Saturday, November 15, 2008

Broken Bones, Broken System

At the end of a perfect paper trail lies the shattered corpse of a dead baby. The facts scream out at us. 60 visits from professionals in the last year. Procedures not followed. One on four social work posts unfilled. Silence from the 150k a year leaders of these services.

OK, so, beyond the recycled headlines what is wrong here? I know a lot of people in this world and this is what they tell me.

Firstly, many local authority children's departments are poorly led and badly managed. This creates a vicious circle of declining performance. A friend of mine leads a local child protection team in the East of England. Upon taking over the team, he had several vacancies, two staff on long term sick, two about to leave and a number of people he personally deemed incompetent on this team. `How many strong individuals did you have?' I asked him. Two he said. Out of a team of eleven. And he counted himself in this number. `What kinds of problems does this cause?' I continued. He he told me there were people in his team who had problems with the language and reading the subtleties of communication (they were recruited from overseas), other who couldn't write reports, keep basic records and manage relationships. confronting parents and tended to opt for the least distruptive line-of-approach.

Secondly, according to my friends, the system used tends to create a situation whereby all the agencies get involved and the process is followed but nothing happens. Accountability gets blurred and people engage in blame-passing. The professional cultures of the different authorities jar and communication is often poor. Inter-agency working - the glue that binds the system together- is just not happening in many areas.

Thirdly, there is a culture of `working with the family' which sometimes gets in the way of the necessary hard-headedness to say to people that you think they are are lying and you're not giving them the benefit of the doubt. A lack of worldliness and toughness is common among social workers, I am told.

Now, if this is a child protection team in a fairly well-to-do part of the world what it is like in places like Haringey? I imagine that chaos and complexity of a place like that is very much reflected in the way its public services operate.

Is there an answer to this? Yes of course there is an answer. It was never inevitable that Child P was going to die. There were countless opportunities to remove him which were lost. The local authority has a lot to answer for and, yes,senior heads should roll and the department taken out of council control for a time. Outsiders need to get in there and turn the place over.

I just can't believe there has been no resignation. If anything truly terrible happened in one of my services I would hope I would do the decent thing. Even if the Director of Children's Services was not personally at fault (which I doubt) it is right and proper that they stand down. Just like the Controller of Radio 2 did over a far less offence.

The Government also is to blame. They have set up these `Safeguarding Teams', , inter-agency panels led by the council, which oversee the way councils are dealing with `at risk' children but placed them within LAs rather than at one remove. This is wrong-headed. In the case of Haringey, reports into how the case was handled would be signed off by the same person whose department is under scrutiny. Total madness.

Finally, the social work profession needs to take a close look at how it works. There is a strong feeling among the public that social workers prioritize the wrong things and that political correctness plays too much a part in decisions. Especially in big London boroughs where social work teams do not reflect the local population. We have to support social workers to make the right calls and not to fear being accused of racism or being anti-poor people.

And the third sector? Could we make a better fist of child protection? I am sure we could add something to the mix but I am not sure if the sector's skills and capacities are yet fully up to the challenge. I suspect we could easily end up , if commissioned drawn in the laybrinthyn madness of local authorities' ways of working. Nearly every local authority I have encountered has an internal culture that is, to put it politely, unhelpful to the disposition of its duties. I fear we could end up toxified bv that as I doubt they would give any third party the freedom to operate in any way differently or even slightly beyond their control.

I end my week with two children in the house sleeping. One is just a couple of months older than Baby P. When I saw those images, I saw my son. His soft skull, his simple needs, his beautiful eyes and soft skin. Just like those of Baby P.


Rob said...

Hi Craig, I feel I have to post a comment, mainly - as a social worker - because I welcome the opportunity for a semi-public space to have a say on this latest reason to put my profession under the microscope. I've tried to make my view succinct and not defensive, but fear I will fail on both counts. I doubt I'll surprise anyone in that - we social workers get used to disappointing people you know.

Firstly, I do not think it is either defensive, or 'buck-passing' to reiterate that social workers or doctors did not kill Baby P. Some named individuals before the courts did. It is, however, the social workers and doctors who did see Baby P that have to live with the professional input they had (or could have had). I would hope there was some sympathy or even empathy for that in amongst the Daily Mail-baiting of people doing difficult jobs.

