Child protection is not just social services’ job, new reports say

CHILD protection is too often left to social services to deal with alone when other organisations should also take responsibility, three major reports have found.

Reviews of child protection and safeguarding procedures across social services and the NHS in Wales have found worrying gaps, despite evidence of improvement.

And serious concerns have been raised about the continuing lack of Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks for all NHS staff.

Gwenda Thomas, Deputy Minister for Social Services, said careful consideration must now be given to the reports’ findings.

“The reports show that there is too much variation in NHS and local authority performance. I have expressed my concerns about this previously – they are not acceptable,” she said.

“Each statutory body in Wales must examine its own performance in a transparent way to satisfy itself that it is delivering as it should.”

The reviews, by the Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales (CSSIW) and Healthcare Inspectorate Wales (HIW), were ordered in the wake of the death of 17-month-old Peter Connelly – Baby P – in August 2007, while in the care of his mother, her partner and a lodger in the London borough of Haringey.

He suffered months of abuse, which went unnoticed by professionals even though he was seen on 60 occasions by health and social services staff.

Baby Peter’s case followed the harrowing death seven years earlier of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié, who was abused for months by her aunt. Her death produced no less than 108 recommendations to improve child protection procedures.

Jonathan Corbett, CSSIW’s acting chief inspector, said: “There is no disagreement that protecting children is very important, but the priority afforded across different services varies.

“This means that the constant vigilance work needed to protect children 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year is a big ask and more difficult if all the agencies are not aligned.”

Mr Corbett said improvements had been made, particularly when allegations of abuse are made, adding: “The initial response was found to be effective but once in the system then we start to see a lot more variability and inconsistency in procedure”

Mr Corbett said the CSSIW review revealed that the “default” position is for social services to be solely responsible for child protection, rather than all services – including education, health and police – playing their part.

“They clearly have a lead role but once children are in the system, we need other organisations to continue to be involved,” he said.

The CSSIW review also raised concerns that many social workers carrying out child protection work are relatively inexperienced.

Mr Corbett said that the 18,000 children in Wales who are considered to be “in need” are not always allocated a social worker.

Keith Towler, children’s commissioner for Wales, said: “We welcome the focus and attention been given to the important area of protecting children in Wales.

“This is an area which we have to get right to ensure every child and young person living in Wales can be safe.

“Safeguarding and protecting children does not solely rest with children’s social services but is in fact everyone’s responsibility.

“I remain concerned however with the variations and inconsistencies in how safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children are addressed across Wales.

“I have continually questioned the ever-increasing gap between national policy intent and local implementation and these reports yet again highlight that deficit.”

Councillor Meryl Gravell, the Welsh Local Government Association’s social services spokeswoman, said: “Safeguarding children must become everyone’s business, not just local authority social services, and we urge our public sector partners across the NHS, the Assembly Government, police and youth justice to make it equally their business. If collectively we fail to do this then performance could suffer as a consequence.”

And Neelam Bhardwaja, president of ADSS Cymru, which represents directors of social services, said: “We recognise that one of the central messages of the report is the need for all agencies within and outside local authorities to place safeguarding as their ongoing first priority in order to ensure the best results for the most vulnerable children in our society.

“We are committed to continuing this improvement in joint working in the interests of children and young people and recognise the need for this to be evidenced not only in practical performance but also in cohesive central policy.”

The HIW report once again raised issues about NHS staff not sharing information on the grounds that it breached patient confidentiality.

The Carlile review of safeguards for children and young people treated by the NHS, following allegations of abuse at the Gwynfa mental health unit highlighted similar issues in 2002.

The same review said it hoped the new CRB procedures would be used “consistently and rigorously” by all NHS organisations in Wales.

But the HIW report yesterday said there is no clear system to ensure CRB checks are updated when staff change post and many staff employed before 2002 have never been checked.

The report also suggested that CRB checks are inconsistent in GP surgeries and few dentists, pharmacists and optometrists have a process of checks in place for staff.

Mr Towler said: “It is unacceptable that we find ourselves in a situation whereby an indeterminate number of health professionals are working without CRB checks.”

Mrs Thomas added: “It is not acceptable that in some places CRB checks have not been made consistently. This cannot continue and the new arrangements for vetting and barring will place this on a yet stronger footing.”

Mandy Collins, HIW’s deputy chief executive, said: “Sadly, few of our findings are new.

“The sharing of information continues to be a major problem and individuals have to understand that the safety of children and young people is of the utmost importance and they must not use concerns about the sharing of information as a barrier.

“Child protection and safeguarding is about the prevention of abuse and neglect and doing something about it before it gets to the level of tragedy we have seen with Baby Peter and Victoria Climbié.

“Child protection and safeguarding children is the responsibility of us all.”

Serious case reviews

Questions were raised yesterday about the effectiveness of the current system of carrying out serious case reviews into the most severe incidents of child abuse.

The number of these reviews has risen sharply in the last two years in Wales – from 17 in April 2007 to 34 last year.

A report by the Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales (CSSIW) yesterday said as many as 60 cases across Wales may be subject to a serious case review.

But concerns have been raised about whether their lessons are being learned.

Serious case reviews are carried out when child abuse or neglect is either suspected or known in cases where a child has died or been seriously harmed. The remit was widened in 2006 to include suicide.

The CSSIW review found that there is now wide agreement across Wales that the current arrangements are not working effectively.

Jonathan Corbett, CSSIW’s acting chief inspector, said this was partly because of the number of serious case reviews being carried out and the limited number of independent experts in Wales.

Mr Corbett said: “Many reviews are not being completed in the six months allowed and because they are taking so long to complete that is impacting on their effectiveness in terms of people learning lessons.

“It is clear that some messages keep on cropping up which suggests that the lessons are either not being learned or that the action has not been taken to address the issues.

“Serious case reviews cost between £35,000 and £200,000 depending on the size and complexity but we see little evidence that similar amounts of money are being spent on dealing with the issues.”

Mr Corbett said there is a “unanimous” view in Wales that a new framework is needed to ensure that these serious cases are properly reviewed and that the necessary lessons are learned and acted upon.