On A Journey To Better Child Protection

Accusations and proposals are thick in the air following the appalling death of Baby P. But the system as a whole is not proven broken by even this awful tragedy, writes Maggie Atkinson, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services

The death of Baby P has shocked and angered the nation, and rightly so. The case is truly appalling, and the political and media reaction has reflected our natural, collective and completely human repulsion.

There has since been a flurry of announcements of inspections, reviews and reports, aiming to reassure the public that something is being done. Yet before those reviews have done their work, which to be worth anything must be painstaking and thorough, accusations and proposals for changing the system are thick in the air. I do not intend to add to the fevered speculation. I await the verdicts of the inspectors and Lord Laming.

I do want to look, from inside the system as a director of children’s services and president of the ADCS, at how far we have come since the Children Act 2004 went live in 2005. From the media coverage, the public might think we have rested on our laurels. We are still labelled as “social services departments” with all the emotional baggage that entails. There is no recognition of the massive changes in local culture, and the attendant structural changes, that bring together education, children and families’ social services, youth support, guidance and community services and early years, working under one director to join up our efforts, with the child or young person at their heart.

Pundits look blank when faced with the five Every Child Matters outcomes and the work done to ensure every child is not only safe, but lives a healthy, productive and fulfilling life. These changes, which have defined our working lives since Every Child Matters in 2003, have apparently passed the world by.

The massive effort to meet the challenges set by Lord Laming in 2003 must not be forgotten. The sector has been provided with copious legislation, guidance, and a wealth of pilot initiatives. Local innovations have opened up communication between agencies. Children’s trusts, local strategic partnerships and local safe-guarding children boards all bring professionals both to the table, and to account. Multi-agency teams in shared bases in extended schools and children’s centres make joined-up working real. The attendant investment in training is paying off.

But there, as in all we do, it will now take still more time to rectify the damage done to the professions concerned by perception, and media coverage of this case. Child protection is now built into the system at every stage: budget discussions and priority setting, work in schools, recording and reporting, training and practice.

We have not yet reached a place where we can rest and reflect on all this change, because the ground continues to shift beneath our feet. New legislation will bring schools and others into the heart of our children’s trusts. Inspection regimes will take account of multi-agency approaches, recognising that, as the context in which we work has changed, so must the standards by which we are judged.

We are only half way through a 10-year journey – and we still have to tackle the problems of how to share budgets, how to embed information sharing and dialogue into every corner of the children’s sector, and how else build on what we have achieved. We are in it for the journey, keen both to be held to account and to work with Lord Laming on his review of progress so far, and convinced the system as a whole is not proven broken by even this awful tragedy. We learn best when we are calm, measured, balanced and open. And the time to be all these things is now.