You may have heard that Ofsted this week published some research on neglect, the over-arching theme being that some children are being left in neglectful situations for too long
On the same day, Action for Children published their research into neglect
“Child Neglect : The Scandal that never breaks”
the over-arching theme there being that neglect is happening to far more children than you might expect – their headline figures being
73% of UK children know another child who is suffering from neglect. Urgent action is needed to help children and families get the help they need.
- Since 2011, around a third (32% in 2013) of professionals have felt powerless to intervene when they have concerns about child neglect
- 35% of professionals say Government spending cuts have made it more difficult to intervene in cases of child neglect. In particular, 65% of social workers said cuts impeded their ability to intervene in cases
- 94% of the public agree people should do something when they are worried about a child but 45% want more information on where to get help
Of course, the big headline really depends on (a) how you define the term neglect and (b) whether you think children are the best people to identify neglect in other children that they know
Their major demand, that the Government ought to produce a national coherent strategy on child neglect, is a worthwhile one. Perhaps the one two punch of Ofsted and Action for Children saying similar things on the same day will have an impact. (I suspect that Ofsted have much more clout, because they don’t need to scare Government into action, they just have to scare Local Authorities that if they don’t have a Neglect Policy, they’ll get a bad Ofsted review)
There’s a bit in the Action for Children research that made me scratch my head. The researchers asked professionals what the barriers were that stopped them intervening on child neglect.
There are the usual suspects – lack of resources, gaps in services, the point at which intervention can take place being too high. But then there’s “It’s not my job to intervene”
10% of the social workers asked gave that as their answer. 10%….
That is very worrying to me. It’s at page 18 if you don’t believe me
The Ofsted research then. They looked at 124 cases, drawn from eleven local authorities. Those local authorities were a spread of inner-city and rural counties, from the North, the South, the East and the West (though the heaviest proportion was the North West – Liverpool, Manchester, Lancashire, Wigan). They looked at the records, spoke to professionals, to children, to parents and to carers.
The key findings :-
The quality of professional practice in cases of neglect overall was found to be too variable, although in some of the cases examined at this inspection, children were making progress.
Nearly half of assessments in the cases seen either did not take sufficient account of the family history, or did not adequately convey or consider the impact of neglect on the child. Some assessments focused almost exclusively on the parents’ needs rather than analysing the impact of adult behaviours on children.In a small number of cases this delayed the action local agencies took to protect children from suffering further harm.
While the quality of written plans was found to be too variable, there was evidence of some very good support for children that was meeting the short-term needs of the family. However, there was very little evidence of longer-term support being provided to enable sustained change in the care given to the children.
Some authorities are using effective methods to map and measure the impact of neglect on children over time and to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions. This results in timely and improved decision-making in some cases. However, not all local authorities have such systems in place to support social workers in monitoring the impact of neglect on children and the effectiveness of their interventions.
Non-compliance and disguised compliance by parents were common features in cases reviewed. Although some multi-agency groups adopted clear strategies to manage such behaviour, this was not evident in all cases. Where parents were not engaging with plans, and outcomes for children were not improving, professionals did not consistently challenge parents.
Drift was identified at some stage in the child’s journey in a third of all long-term cases examined, delaying appropriate action to meet the needs of children and to protect them from further harm. Drift was caused by a range of factors, including inadequate assessments, poor planning, parents failing to engage and in a small number of cases, lack of understanding by professionals of the cumulative impact of neglect on children’s health and development. Drift and delay have serious consequences for children, resulting in them continuing to be exposed to neglect.
Front-line social workers and managers have access to research findings in relation to neglect, although the extent to which this is incorporated into practice varies. It is by exception that front-line social workers use specific research to support their work. The impact of training on professional practice with regard to neglect is neither systematically evident nor routinely evaluated.
Routine performance monitoring and reporting arrangements to LSCBs infrequently profile neglect. Therefore most boards do not receive or collect neglect data except in respect of the number of child protection plans where the category is recorded as neglect. Most boards were not able to provide robust evidence of their evaluation and challenge about the effectiveness of multi-agency working to tackle neglect.
Those local authorities providing the strongest evidence of the most comprehensive action to tackle neglect were more likely to have a neglect strategy and/or a systematic improvement programme across policy and practice, involving the development of specific approaches to neglect.
The challenge for local authorities and their partners is to ensure that best practice in cases of neglect is shared in order to drive improvement.
They make a series of recommendations for Government (to review social work training to have mandatory material on neglect, to require Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards to have a strategy on neglect for their local area) ,
for Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards (to gather data on neglect and assess and monitor it in their area, to ensure front-line training on neglect for professionals, to get agencies working together on the issues, to ensure that all staff know how to escalate concerns, to ensure that all training represents best practice and contemporary research)
and on Local Authorities (robust management oversight of neglect cases to avoid drift, better methods of assessment, proper child protection plans for neglect cases, specialist training in neglect, consistent levels of threshold for intervention, a shift in focus on written evidence presented to Courts so that it is clear, concise and explicitly describes the cumulative impact of neglect on the daily life of the child)
The last is interesting, as we brace ourselves for the standardised model of social work reports (having seen the version that went out to consultation, I have serious doubts that this model is going to deliver what Ofsted are recommending)
The body of the report picks up as a theme that social work reports and assessments focused on the adults and the parents issues rather than analysis of the impact of this on the children. “Are children getting lost in the assessment in the same way in which they are lost within their own families?”
