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Saturday, November 15, 2008
The tragedy of Baby P

Among all the nonsense that has been talked about the sad case of baby P, here's one article that gets a lot of it right. However Simon Jenkins, writing in the Grauniad dated 14 November, still manages to miss parts of the bigger picture
How we all hate the nanny state - until nanny takes a day off. Then we want nannies galore. We want nannies with whips, nannies with locks, keys and public inquiries. Labour, Liberal or Tory nannies are suddenly the order of the day. The response to the case of 17-month-old Baby P has been a classic of incoherent social comment. The media, which normally excoriates every case of local authority meddling and red tape, has torn into Haringey council for failing to spot a dreadful case of child abuse. Every paper salivated over the most ghoulish photographs.

The leader of the opposition, David Cameron, went berserk at the dispatch box and wrote expressing "outrage that yet another child was left to slip through the safety net to their death". This born-again statist regarded authority as being asleep on the job. A Whitehall taskforce is to be set up, and "a nationwide review of child protection procedures" instituted.
Spot on, so far Simon, but then you have to spoil it by having an irrelevant – and wrong – rant about social workers using computers
Panorama next Monday has surveyed children's departments across Britain. It reaches the grim conclusion that many social workers spend 60% of their time in front of computer screens, time that should be spent with families. Like policemen who sit in cars, it is the surest way to fail a service.

In every walk of life, the computer screen has become a professional comfort blanket. It distances carers from the sensibility of clients. It demotes the value of informal contact with colleagues. Provided the screen has been filled and the boxes ticked, officialdom regards itself as in the clear. Risk is eliminated not by personal application but by process.
This is total nonsense. So that there is a continuous record of contact with the client family, this contact, and the associated comments, have to be documented. Computers provide the best method of compiling a complete record of contact and assessment.

In his final paragraph, Jenkins implicitly acknowledges this, but does not draw the obvious conclusion
In personal services there is never a substitute for a well-trained professional in continuous contact with a problem client. Anything that deflects attention from that central purpose will merely ensure that more children suffer.
Quite right! But hold hard: the only constant point is the child at risk; the reality of social work, as with any occupation, is that staff move, move round, get promoted, or simply give up. The next social worker needs to have a record of 'work in progress', to avoid visiting a client cluelessly. While it is ideal to have 'a well-trained professional in continuous contact with a problem client', that just isn't possible for the reasons given. Further, the standard of training seems to have fallen over the years, 'continuous contact' is impossible given the vast size of an individual social worker's caseload, and investment in local authority social services is totally inadequate. The flight of highly qualified staff, aware that the job has become impossible, exacerbates the problem.

Children 's Departments in 1948 were founded in part in response to a child care scandal. (I.I.r.r., a child was treated like an animal and kept in a chicken coop.) Under the 1948 Children Act, it became the duty of a local authority to 'receive the child into care' in cases of abuse or neglect. Local authorities gained powers to investigate neglect in 1952, and there have been many changes since, including the merging of children's departments with other social services. This resulted in the dilution of the most highly qualified staff - Child Care Officers – with an influx of barely qualified 'social workers' from other disciplines. Social Services never recovered.

Is it, perhaps, time to consider separating out the Child Care function, once more, and this time treating and funding it properly?

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