Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Decisions in the Irish Courts

It is good to see reported in the Irish Times the decision of the Irish courts not to intervene in the case of an English couple who brought their children to Ireland to try to avoid care proceedings in England.

The Irish Courts ruled that the children should be returned to England under the Hague Convention on Child Abduction and rejected the parents’ claims that the Irish Constitution offered sanctuary from child protection regimes in other countries where adoption without parental consent was possible.

Mr Justice O’Donnell is reported as saying Irish and English adoption law are on the ‘same spectrum’.

It is gratifying to see the legal systems of the two countries working in harmony.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Shortage of Foster Parents

It’s not that we did not know about it. It’s a long-standing problem that has been exacerbated by the growth in numbers of children coming into care since the Baby Peter tragedy became public knowledge. So the Fostering Network’s most recent warnings are in one sense ‘yesterday’s news’.

But these are warnings that must be heeded. They should have been heeded long ago. The Fostering Network tell us that 8,750 more families are required to provide fostering for the needs of the current population of children in care. That’s a huge mountain to climb and needs a serious policy initiative in support. And that means more than just appeals by government ministers for more people to come forward. It needs some innovative thinking, new resources and continued attention at every level. And it needs to be recognised that this is not a just passing difficulty, it is a real crisis that threatens the safety and welfare of thousands of vulnerable children.

The most dangerous types of crises are often not those that happen suddenly. They are the ones that creep-up, either unnoticed or unrecognised, with the situation becoming incrementally slightly worse everyday. The organisational behaviour theorist, Professor Charles Handy, (The Age of Unreason) had a powerful, if somewhat distressing, metaphor for this phenomenon. Apparently if a frog is placed in a beaker of cold water and then slowly heated, it adapts its body temperature gradually to that of the water until the water becomes so hot that it boils alive.

That’s what we are in danger of with the fostering crisis. Someone needs to get a grip.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Thresholds

I sometimes wonder whether people like John Hemming MP are talking about the same child protection system that I know.

The BBC reports that Hemming told the House of Commons Education Select Committee that the threshold for taking children into care is too low.

It’s a good idea just to remind ourselves what the law in England says. The Children Act 1989, Section 31 (2) states:
A court may only make a care order or supervision order if it is satisfied—
(a) that the child concerned is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm; and (b) that the harm, or likelihood of harm, is attributable to—(i) the care given to the child, or likely to be given to him if the order were not made, not being what it would be reasonable to expect a parent to give to him; or (ii) the child’s being beyond parental control.
Section 31 (9) of the Act defines ‘harm’ as ill-treatment or the impairment of health or development.

In many cases coming before the court the ‘significant harm’ will have already occurred and the question the court must address is whether or not it will reoccur if the child is allowed to remain with her or his parents. Where ‘significant harm’ has not already occurred the court may be faced with a more complex decision, but such cases usually occur where a parent has already harmed another child.

I am at a bit of a loss to see how this threshold could be raised. If it were it seems likely to result in situations in which some children, who are facing significant harm attributable to the care they receive from their parents, and which results in ill-treatment and the impairment of their health and development, are beyond the help of the courts. Surely John Hemming does not want that?

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Child Detentions in England and Wales

I do not believe that it is right that children and young people under the age of 16 should be detained in police cells in other than the most extreme of circumstances, so I was pleased to hear that the Howard League have recently spoken out against the practice.

What is even more shocking is that in 2008-9 nearly 12,000 children under 14 were detained in police cells. But the most worrying thing that the Howard League brings to our attention is that there are some children who are being held in police cells for child protection reasons. How many and in what particular circumstances is not made clear, but this is a practice which must stop. It can never be justifiable to imprison children, even for short periods, if they have done nothing other than being found to be in need of protection.

Bye, bye eCAF

I was pleased to read in Children and Young People Now that the Government has decided to scrap the eCAF system – a national electronic database of so-called ‘common assessments’.

I was never convinced by the Common Assessment Framework, an approach to assessing children in need which meant more than 300,000 child care workers could complete a complex and bureaucratic form setting out concerns about a particular child.

