In a recent speech at the Institute of Public Policy Research, Education secretary Michael Gove started his speech by saying: “I want to begin with an admission. The state is currently failing in its duty to keep our children safe.” This comes at a time when local authority cuts are at an all-time high and staff morale at an all-time low.
Whether you agree or disagree with Mr. Gove’s speech, it should be acknowledged that this is one of the rare occasions in which a politician has started a debate in relation to child protection that has not been motivated by a knee jerk reaction to a tragedy or serious case review. It is only by having child protection on the agenda that we can start a dialogue and a critical debate, and begin to ask the tough questions that need to be addressed.
Children protection is a particularly emotive subject both for the wider society and the professionals working in this arena. Child protection social workers have recovered from three high profile child deaths in almost as many years and their residual effects, expressed as a culture of fear, continue to haunt the psyche and professional identity of social workers and social work profession.
Social workers involved in high profile cases of child death were forced into hiding due to the extreme and relentless pursuit of some media which in some cases were tantamount to dehumanising hate campaign against individual social workers. Such a witch hunt and scapegoating has no doubt left the social work psyche vulnerable and fragile, particularly for those working in child protection services. This combined with a climate of cuts and chronic lack of resources, as well as multitude of other pressures and limited resources were also reported and acknowledged by the recent APPG hearing which examined the current state of social work. One witness stated that the social work profession is in danger of losing a whole generation of social workers who feel current conditions within local authorities are “not what I signed up for”.
So in today’s debate we wish to examine the state of social work in general and child protection social work in particular and would like to ask if social work and child protection are broken systems?
So back to Mr. Gove, what exactly does the Education secretary think the problem is and how should it be fixed? Is social work part of the problem or part of the solution? What is the way forward and who decides? Below are some of the key points as highlighted by Gove at IPPR on Friday:
Children are not being put first:
- “We put the rights of biological parents ahead of vulnerable children – even when those parents are incapable of leading their own lives safely,” stated Gove. “When we do intervene it is often too late. When children are removed from homes where they’re at risk they’re often returned prematurely and exposed to danger all over again.”
‘Intrusive and inefficient bureaucracy’
- “Instead of concentrating properly on the appalling neglect and abuse visited on children by those they know or who are in the family’s immediate circle, we have been pre-occupied by the much smaller risk of strangers causing harm and in so doing have established an intrusive and inefficient bureaucracy, which creates a false feeling of security for parents while alienating volunteers and eroding personal responsibility.”
- Gove claimed that social workers were all too often being affected by “optimism bias” Gove added “for perfectly understandable reasons”, he noted the difficultly social workers face in these situations and claimed that social workers can be reluctant to challenge the behaviour of the adult especially when they are trying to win the trust of those individuals.
‘Social workers de-sensitised to squalor’
- “Social workers – partly because so much of their time is spent in uniquely difficult circumstances many of us will never encounter – can become desensitised to the squalor they encounter and less shockable overall. Which is why it’s up to the rest of us to show leadership,” Gove said.
“Back Social Workers”
- There were other points that most social workers would agree with such as calling on wider society to “back social workers who rescue children from homes where they are left in their own urine and faeces for days, left to forage for scraps of food and drink and denied warm, clean bedding and clothing.” Or when he notes that there is no right amount of children in care “only a right solution for every child in need”.
Failing local authorities
- “Too many local authorities are failing to meet acceptable standards for child safeguarding. Too many children are left for far too long in homes where they are exposed to appalling neglect and criminal mistreatment.” Stated Gove. He later pointed out that “After 160 Ofsted inspections of local authorities to see how effectively they safeguarded children less than 40 per cent got to a level we could be happy with – only three per cent of local authorities were considered outstanding and just 36 per cent good. 45 per cent were ranked at Ofsted grade three – what we call adequate but everyone now recognises is a situation which is not good enough and requires improvement – while 16 per cent were inadequate – simply nowhere near good enough.”
Therefore, examining some of the key points as highlighted by Mr. Gove’s speech we wish to explore some of the following questions:
- Are local authorities failing?
- Do we put the rights of biological parents ahead of vulnerable children?
- Do we often intervene too late?
- Do we remove children and/or return them prematurely to their previous environment? And does this expose the children to the same old problems and “dangers”?
- What should happen to help ensure that society understands and supports social work?
- What needs to be done to address some of the complex challenges of social work?
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