Building recommendations

It’s been over a month since my last update and, as promised before Christmas, we are now fully focused on writing recommendations which means we are going to be necessarily quiet for the first few months of the year.  

Since my last update I’ve had the opportunity to meet with Annie Hudson chair of the national Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel.  The panel is leading the review into the tragic death of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and yesterday they extended their remit to include lessons from Star Hobson’s case. 

The tragic cases of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson have highlighted to the public, in the most heart-breaking way, the very real danger some children are in but also the difficult job that social workers face. It’s really important that my review, which looks across the whole of the children’s social care system, learns from the review into the deaths of Star and Arthur, and is able to take these lessons on board before we report in the spring. I’m meeting regularly with Annie Hudson and we have agreed that, while respecting each other’s independence, we will work closely together and ensure the two reports build on each other.  

Emerging themes

This past month I’ve been working with the review team to order the huge number of areas we are looking at into coherent themes. The submissions so many of you made to the Call for Ideas have been incredibly helpful in this task, you offered such a wide array of ideas they have helped us to be really comprehensive in our thinking. Though it’s still early days, I thought it might be useful to share a few of the themes that are beginning to emerge as the recommendations start to take shape. 

Family Help 

We talked a lot about Family Help in the Case for Change so I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise that this remains a major focus for the review and something I believe should be the foundation stone of children’s social care. I’ve been lucky enough to see the difference high quality, skilfully delivered and community based help can make to families as I’ve visited local authorities and organisations across the country. But too many families are not lucky and have limited, if any, access to the kind of support they need to address problems or turn things around and avoid set-backs escalating into crisis.   

Decisive child protection

Family Help goes hand in hand with our deliberations on child protection. A low stigma, timely and skilful family help offer from children’s social care should ensure fewer families reach the point where children need to be taken into care, and it will also mean more families feel able to share their worries and struggles. 

We also know that we need expertise in the system available to respond decisively and investigate where there is risk of significant harm. Safeguarding is – quite rightly – everyone’s business but there is a need for specialist knowledge and skill in decision making and risk assessment. We are considering options that could strengthen this expertise without disrupting relationships with those who are already working with families. 

Our recommendations around child protection will not be limited to families. From county lines to sexual exploitation – harms outside of the home are driving a growing number of teenagers who are coming into care. Our ideas for change are focussed on how to bring greater accountability and action to tackling the exploitation that is ruining the lives of too many teenagers. 

Alternatives to care

For many children, staying with birth parents full time isn’t an option but moving into care can be an extreme alternative especially when there are wider family networks that could offer a safe and loving home.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking to grandparents, aunts and uncles – kinship carers – and I share their frustration about the perverse incentives that have grown up around this area which force extended family into fostering arrangements (in which they lose parental responsibility) or special guardianship orders (in which they often receive no financial or practical support). Our recommendations will propose reforms that shift the care system to start by asking ‘who loves this child?’ and then act by bringing these people around a child and nurturing these relationships over the long term. 

Beyond kinship care it’s clear the system isn’t designed to think about each child individually and develop the best solution for them. Instead of a binary choice of staying at home or moving into care, we’re considering how to develop more models of shared care which give children and families the breather they may need while maintaining relationships and, where it’s safe, keeping children in the communities they know, in school and close to their friends. 

A loving home where it’s needed 

For children who do move into care we need to be a lot more ambitious – from demanding higher standards for children in care, to encouraging more people to step up as foster carers who wouldn’t previously have considered it, and re-focussing the role of residential care as a place for specialist support and recovery rather than as facilities to contain children with ‘complex needs’. 

When considering our offer to children in care it’s obviously important to think of the children in care now. But the bigger prize of this review is not just to identify a path out of the current problems or shortfalls in the system but to reimagine the system entirely. 

Hearing about abuse, poor treatment or lack of options and choices for children in care, and for those entering adulthood, has been an emotional area of this review. It makes me furious when people share stories of cruel treatment or even just indifference and carelessness when raising children in care. But the flip side of this is that when we sit down, as we are now, to paint a vision of how much better the system could be it’s really quite inspiring to think how transformative excellent children’s social care can and should be.  We’re allowing ourselves to think big when it comes to a vision of what being in care means for children, and that will mean being ambitious in our recommendations. 

And more to come…

Of course the final report and recommendation will go a lot wider than these few themes, so please don’t worry if an area you are passionate about isn’t covered in this snapshot. I hope this update on our direction of travel is useful. It’s certainly provided a brief break from the focused work of recommendation development for me, they do say a change is as good as a break! I’ll take the opportunity to share some more thoughts as recommendations develop in the coming weeks. 


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