Baby P’s Legacy Must Be Better Status For Children’s Social Workers

The appalling life and death of Baby P has touched a national nerve in a way that the deaths of other babies killed by their parents or carers did not, even though their plight was equally shocking. Perhaps one reason is that the council involved with Baby P was Haringey and the link to the Climbie case, in the same borough eight years ago, was an easy one for the media, even though the cases and the context were different.

A page on Facebook dedicated to Baby P, mass text messaging and hate campaigns against individual social workers and their managers, are deeply unfair to staff who have spent decades attempting to protect and support the most vulnerable children in the country. Having managed many local public services, I can state categorically that child protection work is the most difficult local public service to provide and get right.

The death of baby P should lead to a better outcome than the vilification of social workers. Already, the Baby P case is being exploited for other causes, such as the campaign to reverse the rise in court fees for public law cases, which is a red herring compared with more serious problems facing the family courts, such as the constant difficulty social workers and other professionals face when engaging with those few parents hell-bent on annihilating a child – often under the influence of drug and alcohol misuse which frequently triggers mental health problems.

Whilst conventional assessment models work well for 95 per cent of children and families, the children of parents who lie and deceive their way through an assessment process would be better served by an assessment model using the same lie detection and surveillance techniques used to detect benefit fraud and other crimes faced by benefits staff, the police and the security services.

Whilst it is too early to be definitive, we may already be seeing a ‘Baby P effect’ in a reported increase in applications to court by local authorities to protect children in many parts of England, and in more cautious decision-making about contact applications in some cases. This is hardly surprising. Negative publicity usually leads to institutional risk aversion. This may be, if confirmed, good news for those children who need greater protection, and bad news for others who need more contact with a wide range of family members, not less.

Research indicates there are few children in the care system who do not need to be there, even if what happens to them when they get there is no automatic guarantee of better health and wellbeing. A greater worry has always been those children on the edge of care who are left at home and neglected for years, for whom child protection plans mean little and where family support programmes are nullified by unsupportive parents or carers – even though a success story of the last two years has been the highest ever level of government investment in family support services, which has improved the life chances of thousands of children who never had access to services before.

The most positive outcome from the shocking life and death of Baby P would be a programme of significant workforce reform for children’s social workers over the next decade, leading to higher levels of training, status and career grade pay in the same way that has helped to secure lasting improvements in the teaching profession over the last 15 years. It is an opportunity not to be missed.

• Anthony Douglas is chief executive of Cafcass, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. The non-departmental public body is accountable to Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families for the interests of more than 100,000 children involved in family proceedings every year. Douglas has worked as director of social services and director of housing, leisure, libraries and neighbourhood services for the London Borough of Havering and director of social care and health services for Suffolk county council. He was appointed a CBE this year.