Common assessment was designed by bureaucrats, politicians and by committees. If the same approach had been taken to designing a mobile phone it would weigh two kilograms and have a battery life of 10 minutes! And worst of all the truly dreadful form pushes those completing the assessment to make judgements that they may often not be in a position to make. So the quality of the assessments is likely to be highly variable.

I have never seen a scientifically conducted audit of the quality of common assessments. Nor have I ever seen persuasive evidence of their effectiveness, although the last government did not hold back from singing their praises, based on little or no evidence. I think that they are a poorly thought out idea that has had its day.

So I have no compunction at all in welcoming the abolition of the electronic database that was designed to hold the assessments. Not only does such a system risk widening access to sources of data that are far from being dependable, it actively risks breaches of security that might damage the interests of children and young people and their families.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Data anomalies?

I can only flag this up at this stage, rather than provide any kind of explanation, but it certainly deserves a mention.

In my recent post about the research in The Lancet concerning levels of child abuse and neglect in six developed countries, I did not mention that one of those countries in which it is claimed there was no evidence of a decline in child maltreatment was the USA.

I now see on the CBS News website that another study, also conducted by eminent academics, appears to show a steady decline in levels of maltreatment in the USA.

I wonder what is going on here. To understand this apparent anomaly it is clearly necessary to look at both studies in more depth. And I would certainly welcome any suggestions on the usual email address (chris-mills-child-protection-blog@gmx.co.uk).

I’ll return to this topic once I have had time to study the two articles more fully. One more thing for my Christmas reading list!!

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The Brain and the Age of Criminal Responsibility

The Guardian and the Daily Mail both cover an interesting story today.

The Royal Society, no less, has published a report that examines the relevance of modern neuroscience for the legal system. One of the authors, Cambridge Emeritus Professor Nicholas Mackintosh FRS, argues that our brains do not develop fully until we are about twenty years old. 

At ten years old, the age of criminal responsibility in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, our brains are still developmentally immature and, according to Mackintosh, young adolescents cannot be regarded as being fully responsible individuals. The structure of the brain, at this age, means that young people are more inclined to risk-taking and irresponsible behaviour.

I am pleased to see this research. It provides scientific evidence that supports calls for the raising of the age of criminal responsibility. Back in May 2011 I wrote that Assistant Commissioner Ian McPherson, the Association of Chief Police Officer's lead spokesperson on children's and young people's issues, was quoted as saying: 

"To say that at the age of 10 you suddenly become responsible as an individual seems to me a bit foolish."

Now it seems that it is not just foolish - it is also unscientific. 

Monday, 12 December 2011

I do not believe it …!!

There used to be a BBC TV comedy series starring Richard Wilson, called ‘One Foot in the Grave”. The unlikely hero was a man called Victor Meldrew (played by RW). His bizarre antics and predicaments cannot easily be explained here. If you haven’t seen it, I can certainly recommend it ….

My reason for mentioning Victor Meldrew is that his catch phrase was “I do not believe it…!!” And today I know just how he feels. I don’t believe it either, especially when it comes to the College of Social Work.

In previous posts I’ve mentioned the nascent college and some of the strange goings-on surrounding its launch. Well, today I read that, prior to recruiting a single member, the caretakers of this august body have advertised for a Chief Executive, with a complete person specification bulging at the seams with all the clich├ęs and jargon that you would expect to find in the person specification for an advertising executive or even a director of children’s services.

Have they not thought that the membership might NOT want someone with experience of the “robust management of risk” or “customer care” or “business growth and leading change” or having the “flair and ability to understand and tackle the particular issues facing a business start up”? A business start-up, for goodness sake! I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that they will be inviting Alan Sugar onto the board next!!

I know many people would prefer the chief executive of a body like this to be someone who really understands the issues? Perhaps someone who is a bruised old-battler who isn’t afraid of the children’s services establishment or government ministers or civil servants or the media? Perhaps someone who really cares whether service users get a square deal? To me that certainly sounds preferable to Ms Robust-Risk-Management or Mr. Customer-Care.

