VCF Response to government-commissioned practice reviews for children
In this initial response to recent government-commissioned reviews, VCF – The Victoria Climbié Foundation UK is understandably concerned as to the benefits for children, young people and families for whom existing reforms have not helped to keep children safe.
On 26 May 2022, the National Child Safeguarding Practice Review panel published its findings into the tragic death of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, including the review for Star Hobson within its remit. In the same week as, and preceded by the Children’s Social Care Review of the system for children in care.
Implementation of reforms is key to improving services for children
Despite reforms and developments from Laming to Munro, we have seen the scrapping of previously recommended initiatives, and the wholesale rejection of Every Child Matters, the most important and significant policy and framework for children at the time of its creation, for children, schools, families and communities.
It is against the concern that the ‘Every Child Matters’ agenda has been profoundly undermined that the question arises as to the effectiveness of the current system, and why subsequent failings have led to a continuing stream of child deaths or serious harm in circumstances that mirror Victoria Climbié.
Victoria has become a symbolic icon for child safeguarding, helping to raise awareness with the purpose to reduce or even eradicate child deaths that can and should be prevented. VCF and its supporters have continued to follow the ethos that every child matters locally, nationally and internationally, to ensure the stated rights of every child are upheld within policy and practice.
Yet, we routinely see how statutory services intervene with unwarranted advice or worse, unlawful practice for families without full knowledge of, or commitment to the child, or seemingly their rights. There are overwhelming levels of anecdotal evidence as to the impact on interacting with children’s services across the country, and for VCF, either directly, or through our community partners on issues of domestic abuse, parental and child mental health, SEND, children and young people in migration, aspects of culture and faith (beliefs), and radicalism.
Of particular concern, is the discriminatory practice towards children and families, including institutional racism that has been further exposed during the pandemic, as we reject the notion that lockdown measures were wholly the reason. The impact of the Covid-19 crisis on BME and disabled children is yet to be quantified, as access to the relevant data has not been forthcoming nor has the need for support yet been acknowledged by senior figures.
We, and indeed others, have been consistently clear that implementation of the existing reforms is key to improving services for children. Not only have authorities failed to fully deliver the reforms, the numerous calls for greater transparency and accountability have again gone unheeded. For many children, young people and families across the country, this was the start point for any new review; a request for services to follow stated procedures or to adopt a more holistic and common-sense approach. Certainly not a major change of responsibilities and functions – and for what purpose?
We have long been aware of the myriad of challenges facing our statutory partners, not least the competing agendas, yet all are supported by a legal framework and political structures committed to children’s rights.
From a community perspective, these reviews are internal and a rehashing of strategies. The hope, as always, is that the challenges for safeguarding professionals will be addressed and for them to be able to effectively deliver on their legal responsibilities to children and their families. The public is paying dearly for these services; engagement is at an all-time low, the level of mistrust – and distrust – above any acceptable levels, and where this inevitably leads us as a society is deeply concerning.
In principle, much of the narrative for these recent reviews bears strong resemblance to the reforms initiated in the wake of the tragic deaths of Victoria Climbié and Peter Connolly, and a consensus that there is sufficient legislation to protect children in this country; thus, an expectation that any further action will address wider policies and practice-based issues that have ultimately led to damaging outcomes for children and families.
We firmly believe that implementation of a rights-based policy and procedures is the key to improving services for children. In lieu of responses to these reviews, we share the concern of many seeking to safeguard and protect children in care, within families, at school, and within the community.
Independent support for children in care
Fundamentally, children in care have not been best served by a review that they thought would listen to their hopes, wishes and concerns. Sadly, many within the care experienced community do not feel vindicated by its findings.
- And what of the children looked after by local authorities, as a result of decisions that were clearly NOT in their best interests nor catered for their health or wellbeing. It is often difficult to comprehend why so many children are placed in care, in circumstances that do not benefit them in the long term. Of primary, but by no means the only, concern is that these children do not have access to advocacy support (independent of local authority influence) and will struggle to be heard or listened to whilst in statutory care.
- How do we advise an individual child threatening to run from their care setting, without being able to access or act on their concerns? In the same week that the children’ social care review published its report, a young child in foster care managed to borrow a friend’s phone to contact the organisation, yet we are unable to provide the requested support unless or until they act on their threat. How do we address safeguarding concerns for children in distress and, in this particular instance, denied quality family time when court ordered contact is not being delivered?
- When the rights of children and young people must be duly considered or appropriately supported within a process that has a decision-making role in their lives (Article 3, UNCRC) we share the concerns of others at the removal of the Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO) role; and question whether the UK can be compliant on their rights in the absence of independent oversight for children’s care plans or independent advocacy support for the child.
