Until 2006 Pauline Bradley worked as a social worker for Haringey council, whose social work department has been in the news over the death of “Baby P”.
During her time at Haringey Pauline saw the tragic death of Victoria Climbie, the inquiry into her death by Lord Laming, and the subsequent reforms made by the government. Here Pauline, who now works in Dumbarton, explains why she thinks the social work system can fail children like “Baby P”.
The Lord Laming Inquiry made 108 recommendations, to do with tightening up procedures and communication in child protection. Updated computer systems were introduced which made it easier for social workers, occupational therapists and other professionals to record visits and communicate with each other. These systems varied in places and had teething problems too.
Not all Laming’s recommendations were implemented by central government, particularly the ones regarding how social work departments communicate with politicians and other agencies. Initial assessments, core assessments and other practices were implemented and should have been standardised throughout England and the UK.
The government was closely watching Haringey, so they pushed the changes through with vigour there to try to prove that all was different and better. The council changed their logo to “Better Haringey” to show a change from the bad old past.
The press had called the social worker involved with Victoria Climbie “incompetent”. Haringey Council wanted to prove they’d got rid of all the “incompetent, bad” social workers who were employed at the time of Victoria Climbie’s death.
But the new management regime were not qualified social workers! Anne Bristow, the new Director of Social Services, had many qualifications in management and marketing. David Derbyshire, the Children’s Director wasn’t a qualified social worker either. But the politicians seemed to think that was what was needed.
Our union, Unison, had for years complained that the social workers in Haringey were the second lowest paid in London. Overnight the new management regime (who came in after existing mangers had suddenly left, before the Victoria Climbie story hit the press) put up the pay of children’s social workers by as much as £8,000. (But not learning disability, older people’s or physical disability social workers). They introduced bonuses and enhancements such as the “golden handcuffs” (£500 for staying for two years), or a fast track up the spinal column pay scale.
They advertised for people to work in Haringey straight from college. They wanted people they could mould, not experienced social workers like me who might disagree with management decisions on cases. They got a full complement of staff very quickly, draining social workers from other boroughs.
Haringey was a special case after Laming. Other councils could discuss, debate and decide how best to implement changes without the same pressure
It may be that some councils didn’t implement them all — as long as they met their performance and inspection targets, they could be flexible elsewhere.
The problem with the regime at Haringey was that it deprioritised the human element to social work, which cannot be measured and which you only get through life and social work experience. For instance the skill and confidence to challenge a parent who you think is lying — to say “you look as though you have taken a drug, have you?”. Or in the case of Baby P: “Wash his face, I want to see his face clean”.
Parents will react, get angry, etc., but you have to stand your ground, because that’s what saves children’s lives. And the system, your manager, etc. have to back you up. If you know they won’t back you then you’ll be reluctant to say what your guts are telling you.
On reports I heard that a legal team had said there was “not enough evidence” to take baby P into care ten days before he died. If the social worker dealing with the case knew that, she’d be less confident about challenging his mother.
It is very basic to social work to assess the truth and veracity of an adult’s claims. But Haringey had become a borough where the management and politicians did not base themselves on social workers’ abilities but on the idea of a process for everything. If you followed all the procedures everything would be okay. Haringey had a business model of targets and form-filling. That does not protect children. We need a welfare model.
There is starting to be a debate about whether it is better to leave children with their parents or take children into care. At least in care they survive and don’t die (usually). Every case is different and must be seen for its own merits.
In Scotland, where we see a child at risk or in need, we try to engage the parents/carers as much as we can. We literally throw resources at them if it will improve their and their children’s lives, e.g. nurseries, after school clubs, counselling, parenting classes, money for heating or food (but not drugs, we have to be vigilant with that one; supervised shopping may be needed), drugs rehabilitation, addiction services etc. If the parents engage, then there’s a chance to keep the family together with these supports. These resources are crucial.
If they don’t engage, if they lie and avoid us, then we’re more concerned. We may need to take the case to a child protection case conference for more vigilant measures, or to the Scottish Children’s Reporter’s System for a hearing and a legal order.
The Scottish Children’s Reporter’s System is outside of social services and is a welcome check and balance on the local authority. It was inspired by Lord Kilbrandon in 1968, who wanted to focus on young criminals and their “needs not deeds”.
Any child who comes to the attention of authorities, e.g. police, schools, youth clubs, nurseries, etc., can be referred to the SCRA. The SCRA is run by lawyers who have specialised in children’s law. An SCRA reporter then writes to all agencies in that child’s network and asks them for a report. They write to social services and we go out and meet the child, family, etc., and write our report for the SCRA with our recommendation.
When the SCRA have received all the reports, they decide if a children’s hearing is needed. If it is, they call one and the child, parents, social services , school etc are invited to attend.
There are three panel members (not all of the same sex) who are members of the community and trained up to be SCRA panel members. They talk to the child and everyone else present, then decide on whether a legal order is needed. They are advised legally by a SCRA Children’s Reporter.
When they make a decision, in my experience they usually go with the social workers’ recommendation. If a supervision order is ordered, it is the social worker’s job to visit the child and family every month without fail and more often if necessary. The case gets reviewed at intervals, decided at that hearing; it may be one month, three months, six months, eight months, a year, etc.
Social work managers meet SCRA reporters regularly for “case progression meetings”. I feel that their being outside of local politics and local spending decisions makes them a welcome check on social work departments. They will kick up if they’re told “Child A can’t go to this resource as the local authority can’t afford it.”
There should be no limit on the amount of money that can be spent on children’s welfare. Remember Gordon Brown’s unlimited war chest? How about an unlimited child welfare budget? A welfare system should be implemented with no illusions that the market place or businesses can help us in that.
There should be no witch hunts of social workers (the Sun is running a nasty campaign to sack all social workers in the Baby P case).
It is complicated for the labour movement to have an effective campaign in the area, as all the cases are different. The media loves heads to roll, but I don’t feel that helps us; we need to get to the truth and prevent it from happening again.
There were mistakes made with baby P by individuals, just as the man who threw his cigarette down led to the Kings Cross fire, and the man who didn’t close the bow doors on the Herald of Free Enterprise led to that ship sinking. We have to look at the whole story and improve things from for the future. The social worker involved is said to be suicidal, and I know Lisa Arthurworry is still suffering eight years after Victoria Climbie’s death.
But there might be a few slogans for us: no witch hunts of social workers; unlimited spending on child welfare services; a nursery place for all children; no waiting lists for support services; pupil support services in every school; a Guidance Teacher for every child
And how about this: a welfare system for children based on the Children’s Act? “The welfare of the child is paramount.”