Children first: the child protection system in England - Education Committee Contents


Summary



The child protection system in England has been subject to much scrutiny in recent years. The Munro report is a major step forward, and there have been significant and very positive developments and changes in the child protection system in the last few years. In our inquiry and this report we seek to draw attention to some areas where improvement is still needed.

Evidence was gathered before the recent revelations and allegations concerning the BBC and other institutions but the developments of the last few weeks underline how timely our report is. Much of the media coverage of recent cases has concentrated on the perpetrators and not the victims. Our inquiry and report has been informed by our strong conviction that the focus should be on the children and on child protection—putting children first.

We have concentrated on three key themes: neglect, older children and the thresholds for intervention, for taking children into care and for adoption.

Neglect

Neglect is the most common form of child abuse in England. Having looked at both the criminal and civil definitions of neglect, we recommend that the Government investigate thoroughly whether the narrow scope of the criminal definition contained in the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 is causing problems in bringing criminal cases of neglect, but we have seen no convincing evidence that the civil definition is insufficient.

To get a better picture of the scale of neglect, we recommend that the Government commission research to investigate whether similar situations and behaviours are being classified as neglect in different local authorities.

There is evidence that children have been left too long in neglectful situations. To tackle this, child protection guidance for all front-line professionals should include an understanding of the long-term developmental consequences of neglect and the urgency of early intervention. Securing positive outcomes and meeting the needs of the child should come before all other considerations, and there needs to be a continued shift in culture so that there is earlier protection and safeguarding of the long-term needs of children. The Government must be prepared to act if there are signs that improvement in the responsiveness of local authorities to neglect is not being sustained.

In cases of domestic violence, the focus should be on supporting the abused parent and helping them to protect their children, but the interests of the children must come first.

Older children

Local authorities have a statutory duty to "safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need" at all ages up to 18 years old. We heard many concerns that the child protection system is not meeting the needs of older children (aged 14-18). Our inquiry has revealed a worrying picture with regard to the protection and support of this group. This is characterised by a lack of services for adolescents, a failure to look beyond behavioural problems, a lack of recognition of the signs of neglect and abuse in teenagers, and a lack of understanding about the long-term impact on them. It is clear that the system as a whole is still failing this particular group in key ways. We recommend that the Government urgently review the support offered by the child protection system to older children and consult on proposals for re-shaping services to meet the needs of this very vulnerable group.

To tackle issues with perception, social work training should ensure that teaching delivers an understanding of the effect of maltreatment on older children, their ability to cope with it and the long-term implications for their future well-being. Practitioners of all disciplines must demonstrate greater awareness of the fact that older children may also be vulnerable and be a "child in need".

Ofsted should monitor and report as a standard part of all inspections on the quality and suitability of the provision made by local authorities for older children, taking into account the views of the children themselves. We are particularly concerned about the position of care-leavers and the accommodation and range of support provided for them. The impact of this upon their life chances is highly significant and this area needs further detailed examination.

Specialised forms of abuse

We examined a number of specialised forms of abuse in relation to older children. We concluded:

  • Trafficked children found in criminal settings must always be treated as victims and children first and not just as criminals.
  • In the context of claims that there is tension between child protection and immigration policies, we believe that it would be outrageous if destitution were to be used as a weapon against children because of their immigration status. The Government should review the impact of immigration policy upon child protection and children's rights to ensure that this is the case.
  • The Department for Education should be given explicit overall responsibility for the welfare of all children, including those who have been trafficked or who are seeking asylum.
  • Abuse between teenagers is an overlooked issue in the child protection system which needs to be recognised. We welcome the Government's plans to extend the definition of domestic abuse to under 18s and to include "coercive control". Social workers, schools and youth workers need specific training on these issues and those in authority must have a greater willingness to act.
  • More broadly, the College of Social Work should take a leading role in co-ordinating and promoting awareness of CPD training in specialised forms of abuse. Local authorities should nominate a specialised child abuse practitioner to lead on such matters. Where an authority has a low incidence of a particular form of child abuse, they should be able to draw on the expertise of nominated practitioners in other authorities.

