Watchdog finds child protection system is still failing to safeguard children

Councils are still failing to learn from their mistakes in some of the most serious cases of child abuse, despite the renewed focus on safeguarding in the wake of the Baby Peter tragedy, inspectors say today.

A report from the childrens’ services watchdog, Ofsted, into 173 serious case reviews in the year to April 2009, found that the “failures and deficiencies” of social workers and other agencies, which were too often seen in cases where young people died or were injured, were almost unchanged from the year before.

“It is distressing to read … how often nobody thought to ask a child who was clearly demonstrating how unhappy they were, what was wrong,” wrote Christine Gilbert, Ofsted’s chief inspector.

It was of “great concern” that 34% of the reviews carried out after a child dies or is seriously injured through suspected abuse or neglect, to help child protection teams learn from mistakes, were judged to be sub-standard, she said.

Ofsted’s last report into the reviews found that just 22% were judged “good”. And this year, the proportion has increased only marginally, to 23%. Today’s report says the problems identified were “almost identical” to those seen before.

The 173 reviews completed between April 2008 and March 2009 relate to 219 children – some deal with several siblings in a family – and include 113 cases where a child died. Some 68% of the children involved were known to social care services at the time of the incident, and nearly 19% were subject to a child protection plan.

Poor practice issues identified in last year’s report, such as the failure of public services professionals to identify and report signs of abuse; poor recording and communication, and limited knowledge and application of basic policies and procedures, were seen again.

Of those who died, 44 were babies less than 12 months old, 35 were children aged one to five, and nine were between six and 10.

The reviews highlighted a failure by staff to spot concerns raised, directly or indirectly, by children in the care of local authorities..

“Where there were frequent visits to Accident and Emergency, these were not recognised as possible cries for help; concerns about bullying were not investigated satisfactorily; children who often went missing were seen as offenders or absconders rather than children in need,” it says.

There was a “lack of consistent rigour” in the assessment and approval of foster carers and adopters, and cases were allocated to inexperienced staff without the necessary knowledge and skills.

Of 174 child deaths Ofsted was notified about over the same period, where abuse was known or suspected to have been a factor, some 38 were the result of murder by a parent or carer, or arose from malnourishment, neglect, physical abuse, shaken baby or arson. Another 17 were the result of an accident where neglect was a factor.

In 50 of the 173 serious case reviews looked at by Ofsted, neglect had either been identified previously or during the review process.

Many of the families involved were living “chaotic and complicated lives” and some agencies, such as housing and adult services, were often missing from the early information-gathering processes and were later found to have held important information about family circumstances. Liberal Democrat children’s spokesman David Laws said the number of inadequate reviews was shocking, and called for them to be published in full. At present only an executive summary is released.

“These figures do nothing to bring about confidence in our child protection system,” he said. “It is wholly unacceptable that these reviews are still not published and crucial details about these cases remain secret.”

Claude Knights, director of the charity Kidscape, said: “It is distressing that issues raised in the previous report have not been addressed fully. Of particular concern are issues of professional practice and experience, as well as the failure to focus on the needs of the child.