating deliberative processes across the UK on issues such as community orientated primary care, mental health, fracking and shared decision-making. This feedback captures the spirit of the work they do: “Being a member of the Central Blackpool Health and Wellbeing Inquiry has been nothing short of inspirational. Working together with the residents has broken down so many personal and system driven barriers that have stifled change in the past. Now we see residents filled with confidence and recognising the power they have to influence change and how I as a commissioner can and have contributed to these positive changes.”

As we come out of the immediate shockwave of the pandemic we will have to make tough choices about squaring action on climate change with economic growth, tax rates and social care. I would like to see government and local councils doing three things. First, pulling on the expertise of the many community groups that have sprang up and seeking to work with and learn from them. Second, setting up networks of citizens’ juries to look at the impact of the pandemic on the local economy and community and to advise on the priorities and actions that need to be taken. And third, proactively encouraging community, business, and local authorities to work together on regeneration plans.

We know vested interest and organisational inertia can lead to resistance. Which is why it is up to civil society organisations such as those mentioned above to promote new approaches, engaging with political parties, business, trade unions, government and local authorities. We also need to look at how we can further use the internet and new technology to connect people and to drive the demand for a more deliberative and participatory democracy in a bottom up way.

Generally, people’s kindness and sense of fairness means they will help strangers, share their food, do that shopping run and stand in the street clapping our NHS heroes and key workers. Our greatest asset is our people and we need to find ways to nurture and encourage their good will and common decency so we can build a better and fairer society for all. Deliberative democracy seems a very good starting point to me.

Kieran is the CEO of Leicestershire Cares and lectures in global issues and young people at De Montfort University, he is writing here in personal capacity  

This post was originally hosted on the RSA.org website.

Overburdened social workers aren’t talking to children or recognising neglect

According to the children’s charity Action for Children, child neglect is the most common form of maltreatment in the UK, as well as being the most common reason for a child to be made subject to a child protection plan. 46% of children are subject to a child protection plan due to neglect and the number of identified cases of child neglect has tripled between 2003 and 2017.

We looked at 20 serious case reviews published between 2016 and 2018 where neglect was known or suspected to be a factor in a child’s serious injury or death (Solem, Diaz and Hill 2020). We wanted to find out if there were common themes that might be remedied with recommended changes to the way Children’s Care services are run.

A Problem of Definition

The reviews highlighted that professional perspectives may have impacted negatively on social workers’ ability to recognise and act on indicators of neglect. Previous researchers have found that the uncertainty around the definition and different types of neglect may lead to confused opinions and differing personal perceptions of what constitutes it.

The case of Child BW in Blackpool in 2017 illustrates how neglect may be subjective; professionals may vary in their views of what is ‘good enough’. The Blackpool review stated that due to the high level of child poverty in the area, subjectivity may have affected professional judgements. In other words, if it is widely recognised that a ‘normal’ quality of life for a child in a certain area is already quite low, the usual warning signs for neglect may be missed. There is a concerning knock on effect of subjective opinions. Researchers have found that, in areas where there is higher deprivation, the threshold for intervention of neglect may be higher. It is important to state that the majority of parents who live in poverty do not neglect their children. But there is a link between poverty and neglect as parenting is so much more difficult when you have no money and this can be seen as a causal factor in neglect (Byswaters et al 2016).

Another case from Sunderland in 2017 further demonstrates how differing opinions of what constitutes neglect can lead to tragic outcomes. In this case, there was a clear disagreement amongst professionals involved with the family about what constituted neglect, and as a result, no single agency had a clear picture of the neglect the children were experiencing. Records showed a range of issues that would commonly point to neglect, such as poor home conditions, very low education attendance, missed health appointments, sexualised behavior and lack of supervision. Despite such signals, the SCR suggests professionals were overly optimistic and decided despite ample evidence to the contrary, that the children’s emotional needs were being met. This demonstrates that the classification of neglect can be too generalised, and that there

had been no analysis of why the different issues were present or how they were experienced by the children.

Social work professionals in Sunderland were not alone: despite the range of academic resources available to help professionals understand, conceptualise and recognise neglect, over half of the serious case reviews we looked at described how professionals struggled to recognise neglect and in turn act to safeguard the children. Researchers (Dubowitz 2007; Connolly 2017) have found that neglect is still not viewed as seriously as physical and sexual abuse, and often neglect occurs alongside such abuse, which becomes the main focus of the intervention. As a consequence, there may be a tendency for social workers to ‘downgrade’ neglect in terms of risk of danger to a child.

In addition the Children’s Social Care is under pressure; there has been an increase in care proceedings by 130% from 2009 to 2016 (Jones 2016) Despite this growing demand, it is estimated that there has been approximately a 35% reduction in central government funding to Children’s Social Care (National Audit Office 2019). Certainly, with increasing workloads due to austerity, research has found that social workers have to risk-manage their workload, which often leads to physical abuse being prioritised over neglect (Stokes and Taylor 2014).

A creaking system

Alongside confusion about what constitutes neglect and an increased workload, the systems that social workers work within further hamper their ability to achieve safeguarding children. In 45% of the serious case reviews it was highlighted that organisational culture negatively impacted on the practice of social workers. Social work has become dependent on overly bureaucratic systems, which has resulted in a reduction in the amount of time social workers are able to spend doing direct work with children and families.

Following the widely publicized death of Victoria Climbie in 2003, Lord Laming’s inquiry made recommendations related to child protection in England. In his 2009 progress report, he emphasised the immense pressure that children’s frontline social workers are under: ‘low morale, poor supervision, high caseloads, under resourcing and inadequate training each contribute to high levels of stress and recruitment and retention difficulties’ (Laming 2009, p.4). Since then austerity has led to funding for LAs and other support services being massively cut and rates of referrals, children subject to child plans and care proceedings have increased significantly.