and a later quotation (from a Director of Children’s Services)
“social workers and schools may become desensitised to neglect”
The headline that was grabbed by the Press (they toss a coin, I think, to decide on any individual day whether social workers are jackbooted child-snatching fascists, or clueless Mavis-Reilly-esque do-gooders who are hopelessly ineffectual) was that parents were given too many chances
66. In the cohort of cases where progress for children was not being achieved, a common feature was parental non-compliance or ‘disguised compliance’. Professionals did not consistently demonstrate clear strategies to manage this behaviour. For example in a small number of cases, the Public Law Outline (PLO) was used to address non-compliance and while this was effective in the majority of cases, where parents breached PLO agreements subsequent action was not always taken. This apparent reluctance by professionals to act assertively and in line with written agreements meant that cases were not escalated at the right time for children and there was a delay in action to protect them.
67. In some of the multi-agency meetings held during the thematic inspection professionals reflected on their practice and accepted, with hindsight, that they had been manipulated by parents. For example, in one case when a mother and father had a new baby, the child was made subject to a child protection plan because the parents both had a history of drug misuse and had had previous children removed due to neglect. When the mother tested positive for cocaine use and the father positive for heroin use, the case was escalated to PLO, but stepped down again very quickly when the parents appeared to cooperate with the plan. The child was removed from the parents some months later due to further evidence of parental drug misuse. The child protection chair told the inspector that they should have been more challenging of the lack of progress at a much earlier stage in the case, and described the parents as ‘very plausible’, ‘always coming up with a reason for not completing tasks that were required of them’.
68. In other cases parents were given too many chances because professionals had not fully recognised or assessed the level of non-compliance and were carrying on regardless. Overall, the evidence in these longer-term cases is of a failure by professionals and their managers to be consistent in identifying non-compliance and disguised compliance, and in some cases failing to assertively challenge parents who were not engaging with plans.
For local authority lawyers, Ofsted makes comments about their role in the process too (not particularly flattering comments)
74 . Further delays were apparent in some cases because of inconsistency in decisions about whether the threshold for proceedings had been met. A small minority of local authority legal advisers held the view that some courts were not giving enough consideration to the family history when making decisions as to whether the threshold for proceedings had been met. However, most legal advisers reported that the courts and Cafcass were well-informed about research findings and the significance of a history of parental neglect. In a further small minority of cases local authorities appeared too ready to accept legal advice that the threshold for proceedings had not been met. This suggests there was some lack of clarity as to who holds responsibility for making decisions to initiate court proceedings to protect children from significant harm.
75. The general view of legal representatives was that the quality of written and verbal evidence provided by childcare professionals in legal proceedings was not consistently robust. This resulted in some cases failing to progress to proceedings or, when cases did reach the court arena, not achieving the required outcome. Evidence needed to be gathered more effectively, risks and protective factors expressed more clearly, and the impact or potential impact of neglect on children identified. Partner agencies needed to collate evidence of the impact of neglect, including the impact on children’s behaviour and emotional development, from a very early stage.On the basis of this thematic inspection the lack of clarity around thresholds for legal proceedings is a signficiant concern, given that as a result of this some children remain in situations of neglect for too long
Of course, one of the issues on ‘threshold’ is that we are talking about two different things – the s38 or s31 ‘threshold’ of significant harm is very easy to identify, we all know that when we see it. But the ‘threshold’ of “If you go to Court and ask for these children to be removed will you succeed?” is much more dependent on local Courts, local Guardians, knowing how your Courts view neglect, knowing how bad it has to be before you would meet that test, knowing whether your social worker’s evidence will be compelling in the witness box or tentative. How old are the children, how will they be affected, are you going to find foster placements to meet their needs? Of course the answer to the second question varies greatly from case to case, there is never a one-size fits all answer.
It is, of course, very important not to conflate the two questions
- Is the threshold met
- Is the evidence strong enough to persuade a Court to do anything about it
Neglect is always the hardest type of case to make decisions about – almost always you have missed the right time to issue the proceedings. Neglect is very rarely a steady downward slope, it is more of an undulation, a series of peaks and troughs – little improvements as support is provided, dips as the family struggles. And it always feels that the impact on the children of neglect is viewed less significantly by Courts than a broken leg, an allegation of sexual abuse. Even though the long-term impact of neglect can be very corrosive, there’s a feeling that it isn’t that bad, or that it has to get very bad indeed before anyone is willing to draw a line and say “no more”
As local authorities come under pressure to drop their numbers of looked after children (and they are doing, and a large part of that pressure is from Ofsted themselves), neglect represents the soft target for that reduction.
Not many local authorities are going to increase their tolerance for physical abuse at home, or sexual abuse at home. Which leaves, if you want to raise your threshold and lower your number of court proceedings and looked after children, tolerating more neglect at home.
Unless you’re going to put in services and support to change neglectful care into good enough care, but that’s a big ask at a time of cuts and reduction in services.
[It might, of course, be a good thing that there’s a recalibration of what is ‘good enough’ care where the State should support but not intervene, and what requires care proceedings and separation – one can’t argue with the fact that the number of children coming into court proceedings has gone up massively over the last ten years, and how do we know whether we are now at the right number and we used to be leaving too many children at home, or whether we were right ten years ago and over-reacting now? ]