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Are we learning anything?

 

A discussion on Serious Case Reviews, Keanu Williams and Professor Ray Jones.

 

Tragically, Serious Case Reviews seem to be piling up at the moment. We have just had Daniel Pelka’s, Keanu Williams’ came out last week. No doubt we will have one soon on Hamza Khan and I have already read today of another mother charged with the death of one child and neglect of another three. As we know from recent articles, most social workers don’t manage to find time to read them, and anyone who does read them finds the same themes continuining to crop up.

                   

The Keanu Williams one is here   http://www.lscbbirmingham.org.uk/images/stories/downloads/executive-summaries/Case_25__Final_Overview_Report_02.10.13.pdf

 

 

{This one actually identifies really early on that Keanu’s death could not have been PREDICTED, but that he ought to have been identified as a child who was at risk of significant harm. We actually know from reading the Serious Case Review that his social worker took the case to Child Protection Conference, with a report identifying why Keanu was at risk of significant harm and why he should be placed on the register and have a child protection plan – the Conference took a different view and decided Keanu was a child in need, instead

 

“A well-argued social work report, stating the risks and concerns that had been assessed for Keanu, formed the basis for the Child Protection Conference. However, the Conference concluded that Keanu did not require a Child Protection Plan but was a Child in Need requiring a family support service such as the nursery place as the focus of the meeting changed.

 

 

The outcome of the Child Protection Conference led to a loss of focus on Keanu, because the Child in need services moved the attention towards practical matters such as the lack of settled accommodation and provision of the nursery place.

 

Paradoxically the services failed to consider precisely what the impact was on Keanu’s development and welfare of being moved around and cared for by many different people.” }

 

But what also interested me was Professor Jones take on Serious Case Reviews, as reported in the Daily Telegraph

 

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/10355475/Theres-no-more-learning-left-to-be-done-says-child-protection-expert-in-wake-of-Hamzah-Khan-death.html

 

 

(A brave thing to say, since the gut instinct when reading “we have no more learning left to be done” is  to retort – then why are these cock-ups continuing to happen?)

 

I can sort of see where Professor Jones is coming from. With every child death of this kind there is a clamour for ‘lessons to be learned’ and ‘we must ensure that no other child has to go through this again’  and of course the media clamour that someone in authority must have bungled and they should be identified and sacked. That’s backed very often by central government (at least some element in David Cameron’s rise to power was on his tough handling of Baby P) and their demand that all Serious Case Reviews should be made available to the media and public.

 

The media of course, take a long and dense document, and strip out the bits that show that “Professionals had X chances to save baby Morris” , because that’s what makes the good story. Never mind that any of those chances would only have been a real chance if (a) the professionals could see into the future or (b) were so risk averse that they were removing children with similar histories left,right and centre, most of whom would have been okay at home. 

I will defend professionals from unfair criticisms that they didn’t accurately predict the unpredictable, but mistakes do get made in child protection and where those mistakes are due to sloppy practice or laziness then those responsible ought to be dealt with. If a child died because professionals didn’t make referrals, or the referrals got ignored or visits weren’t made (or you were a paediatrician that can’t spot a broken back), then yes, those involved ought to be rethinking their career – I just don’t believe that having failed to identify that of your thirty kids with bruises and low-level neglect THIS was the one where it was going to go awfully wrong is that sort of mistake.

 

{On the same basis, given how many times serial killers are described as ‘quiet blokes who wouldn’t harm a fly and was nice to his mum’ we could be cutting down serial killing by imprisoning in advance every person like that… Or blaming the police for every such bloke who goes on to commit murder, on the basis that it was obvious that he would turn into a serial killer one day}

 

 

And of course all of those Serious Case Reviews start with the known fact that the child died, and works backwards from that foundation, which allows them to in part discount the very thing that makes social work hard – the tension between family preservation and child rescue.

 

If the child has died, then we KNOW that the child ought to have been removed from home before then and that the family ought not to have been preserved. So the Serious Case Review can just look for any opportunities professionals had to break up that family unit and rescue the child.

 

Here are the things that a Serious Case Review CAN potentially do

 

(a)  Handwringing  (lessons have to be learned)

(b)  Finger-pointing/witch-hunting

(c)  Identifying whether there were flaws in local procedures, or in following those procedures

(d)  If there have been serious and genuine bad practice or negligence, taking action as a result

(e)  Extracting lessons of general principle to be learned in other cases

 

I think that our current system is pretty good at (a), not bad but not great at (b),  pretty poor at (d), okay at (c)  and it THINKS that it is very good at (e) but actually isn’t.

 

So I agree with Professor Jones that most of the ‘lessons to be learned’ are already well-established and well known. We know in advance that common themes from an investigation into a child death will include

 

(i)            That information held by different agencies was never really shared properly and that had one person known all of it, different decisions could have been made

(ii)          That a rule of optimism was applied

(iii)         That a history of low level neglect or bruising continued over time and nobody took it seriously enough

(iv)         That the voice of the child was overlooked or the child simply wasn’t seen enough

(v)          That too much of professional attention was focussed on the adult

 

 

And that having report after report say that, really doesn’t help.

 

I don’t think that the Keanu Williams one is particularly bad, it is fairly typical of these reports (and is to my mind, a better one than Daniel Pelka’s, for example)

 

So do Serious Case Reviews tell us anything at all? Or are they just handwringing and witch-hunting?

 

[I would disagree with Professor Jones on two categories of inquiries  – I think that the Victoria Climbie inquiry did genuinely tell us new and important things about the dangers of walking on eggshells around respecting differences in culture and losing sight of child protection, and I think that all of the inquiries relating to situations where ‘child rescue’ went too far – Rochdale, Cleveland, Orkney Islands, tell us a great deal of significance about what happens not in an individual case where a judgment call went wrong but when there is a systematic failure to properly balance evidence, risk and the desire to keep families together]

 

 

I would myself like to see Serious Case Reviews focussing on whether what had happened in the case throws up issues of poor practice amongst the professionals involved (not that they failed to predict the future correctly, but whether they weren’t alive to the possibility that their prediction might be wrong) or where local procedures need to be improved, and shy away from the ‘broad lessons to be learned’ unless it is a case like Victoria Climbie which genuinely has something new and important to say.

 

Frankly, the only real way to tell whether it was bad luck or bad social work in a Serious Case Review is to run them blind – the board are given information on two cases with children of similar ages and length of professional involvement. One is the child death in question and one is a child who remains at home unharmed.  If child deaths are caused by bungling professionals missing the obvious, then the Serious Case Review ought to have no problem at all in identifying the bad social work that led up to the child death, without knowing which case is which.

 

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