What’s in it for families?
As an organisation that has demonstrated expertise in advocating for children’s rights, and empowering young people and families across a range of safeguarding priorities, we are especially keen to see more detail around redefining family support, beyond the vague realisation that family is important to the task of keeping children safe, educated, healthy and well. VCF has a unique insight and understanding of the child protection system from differing perspectives, supporting social workers to deliver quality services to children from primarily, but by no means limited to, Black and minority ethnic communities.
It is often the case that a parent may be the protective factor for a child, albeit the importance of this is regularly unacknowledged in practice. Children who become targets for, or have experienced criminal or sexual exploitation can be left unsupported if they are unable to comply with the relevant authorities and attempts to seek help lead to family breakdowns and despair. Black and minority ethnic children in, and outside of, local authority placements continue to be disproportionately represented within the criminal justice system, often due to lack of safeguarding or support for parents in cases clearly linked to county lines exploitation and drugs.
Children’s services will often be subject to procedural barriers and not able to assist in the safeguarding of a child in, or on the edge of, care. Thus, there is much to clarify if we are to differentiate between recommended or unlawful practice, and positive change as a result of these reviews.
When the longer-term aim is to reduce the number of children entering the care system, we will want to know that the renewed focus on foster carers does not override the support that should rightfully be given to parents whose children may be at risk, from birth, if unsupported, and thereafter at the time of need which has largely been lacking to-date. Foster carers must be informed as to the needs of children they look after, to avoid the unhelpful narratives and belief that all children in care have been abused.
Now more so than ever in the current climate, the aim must be to strengthen the environment and culture for children looked after by necessity, as well as children that remain in their homes, to receive the very best of care and support such that the notion of a ‘loving parent/carer’ is reflected in the care of every child, not a statutory condition.
Government response to practice reviews for children
In his response to the Care Review, Children’s Minister, Will Quince MP set three priorities; namely to improve the child protection system, support families, and provide the right placements in the right places for children in care. These aims, whilst laudable, are not new and inherently embedded within existing reforms. The recommendation for a national implementation structure appears to be a re-branding exercise, unless there is an intent to acknowledge and address the local and national challenges and barriers to effective practice for children.
It is important that any response to these reviews seeks to address children’s individual support needs, not just a ‘cultural minority’. Children need to be treated individually in every case; equipping social care, schools and other services to deliver appropriate support to every child and their families. The trend towards making families accountable for practice failings is unacceptable in our view.
Whilst safeguarding children is everyone’s responsibility, the function of safeguarding is not yet accountable to the public, thus family support services should continue to help parents to understand their own responsibilities towards their children, rather than become unwitting targets for prosecution or care proceedings.
—> Did the current reviews explore and analyse the existing child protection reforms when shaping their views and recommendations, to determine why these comprehensive initiatives have not helped to keep children safe?
—> Is the current leadership structure for Children’s Social Care, the Children’s Commissioner and the What Works Centre – that presided over children’s rights to mandatory care and protection – the right set of individuals to lead and comment on the stated priorities, without explanation of what went wrong, and why? None have demonstrated positive engagement of families to-date, many of whom have been excluded from safeguarding processes or unable to access legal representation.
—> Did the reviews consider and comment on discriminatory practices, including institutional racism, for children in, or on the edge of care? And in the context of the impact of Covid-19?
Ultimately, there is a clear expectation within these reviews that more children will become the subject of child protection measures and State care. No one should be in any doubt as to the significant impact on children and families as a result of emerging and proposed policies that will endanger, rather than protect, children in this country.
The Schools Bill will seek to implement further measures, and focus on the collection and processing of data, as part of the academisation programme and technology vision for the future. These measures will widen the gap between teaching staff and senior leadership teams in the quest to safeguard and protect children. Teachers are not privy to any protective measures taken when they refer a child to designated safeguarding leads and determinedly advised not to seek feedback. This situation can best be illustrated, as highlighted in the recent case of Child Q, where no member of staff was present during a police search and physical examination.
It’s not too late to return to the principles of Every Child Matters
Like many following various commissioned reviews, we would urge a rethink from any government seeking structural or procedural change, amid calls for effective implementation of established measures and expectations.
Further, we have little confidence that the national review following two recent child deaths will go far enough to provide satisfactory answers for many families who feel betrayed by publicly-funded services to offer additional support, allay fears or address concerns in relation to their children.
With the current legislations and building on from the ‘Every Child Matters’ policy to enhance the life chances for every child into adulthood, statutory services must be supported to work together to implement a system set up to protect children’s rights to education, care and protection within a framework that seeks to provide equal rights and justice for all!