But there is an even better alternative. A really good administrator may be what is required. A company secretary type who will keep the organisation on the legal straight and narrow, make sure the books are kept up to date and that all the money is accounted for. Who will ensure that elections take place and that the decisions of meetings are properly recorded and executed. And who then keeps her or his own counsel and allows the members and their elected representatives to steer the organisation in the direction that they believe it should go. Old-fashioned I know, but it does work.

The way to manage an organisation like this one is not to start by bringing in ‘strategic managers’ who may regard the membership as just another ‘stakeholder group’ to be managed. At this stage the organisation needs interim management, sufficient to recruit a membership and to put in place some decision-making mechanisms. Then let the membership decide – what sort of management do they want, where do they want the organisation to go. There is far too much that is top-down in present arrangements. Let’s have more bottom-up and we might all learn a thing or two.

And another thing – while I’m still ranting on about this I subject: I noticed that the job was advertised without a salary being specified. "£competitive" is all it says in the Guardian. So I’m guessing that this is a big salary.

There are two things wrong here. At present, the college is spending public money, so it should be open about the salaries it is prepared to pay to senior staff. And in the future it will rely increasingly on members’ contributions – members who currently do not have a say and who have not been consulted about how much they want to pay a Chief Executive.

Stop Press (as they used to say when I first started reading newspapers): I have just learned that the salary is about £100,000 plus some benefits. I think there are a lot of people who will say - "I do not believe it"!

Sunday, 11 December 2011

No evidence of a decline in levels of child maltreatment in England

New research has recently been published in the medical journal, The Lancet, showing that there is NO evidence of a significant decrease in three indicators of child maltreatment in England. 

Of six developed countries studied, decreases in the indicators were found only in Sweden and Manitoba (Canada).

The researchers are at pains to stress that just because there has been no significant decrease in the indicators does not necessarily mean that policies have been ineffective. The results could also be explained by a decrease in actual levels of maltreatment resulting from improvements in services, coupled with an increase in reporting as a result of increased awareness. But we simply do not know.

While these figures may not be a reason to despair, they are clearly no justification for complacency. There now needs to be much more research in countries like England to understand why, despite the high levels of public concern and a history of government initiatives, there seems to be no evidence of a reduction in the levels of child maltreatment.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Improvements at the Border?

I was pleased to see reported in the Crawley and Horley Observer what seems to be a continued decrease in the number of children being detained at London’s Gatwick Airport.

I was also pleased to read in the same article that the Children’s Society, while welcoming the drop in numbers, continues to express concern about border detentions of children and to draw attention to occasions when the UK Border Agency (UKBA) falls short of the required standards.

Sadly there continue to be cases when children, requiring protection and welfare services, are held, albeit for a short time, in accommodation that is also used to hold adult immigration offenders. That is unacceptable.

Under no circumstances is it justifiable to treat trafficked children as if they are criminals. Not until that practice is completely eradicated at the UK border, can UKBA managers claim to be fulfilling the agency’s statutory duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.

Increased demand for services in Yorkshire

The Yorkshire Post reports a substantial increase of 34% since 2009 in the number of children made subject to child protection plans in the region. Yorkshire’s biggest city, Leeds, saw a staggering rise of 157% and rural North Yorkshire also saw a big increase of more than 90%.

Professional associations and charities are quoted by the Yorkshire Post as calling for more resources to deal with these unprecedented increases. It seems clear to me that the bulge in child protection work that began following the Baby Peter case continues unchecked. And it is difficult to see how cash-strapped local authorities can continue to meet demand without substantial extra resources.

Sadly this type of situation is a bit like a pressure cooker without a safety valve. The pressure continues to build and build, seemingly without consequence, but it is only when the explosion actually occurs that people realise how dangerous the system actually is.

I think there is a need for careful research and analysis of how well local authorities are dealing with these types of increases. Are existing staff just having to cope or are more resources being deployed? What are the effects on staff morale and, most importantly, the quality of service?

In a sane and rational world I would expect the regulator, Ofsted, to be doing that. Silly me!


Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Critical Reflection?

I have been thinking about what I should be trying to achieve with this blog and how to do it. Looking back at some of my recent posts I seem to have developed a rather ‘editorial’ style: note something in the news and make a comment. Inevitably that feels to be a bit like standing on the sidelines, watching the world go by: a commentator rather than a contributor.

