Speech to NSPCC ‘How safe are our children?’ conference 12th May 2022

A better future for every child: ensuring safety, stability and love for children growing up in England

Introduction 

Thank you for the invitation to join you all today. Peter’s speech yesterday set out a really powerful challenge to the government and I’m grateful for the opportunity to join you today to set out some of my early thinking. 

But first I wanted to start my speech by genuinely acknowledging all of you for your work during the past two years. While today we may be getting back to whatever normal is and March 2020 might be starting to feel like the distant past I still want to take a few minutes to say thanks. 

While many lay awake worrying about eldery relatives and others still carried the weight of paying the mortgage or the wages of employees – many of you lay awake at night worrying about children who were suddenly hidden from harm. 

The heartbreaking details of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson’s final months and young lives cut tragically short made real the fears we all shared during lockdowns. The public response to these murders has been powerful, I think all the more powerful because like you many feared the worst for a minority of children. It’s difficult to sit here, collectively, knowing that more children live with such abuse and are not yet safe. 

But rather than simply claiming ‘never again’ we need to look at the system that wasn’t able to keep Arthur and Star safe. Because ‘never again’ is a meaningless thing to say without a plan for change.  

A system that needs reform 

The pandemic heaped more pressure on a system that needs reform and exposed its weaknesses. 

  • Children’s social care in England is not designed or resourced to give families the support they need to raise children . Children in need can be a label that doesn’t trigger the support it should 
  • Our social care system, while adversarial, too often misses risk and is not swift and decisive when it needs to be. 
  • Our system too often overlooks the potential of wider family networks and the love and stability they could offer.  When children are removed from their families the system fails to build relationships around children to replace the foundations that families provide. 

 

Parenting in adversity is hard – add to this the stress of sudden unemployment or living 24 hours crammed under one roof –  and a lot more children are on child safeguarding radars. 

At this point of national crisis we clapped for key workers and I hope you know that while we painted rainbows for the NHS we also thought of those of you who were fighting to ensure those children hidden from sight were not forgotten. Through visits and zoom meetings, doorstep chats and care packages you made sure they stayed in view and knew someone was thinking of them. 

Valuable children 

Just a month into the pandemic Viki – a school nurse – went viral with this tweet which offered not just a window into the reality many of you were living but of the humanity needed to do your job well. 

Met with a yr10 boy last week for a socially distanced walk and talk. Wanted to make sure he wasn’t hungry. He explained to me that he could go into school if he wanted as was on the ‘valuable’ list. My heart swelled. I didn’t correct him.

Viki – my heart swelled reading this message and I know I wasn’t alone. Flipping the label from vulnerable to valuable changes the narrative entirely. 

There are so many Viki’s out there – school nurses, family support workers, social workers safeguarding leads. You went above and beyond and I thank you for everything you did and do to keep children safe. Yes, it’s your job, but to care about others in this way is an enormous act of love. 

About the review 

I was asked to chair an independent review of children’s social care early last year. As I approach the final stages of the review I’m reflecting on the enormous privilege of having heard directly from so many care experienced young people and adults and so many people who work in the children’s social care workforce over the course of the review. 

Government commissioned this independent review as a once in a generation opportunity to transform the children’s social care system and improve the lives of children and their families. With a wide ranging remit across the whole system the review offers a chance to look afresh at children’s social care. The recognition that things need to change is huge, the desire for improvement can be felt at all levels.  

The stakes are high and if we get the Review right, we will be able to set out a plan for a future system that can better guarantee love, safety and stability for children growing up in England.

Help/protection

Children’s social care can’t solve all of society’s ills, but we rightly expect that we have a system that keeps children safe from significant harm. 

A few months into this review I talked about the difficulty we have in getting the balance right between help and protection and the tension of carrying out both of these roles at the same time. 

I asked whether help and protection should be carried out by the same organisation and people. I  listened to thousands of voices from people with different experiences and roles in the system. Generally parents with lived experience of child protection thought this distance between offers of help and judgements about harm would help them engage and be really clear about what needed to change. Whilst professionals highlighted the dynamic nature of risk and questioned whether a separate organisation focused on protection would be too punitive.

I know this will be something many of you grapple with in your own roles. You want to engage openly and honestly with families but there is a wariness from parents as they fear sharing their challenges and asking for help will open them up to the shame of being judged or even the fear of having their children removed. 

It is clearly not possible to truly improve the safety of children without having adequate support so that families can be helped to get through painful, dangerous or isolating times – whether this is an abusive relationship or struggles with mental health. Sixty five percent of serious incidents happen where a child is already known to children’s social care

Considering all of this, I am of the settled view that help for families and child protection  require distinct knowledge and skills and that responding to significant harm needs focus, but that they are best done alongside one another in the same system. . Safeguarding children is everyone’s business and protection only works if it comes with help that can address the concerns people are worried about.

