Drop The Deadline – Computers Can Hinder Child Protection, Warns Sue White

We are less surprised than many that reforms following the death of Victoria Climbié failed to protect Baby P. Our research, examining everyday frontline practice in children’s social care in five local authorities in England and Wales, raises a number of serious questions about whether well-intentioned, modernised systems may actually have compromised the conditions in which good practice can flourish.

Practice is now configured through the integrated children’s system (ICS), a computerised recording, performance management and data-sharing system much lauded by government and senior managers as a valuable and time-saving tool for social workers and, ultimately, the multi-agency safeguarding system.

This is at odds with what we have seen. ICS’s onerous workflows and forms compound difficulties in meeting government-imposed timescales and targets. Social workers are acutely concerned with performance targets, such as moving the cases flashing in red on their screens into the next phase of the workflow within the timescale.

Switching off the flashing red light bears no relationship to protecting a child. That is something of which social workers and managers are acutely aware, but slippages carry sanctions.

Social workers report spending between 60% and 80% of their time at the computer screen.

The majority of the teams participating in our study consistently stated that they received a high volume of contacts and referrals, and that the difficulties in responding to these referrals were compounded by the tight, seven-day timescales for initial assessment. As a consequence, busy teams aimed to manage workflow by “assessing out”.

While such adaptations are sensible if they are proportionate, the inherent risks are also clear. In some busy teams, we noted the routine categorisation of anonymous referrals as malicious – indeed, referrals from neighbours and family members were also often treated as suspect. In the case of Baby P, concerns expressed by his birth father were arguably not treated with sufficient weight. These “shortcuts” are not a product of laziness or sloppiness, but rather are an indication of teams struggling against deadline pressure.

All too often, the minimum standards for visiting become the standard. Workers report being more worried about missed deadlines than missed visits.

We can see similar reasoning in the defensive assertions of Sharon Shoesmith, Haringey’s outgoing director, that her services received a three-star rating by inspectors. This in itself calls into question the robustness and appropriateness of that inspectorial regime.

One assumes that Baby P’s records in ICS were complete and up-to-date, but the complex sense-making that may have saved him could have been compromised as a result. Good skills of analysis and complex judgments require time, dialogue and sufficient knowledge of the child in question and their family. This is ever more so when extreme levels of deception are involved.

Our findings challenge the huge investment in systems of performance management and IT, but we are not arguing for a wholesale abandonment of new technology. Rather, the implications for practice are that the design of any system needs to be based on a thorough understanding of the needs of users and their working practices.

John Hemming, Liberal Democrat MP, has tabled a motion calling for an independent inquiry to address whether the ICS assists or hinders child protection and what have been the effects of the other changes introduced since the Laming report. This suggestion should be embraced by government as it diligently seeks to prevent further tragedy.