Help-seeking by older children

There is considerable work to be done by central and local agencies in raising awareness amongst children of the nature of abuse and how it might affect them. Local Safeguarding Children Boards should work together to establish best practice in raising awareness and ensuring a better response to child abuse amongst older children through the coordination of the efforts of all agencies in their local area.

Local authorities should encourage schools and other universal settings to provide more peer-led support. Local authorities should also include on their websites information aimed at older children on how to make a self-referral.

ChildLine has seen an increase in contacts from older children. We recommend that ChildLine be assisted and enabled by the Government to market its existence and services more widely, especially to older children.

Thresholds for intervention

Our inquiry examined thresholds for intervention by local authorities. There is great variation in how they are operated. We recommend that the Government commission research to understand the impact of varying thresholds in different areas, and whether thresholds for section 17 and section 47 interventions are too high and/or rising in some areas. Ofsted should also monitor and report on the variation between local authorities' provision and changes over time.

Individual local authorities have made strenuous efforts to minimise the impact of cuts on their child protection services but this position might prove difficult, if not impossible, to maintain in future years. The Government should commission work to monitor the impact of the current economic situation and cuts in local authority services on child-safeguarding.

We heard concern from front-line professionals that the intelligence they provided to social services was not always used effectively. The referrals process needs to be able to account for "soft" intelligence and get better at trusting the judgement of front-line professionals. Where possible, those making the referral should be involved in decision-making about what action to take. Children's services should be required to feed back simply and quickly to the person making a referral on whether and what action is taken in response. Ofsted should consider whether local authorities are giving adequate feedback to referrers as part of its investigations under the new inspection framework and should also monitor re-referral rates in local authorities.

To encourage co-operation and mutual understanding between agencies, there should be greater use of multi-agency training. An important component of this would be information-sharing where there are particular problems. We also recommend that the Government ensure that guidance for professionals in all the relevant agencies is absolutely clear about their statutory duties on data protection and data-sharing with regard to protecting children, and that LSCBs take a leading role in ensuring that this guidance is understood and acted upon in their areas.

We came across local authorities which were moving away from the use of thresholds in favour of a more integrated model in which all children receive appropriate help. This is assisted by a multi-agency co-location model, and we strongly encourage all local authorities to consider the merits of moving to this.

The Munro report proposed a new duty on local authorities and statutory partners to secure local early help services for children, young people and families. We recommend that the Government reconsider its rejection of this proposal.

Health reforms

During the course of our inquiry, fears were expressed from different quarters about how child protection structures will operate under NHS reforms. More needs to be done by the Government to provide clarity and shore up confidence. The Department of Health urgently needs to clarify where and how safeguarding and child protection accountabilities will work under the new structures. It should also confirm its continuing commitment to the role of named and designated doctors and nurses for child protection.

To ensure that priority is given to child protection in the new structures and to provide a point of contact with the LSCBs, one of the chairs of the Health and Wellbeing Boards should be nominated as a national lead on safeguarding children.

Removing a child to care and adoption

The balance of evidence is heavily in favour of care being considered as a viable, positive option at an earlier stage for many children. It is essential to promote a more positive picture of care to young people and to the public in general. Ministers should encourage public awareness of the fact that being taken into care can be of great benefit to children.

We endorse the Government's current policy emphasis on increasing the number of children adopted, speeding up the process and facilitating foster-to-adopt arrangements. However, the same goal of permanence and stability can be achieved by other means and it is vital that the Government and those in local authorities continue to concentrate effort and resources on prioritising stability in placements for all children. We would welcome greater debate on policies which might bring this about and greater encouragement from the Government for alternative solutions. In particular, there should be increased emphasis in central guidance aimed at limiting the disruption and damage caused to vulnerable children by frequent changes.

We look forward to examining the Minister's proposals on an appeals mechanism against forced adoption.

Conclusion

We recognise that that the scale and nature of child abuse in the 21st century presents a huge challenge to the child protection system. There are also concerns about the pressures experienced by the system as a result of the simultaneous increase in demand for services and restrictions on resources because of the economic situation. These are serious issues which have to be addressed head-on, as do the areas of improvements we identify in our report. Recent events and our own findings show how far there is still to go, but there is a real opportunity to transform the child protection system. It is vital that the momentum for change is not lost.


 
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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 7 November 2012