I have therefore decided to try to include, from time to time, what I am provisionally titling ‘mini-articles’. These will draw on the academic literature, rather than the news, and will provide tighter arguments and hopefully even more persuasive conclusions!

Inevitably mini-articles will take more time to write, but they will be interspersed with the old style comment. So there should still be something here to meet a variety of tastes and needs.

I am currently working on the first mini-article, which I expect to complete over the Christmas period. So watch this space.

Mandatory Reporting

The Irish Government is introducing laws to make not reporting child sexual abuse or other serious crimes against a child a criminal offence (http://www.independent.ie/national-news/shatter-warned-new-abuse-laws-could-overload-social-services-2939752.html). Someone withholding information could be fined or imprisoned for up to five years.

I believe that government and professional guidance should be that anyone suspecting any form of child abuse and neglect should report it, but I do not think making failure to report a criminal offence is a good idea. There is a real danger that the threat of imprisonment will result in professionals reporting cases that do not meet accepted thresholds, just to be sure. That could overload children’s services and so deny some children the level of service they deserve and require.

I believe that the law is a blunt instrument for ensuring that cases of child abuse are appropriately reported. It is better, I think, to help all concerned to be better able to recognise child abuse and neglect and to be more aware of the consequences for the child of not taking action.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Board games

I was sorry to see that a row has broken out in Wales about Local Safeguarding Children Boards (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-16027693). The Welsh government want six new boards to replace the twenty-two existing ones. Local authorities want eight or possibly nine. The government want the new boards to deal with safeguarding vulnerable adults as well. Local politicians argue that’s a mistake.

I think this sort of thing is a big distraction. The design and successful operation of the child protection service is what matters. Get that right and it ought to be clear what support structures are required.

Sadly there is a long tradition, not just in Wales, of messing with the structure and paying too little attention to the service. The Every Child Matters agenda and the Children Act 2004 brought in all kinds of duties and powers and introduced the Local Safeguarding Children Boards in England and Wales. But I don’t expect anyone could name a child who was safer as a result!!

Sunday, 4 December 2011

More on the College of Social Work

A little while ago I made an irritated post about the proposed College of Social Work. I was upset by the protracted negotiations; and by claims and counter claims about who was responsible for the delays in establishing this much needed body.

I am pleased to see that the UK Parliament's Education Select Committee has also expressed its frustrations. This committee has now forced some of the participants in the debacle to release various documents which do shed some light on what is happening.

However. I have to confess, having read these, that I am still not clear why all this is proving so difficult. If you have time, read the documents. May be you will have more luck? If you can see a way forward please share it. I'll publish any reasonable suggestions I receive (email me at chris-mills-child-protection-blog@gmx.co.uk).

This matter urgently needs to be resolved.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Statistical Indigestion

It is a while since I looked at any British government statistics on child abuse and neglect. Today I was prompted by an article in Children and Young People Now to look up the Department for Education’s statistical release “Characteristics of Children in Need in England, 2010-11”.

Reading this document made me remember why I stopped reading this sort of stuff some years ago. To be fair to the document it is free of reports of the dire performance indicators that used to be so ubiquitous in the days of our last Government. But it is still packed with too much data, while any useful information is difficult to extract.

And trend information is completely absent. I cannot understand this omission. Surely what most people want to know is how many more or less children are being identified as being abused and neglected and where this is happening. And they want to know what the trend is over a considerable period (e.g. ten years). That way we would have some useful information for planning services and allocating resources. Perhaps that’s too much to hope for from a government department?

To me the most interesting statistic hidden in the pages of this report is the following:
“There were 382,400 children in need at 31 March 2011, which was a rate of 346.2 per 10,000 children. At a local authority level, the rate per 10,000 children varied from 171.3 children in need per 10,000 children in Wiltshire to 1272.4 in Haringey.” (page 2)
That puts identified need in the London Borough of Haringey ten times above the level in rural Wiltshire and nearly four times above the average for England. I wonder how far allocation of resources compensates for this disparity?