Five years on from Climbié: is it working?

Lord Laming’s report after the death of Victoria Climbié called for a multi-agency approach to children’s care, with adult services split from children’s. Do the key players feel progress has been made?

Once upon a time, there were social services departments that worked with families with problems. And whenever children were harmed or killed by the adults who were meant to be looking after them, social services got the blame.

But one day the government said: “This can’t be right. It’s time everybody did their bit to stop these tragedies happening.” And so it split social services in England into two separate services, one for children and one for adults. And everybody was meant to live happily ever after.

But, of course, children live in families with adults and when the new arrangements were announced, some experts warned that if professionals working for children’s and adult services sailed off in different directions, then vulnerable children could fall through the gap. So how are authorities minding that gap – and is the new system working?

The Laming view

The changes were set in motion five years ago with the report into the horrific death of Victoria Climbié. Since then, the author of that report, Lord Laming, has been keeping a keen eye on developments. Does he believe that merging the social care of young people with education, headed up by a new director of children’s services and a lead council member, delivers the “clear lines of accountability” that he demanded?

“My impression is that the new structure is working well,” Laming says. “In Victoria’s case, there were arguments between organisations over whether she was a child in need or a child protection case. My point was that she was a child.

“You need all services working together to promote children’s wellbeing. Safeguarding is only one aspect of that. Creating directors of children’s services is one way of achieving that broader view.”

But what about fears that splitting adult and children’s services risks professionals losing their overview of the whole family? “I just don’t see it like that,” says Laming. “If you are focused on the needs of the child, you cannot help but look at the family context.

“It’s the old preoccupation with safeguarding that was more likely to fragment the picture by isolating the child and alienating the parents.”

One of the people who sat at Laming’s side throughout the Climbié inquiry was Nigel Richardson, now director of children’s services for Hull. He, too, is upbeat about the new system, though he is clear that creating new structures only takes you so far.

“One thing that will really lead to improvements in the life chances of children is the conversations taking place between the professionals working together on setting and achieving local priorities,” Richardson says. “Children are a genuine priority for all of us working in Hull and we are all agreed that investment in children will break the cycle of deprivation.

“But you must frame service delivery in terms of outcomes, otherwise you are likely to fall back into the old tribal mentality of ‘we are adult services’ or ‘we are children’s services, and this is what we do’.”

John Coughlan, director of children’s services for Hampshire and joint president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, agrees – though he did have initial reservations about the reorganisation. “It was a huge change prescribed from above and there were concerns that the scale of disruption would run the risk that things could go wrong,” he says.

“But we felt we owed it to our communities to make it work and, by and large, we’ve done that and it’s been worth it. Now we need to focus on cultural change and building up relationships between children’s services and schools and between children’s and adult services.”

No division

Stuart Smith, director of children’s services in Liverpool, believes that because multi-agency working is now “the norm”, staff will collaborate no matter which directorate they work for.

“When you get down to the frontline professional, there is no division,” Smith says. “We have a family support team, and if a child is referred, and the parents have problems, we just go in and support the whole shooting match.”

As for responding to the challenges in the Laming report, Smith believes Liverpool is well on its way. “I’m not saying we are Victoria Climbié-proof, because accidents do happen. But I am sure our systems are much more robust than they were a few years ago.”

But not every council is adopting the same model. Andrew Cozens, strategic adviser for children, adult and health services at Idea, the local government improvement and development agency, is looking at a group of a dozen or so local authorities that have chosen to buck the trend and appoint a joint director of children’s and adult services.

“We are investigating whether or not making the top job an integrated post can help to achieve a sharper focus on the family and issues around transition between services at 18,” Cozens says. “Running both adult and children’s departments is a huge brief – maybe too huge. It can only really work if it is less about the service and more about the place and direction of travel.”

John Dixon, who is about to take up one of the new joint roles in West Sussex, says: “Our rationale is that a joint post will allow us to offer a more integrated approach to services.

“It particularly makes sense at the point of transition. Currently there is quite a cliff when young people reach 18, and moving between services causes a lot of angst. The other issue is that by having a joint post we can streamline our service and make real efficiency savings.”

The reorganisation nationally has involved massive upheaval, and critics maintain that disbanding social services departments has trampled on social care values and weakened the holistic view of the family. But for the proponents of change, the new model of an all-encompassing children’s and young people’s service offers a golden opportunity for professionals to reconnect with each other and make communities work.

For Laming, the man who lit the blue touchpaper on the restructuring, the big win has been broadening every professional’s remit to take joint responsibility for child welfare. He says: “Gone are the days when a referral to social services meant people could wash their hands of the matter. That has to be progress.”