Findings from the serious case reviews indicate that those ‘retention difficulties’ and high caseloads for social workers can themselves lead to tragedy. Six of the 20 reviews we looked at highlighted the presence of high staff turnover and high caseloads which caused drift and impacted on the day-to-day management of child protection plans. In the reviews of Baby W and Child in Sunderland the family had been assigned five social workers in the space of just six months. The potential negative impact of organisational culture is further highlighted in the serious case review for Family HJ (Hertfordshire 2016):

The wider context at the time was that the local authority was facing significant difficulties due to high levels of Looked After Children and children on child protection plans, resource issues, high staff turnover and high case-loads. This was thought to be a significant issue in the delay in determining that these children were suffering significant harm.

The serious case review of Child B’s death in Staffordshire found that the teams within the local authority’s Children’s Services were operating as one team due to numerous team managers being off with long-term sickness. This meant that one team manager was supervising more than 20 social workers. In addition, the local authority had difficulties retaining and recruiting staff, which meant that the team consisted largely of newly qualified social workers and agency staff. It was recorded that the newly qualified social worker working with Child B and his family had 43 open cases. This would inevitably have caused a deterioration in the quality of practice, decision-making and case planning.

The serious case review for Bethany (Bedfordshire, 2016) reported that Bethany had been assigned five different social workers within a period of less than two years. This led to difficulty in providing continuity of planning and monitoring, and there had been a tendency to ‘start again’ when a new social worker became involved.

Seen and not heard 

The knock on effect of overstretched staff dealing with an overly bureaucratic system is that they have less time to listen to the people that are the focus of their work – the children. The right for the child to participate in the assessment process is rooted within legislation and policy in England. The Children Act 1989 highlights that local authorities should, where possible, ascertain the wishes and feelings of the child and take these into consideration when making decisions that affect them. We found that in a majority of the serious case reviews we looked at, the voice of the child had not been consistently heard or considered, and that children were not seen alone or seen frequently enough.

The reviews frequently emphasised that children and young people were not asked about their life and experiences, something that was consistent across age groups. Therefore, it was not evident from the case notes and assessments what life was like for those children who experienced neglect.

The SCR of Child N in Trafford highlights a theme that emerged within several SCRs:

The contacts and observations of the children made by social worker 2 and social worker 3 were limited to short visits to the home and none of the children were purposefully engaged in any direct work to ascertain how they experienced day to day life or to establish whether they wished to discuss any worries or concerns.

This is in line with the findings from research undertaken Ferguson (2016), which identified that most of the time spent doing child protection work consists of relating to children and parents concurrently. His study found that a large number of children were not seen alone in everyday child protection practice, and that when time was spent with children, it was often too brief.

Based on the 20 SCRs analysed in this study, it still appears to be the case that, at times, vulnerable children are not heard or seen and hence remain invisible.

Our research suggests that professionals are still over-reliant on children talking about neglect and their experiences, which places too much responsibility on the children to talk to professionals about their experiences. This study found that in five of the eight SCRs where the children were on a child protection plan at the time of the critical incident, children were not seen frequently enough and there was little evidence of direct work being carried out.

Conclusion

Neglect is complex and multifaceted, and needs to be reflected upon in the context of increasing demands and pressures on agencies and the professionals within them. So, if social workers are finding it difficult to identify neglect with certainty and they’re overloaded with too much work this leaves them little time to properly spend time with the children that are the focus of their work, what can be done to prevent them leaving and further weakening the childcare system?

Social workers need training on recognising and responding to neglect that leaves no room for doubt. As identified by Stokes and Taylor (2014), such training should focus on facilitating a more in-depth understanding of child development and, in particular, children’s emotional and behavioural responses to neglected.

Furthermore, until reasonable workloads are in place and local authorities are adequately funded, it will be very difficult for social workers to work effectively with children and families where neglect is an issue.

Clive Diaz – Cardiff University

diazcp@cardiff.ac.uk

@diaz_clive

References

Bywaters, P., Bunting, L., Davidson, G., Hanratty, J., Mason, W., McCartan, C. and Steils, N. (2016) The Relationship Between Poverty, Child Abuse and Neglect: An Evidence Review, York, Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Connolly, M. (2017) Beyond the Risk Paradigm in Child Protection, London, Palgrave Macmillan.

Dubowitz, H. (2007) ‘Understanding and addressing the ‘neglect of neglect’: Digging into the molehill’, Child Abuse and Neglect, 31 (6), pp. 603-606.

Jones, R. (2016) The Conundrum of Neglect, available online at: http://cdn.basw.co.uk/

upload/basw_82352-4.pdf (accessed 2 May 18).

Laming. (2009) The Protection of Children in England: A Progress Report, London, The Stationery Office.

National Audit Office. (2019) Pressures on children’s social care, London, National Audit Office.

Solem, L., Diaz, C. and Hill, L. (2020) A study of serious case reviews between 2016 and 2018: what are the key barriers for social workers in identifying and responding to child neglect? Journal of Children’s Services https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/JCS-04-2019-0024/full/html

Stokes, J. and Taylor, J. (2014) ‘Does type of harm matter? A factorial survey examining the influence of child neglect on child protection decision-making’, Child Care in Practice, 20 (4), pp. 383–398.

You may also be interested in these related blogs:

Dr Clive Diaz http://www.exchangewales.org/single-post/2018/12/06/Under-Pressure-Social-Workers-Leave-Children-and-Young-People-Disillusioned-about-Crucial-Care-Meetings

Dr Clive Diaz http://www.exchangewales.org/single-post/2019/09/20/Children-in-Care-say-complaining-%E2%80%9Cwould-makes-things-worse%E2%80%9D