Helping keep children safe with support from MARS

The Western Isles child abuse investigation began with dawn raids in 2003 and led to the arrest of nine people in Lewis and in England and charges, including rape.

Within 12 months all charges had been dropped by the Crown Office but a subsequent inquiry, by the Scottish Social Work Inspection Agency (SWIA) concluded that three girls, named Alice, Barbara and Caitlin in the agency’s report, had been subjected to physical and emotional abuse and neglect. Inspectors believed all three had been repeatedly sexually abused and the report was published with the permission of the children involved, who SWIA said wanted their story told.

The report determined that social workers should have acted sooner to protect the children and that social workers had considerable information about the risks to the children but had not acted on it. Health professionals were also at fault and the islands’ NHS board did not have adequate child protection procedures in place.

A number of recommendations were made by the inspectorate, including a call for a national Multi Agency Resource Service (MARS), to provide support for all those working with complex child protection issues, in whatever setting.

This month, such a service has come into being. It’s new director, Beth Smith, is a former chief social work officer for Dumfries and Galloway council and was the head of children’s services and chair of its child protection committee.

Her new role will be to put her own expertise, and that of a wealth of other academics, legal practitioners, social workers and paediatricians, at the disposal of frontline workers who may have little experience of their own.

Agencies can approach MARS over specific unusual cases which they have no previous experience of, or in a situation where death or injury has occurred, or even for support in implementing the recommendations of a negative inspection report, Smith says.

“While I have a social work background, it’s important to stress that this is for everybody who is working in the child safety community, from police, education and health to social work and voluntary organisations,” she adds.

MARS is unique in the UK and will have an international outlook, conscious that lessons can be learned from successes as well as problems in other countries. Smith has been in the post for three weeks and says her first aim is to get information out to professionals about what MARS is and what it can do.

The Western Isles report is as relevant now as it was in 2005, she says, as shown by the continued high profile of child protection cases in the news.

“Not everyone can be an expert in everything,” she says. “The need for a confident and competent workforce will always be there.”

Her first task will be to visit every child protection committee in Scotland. The slogan for MARS is “Helping keep children safe” – a declaration of intent but also an acknowledgement of its limitations. The resource service won’t offer training to staff, won’t – initially at least – field individual enquiries and won’t carry out investigations itself.

Instead it will provide information to workers dealing with child abuse and child protection investigations to ensure they are equipped with the latest guidance, legal advice and research evidence.

How the service will work is yet to be finalised. This is partly so the needs of outside agencies can help shape its procedures.

But Smith says it is likely that they will have a single point of contact in each local authority, perhaps more than one, who can request input regarding a specific case or investigation. “People could just phone up and ask for advice, up to a point, but we would prefer to have a named person from each authority, perhaps through the child protection committee. No query will be deemed not complex enough.”

She adds: “If people have a genuine concern, we have a duty to help them, whatever way we can.”

The most important task is to put the nation’s existing experts in touch with each other more effectively, or timeously, she says. “The child protection community is enormous. You can’t know everybody.”

The Western Isles case, she says, involved particular circumstances, but one concern was that social workers were tasked with supporting the family, but at no time took action to remove children for their own protection.

There are plenty of good children and families departments in rural areas, she says, but it highlights the need for outside help in some cases.

“You can’t always expect people to have all the skills, expertise and knowledge to work on a challenging and complex case. Sometimes, with cases like that, what is needed is to be able to stand back and use a bit of objectivity. When you are involved, sometimes you can become caught up in what is happening.

“If you are working in a particular area you could might want to ask, what is the research background? Do we know of anybody who has been involved in anything similar?”

MARS will link people with relevant skilled practitioners and computer experts, for example, or someone with knowledge of the common features of a case where child trafficking is involved.

One of Smith’s earliest tasks will be to source experts from around the country. “We are also going to be asking people if they are willing to share any areas where they would have benefited from help in their own practice.”

MARS will be focused on improving practice and policy, but will work closely with the Scottish Child Care and Protection Network (SCCPN), which like the new agency is based at the University of Stirling.

The network exists to ensure anyone working with vulnerable children and families can access the most up-to-date evidence on issues such as what circumstances place children at risk, the ways in which abuse can affect children’s behaviour and what action will help.

At the end of the day, Smith says, the framework of MARS and SCCPN will not be to take decisions on behalf of individual workers. “We can’t take away the decision-making – that lies with the team or agency doing the investigation. If we can give them the evidence base, that will help.”

Failed court cases can be a blow for police, social workers or staff who have worked on a challenging child protection case, as well as the victims, she says. “If you don’t get a conviction, that can have an adverse effect on the people involved.”

One of the challenges will be to manage initial expectations, Smith says. “We are here as a resource for people in what they are doing – a very difficult, demanding, emotional job. But we can’t do everything at once.”

And with staff in many sectors, especially social work, still feeling they are damned if they do act and even more severely treated if they don’t, in child protection cases, the pressures of the job are huge. “Around a child people want to do the best they can, but there is a fear so people are becoming more risk averse,” Smith points out.

One of the roles of the new agency will be to identify gaps in the current system where more expertise is needed or practice can be improved. An early look will be taken at the system for reviewing cases where something has gone wrong. So called significant case reviews could produce better reports which could be shared, Smith says.

“There is a lot of discussion about the skills required to carry such a review out and whether you could have reciprocal arrangements to share them,” she says.

The agency has three staff: Smith, a consultant and a business manager seconded for three years by the Scottish Government. It has £320,000 funding for three years, plus use of the business manager.

There will be a requirement to demonstrate that spending is delivering value, she adds. “We have to be doing and not just consulting. We need to justify the work’s value.”

MARS has been welcomed by the Association of Directors of Social Work. President Harriet Dempster said: “The MARS resources will be a real bonus for social work in Scotland. Child protection issues are hugely complex and having a national centre of excellence which can work in partnership with social work and other agencies will be reassuring, particularly in smaller and more rural authorities, and will have a positive impact on practice.

“Locating the MARS service in Stirling University is also greatly advantageous as we will now have the Scottish Child Care Protection Network, MARS and both Professor Bridget Daniels and Principal Christine Hallett who have strong track records in child protection research, all in the same location. One of my priorities for social work is that we create a research literate workforce linked into current and developing thinking, the creation of MARS will greatly help social work meet these priorities in terms of child protection.”