Secondly, I think you are wrong to assume that the facts of this case are clear. I'd be pretty sure we have no real knowledge yet of what actually happened. The much cited "60 visits" is a misleading picture without context of what those contacts were. I'm damn sure, though, that not one of those visits had the perpetrators of this crime sniggering in front of the professionals, disbelieving they were getting away with it.

Thirdly - and linked to this "60 visit" number - did the family live in rural isolation, away from all other human contact? In Haringey I doubt that. So were there not opportunities for others to have noticed this poor baby's lot, to have raised the alarm (though I have to accept that not having the full facts we don't know they didn't)? I do believe that we would all benefit from considering the wider responsibilities everyone in society should have to safeguard lives and not just over-scrutinise the role of social services.

And finally, and bringing this back to the third sector, I think you might be wary to pin your colours so quickly to the 'sack the Directors' mast. As you've eloquently said before we're staring down the barrel of a rejuvenated central state. Regulation and control is the order of the day in financial circles, even the Radio 2 weekend schedules. The danger we face in the response to the Baby P case is that intervention in the lives of vulnerable people becomes a matter of restriction; only ever saying what is NOT acceptable; simply: protectionist.

The principles of 'working with' families - which you should concede are framed within current Childcare legislation, not (as is all too easily implied in the outraged responses to such tragedies as this) invented by us soft, liberal do-gooders - are in the main right. They are less about political correctness, I would argue, than they are about similar freedoms to the principles of advocacy and self-determination. The danger I see is that in their desire to appease mass hysteria, central govt will again flex their regulatory muscles and go back to asking social workers to play baby-snatcher, because we need action; 'whatever it takes'. I say 'go back' because that way leads to Cleveland and removing children from home on spurious evidence, motivated by fear of being seen to not be taking action.

You, Craig, understand and welcome the possibilities of personalisation in adult social care more than most - do you not fear for that agenda in a society which jumps on the bandwagon of blaming 'the system' for killing Baby P? I do.

Don't get me wrong, I think child protection - and social work's role within that - need to be held to high account. On one hand, I think Haringey have been unlucky as I'm not naive enough to think they are alone in facing huge demand and expectation with the less than robust resourcing you describe your friend experiencing. On the other hand, I think they are stupid for not having been the one authority that was being uber-vigilant to avoid it happening on their watch again.

Should the Director of Children's Services go though? I personally don't think so if the good work they have been doing (according to local school leaders) is accurate. Sacrificing good senior managers does nothing to cure the short-termism that is a contributing factor in the problems faced.

Should the social workers be sacked? If they failed to act on clear information they had about the case, their registrating body should certainly take action. But... if they are victims of the impossible position society puts them in - where they are expected to make fundamental decisions to protect children, but to do so knowing they have mimimal resources to call upon and simultaneously being expected to work in partnership with parents, then the finger needs to point elsewhere.

Society needs to be debate more widely what it wants for disadvantaged families, for children at risk, for vulnerable adults and then accept the costs - not in terms of the next horror case - but in the taxation, legislation and responsibilities of all that must follow to make this happen.

Sorry for using your blog for venting this, Craig, but I have been alarmed by the narrow search for guilt in this case. And I think the world's sustainable energy problems could be solved in a second if the knee-jerking that is going on could be harnessed to the National Grid.

I just wonder if you need to add "Broken Society" to your blog headline is my short response.

Cheers, Rob

Rob Greenland said...

Good post Craig, and a good comment in response.

I like a lot of what you've said here but would also question your call for someone senior to resign. I think that in many cases sacking someone senior is a cop-out and deflects attention from the fact that the "system" is at fault, not one part of it. And that system in this case includes us, as society, who abdicate responsibility to professionals in an unrealistic fashion. The system also includes the various professionals who, I can well imagine, are often pretty hopeless at working together to serve the people they're there to serve.

This article by Simon Caulkin is relevant here I think

Here's a bit of it:

"'Problems in organisations,' points out Russell Ackoff, one of the first and best systems thinkers, 'are almost always the product of interactions of parts, never the action of a single part.' Treating a single part destabilises the whole and demands more fruitless management intervention; management becomes a consumer of energy, rather than a creator."

vasjpan2 said...

You know what really disgusts me about all these complaints about short termism? If the newspapers cared, why don't they print five and ten year changes in their stock tables? If the unions and universities cared, their own institutional investing is the worst offender.