  • If we can bring more help into families’ lives, we are more likely to build better relationships that increase the understanding of the situations in which children are living, improve the underlying reasons families become involved in social care and more accurately identify the situations where there are more serious concerns. 
  • If we can make help less stigmatising and more meaningful, and give professionals more time with families, we will also increase the likelihood that families will engage with social care. 
  • If we can simplify arbitrary and bureaucratic categories and thresholds , we can be more responsive to changing risk without the inherent weakness in hand-off points.

 

We’ve heard from families about the frustration of being sent repeatedly on generic parenting courses when what they really needed was intensive expert support to overcome an addiction. We’ve equally heard from both professionals and parents about the assessment hoops parents have to jump through to access help or to qualify for specialist services and more intensive support. 

Poverty, poor housing, addiction, poor mental health, abusive partners and violent relationships all play a part in why children struggle at home. At their worst, these factors exacerbate or directly result in children being abused. With most families we should be able to help in a meaningful and practical way that offers them a path to improve their lives and avoids things escalating to a crisis point.

There are areas doing this work already, we’ve seen some great practice around the country: 

  • areas using multidisciplinary teams to provide specialist and intensive support to parents who are in abusive relationships, or struggling with mental health conditions or addiction. 
  • Councils having the confidence to offer  devolved budgets to help families address their material needs which makes parenting so much harder.
  • Or local community services, which families know and trust, being given the space to offer them  the non-stigmatising help they need.     

 

Protection 

But there are a small number of parents for whom no amount of help will be enough. There are parents and families who love their children but who cannot make the changes needed for their children quickly enough, even with very high levels of support. And we know that there are a very small minority of parents and other adults – needles in the haystack – who hurt, torture and even murder children they should be caring for with cruel and deliberate intent.   

We need a system that’s able to distinguish between families who are waving for a lifeline of help and families who are dangerous and where all efforts need to be focussed on removing children quickly. 

Improving child protection so that it is responsive in this way is not the same as increasing the amount of child protection activity. Over the last decade child protection investigations have increased, however, an even greater proportion of these investigations do not identify significant harm. Whilst there are multiple causes behind this, this signals that we have a very busy system but not a very effective one. 

Child protection is not a numbers game. Instead of quantity we need to focus on the quality and accuracy of child protection work. Whilst no system can totally eliminate risk we need one that is calm and confident –  making the right decisions about where investigation is necessary and what support would be the most effective route to keep children safe. 

Whilst children’s safety will always be at the core of childrens’ social care, vulnerable children deserve a system that delivers more than just this. I have no doubt that those who portray the balance between help for families and protection for children as a binary choice have seen some awful situations where children really should have been removed from their families sooner. Motivated by a desire to protect children we may be tempted to reassure ourselves that taking a child into care is the end point. For many children care is a lifeline, a safe harbour, and they deserve a care system that is healing, loving and transformational. However, we can also slip into seeing the purpose of social care as rescuing children from their families and communities, without a real plan for what to do next. 

Launching this review I talked about the importance of safety, stability and love. In a system that does not provide enough meaningful help we can end up removing children from their families unnecessarily. This may convince us that we have delivered on safety but without providing  stability and love we create new harms for children. We have heard from countless care experienced people about the harm of isolation, of loneliness, of a life built on shallow foundations that crumble under the stress of adult life after leaving care.

Even if we convince ourselves that immediate safety for children should be the sole focus of children’s social care, can we honestly say that moving a teenager to a children’s home hundreds of miles from school, from friends and from the wider family and community they know – isolated and vulnerable – is actually safe? 

When the state has taken the decision to remove a child from their family we have a solemn duty to make sure a move into care can not only provide a loving, stable and safe environment but also give them the opportunity to heal and to thrive.  

I’m afraid we are a long way from being able to make that offer to many children in care today. 

Instead the current system too often means overstretched local authorities are competing for a limited number of foster or residential homes. The result is young people being sent far from their communities to homes that are not able to offer the care and support that they need. 

Teenagers and harms outside the homes 

Teenagers are the largest growing cohort in both child protection and care. Historically children’s social care has been geared towards younger children and harms coming from family or inside the home. As a result, responses to teenagers’ needs by children’s social care and other services has often been weak. 

The kind of support families with teenagers at risk need will sometimes differ from the support we might traditionally offer families with younger children – with an even greater emphasis on providing mental health support, and targeted help for young people at risk or experiencing harms outside the home, including online harms and disruption of exploitation in the community. Addressing harms outside of the home requires a multi-agency approach and a different approach to child protection that does not focus on risks inside the home, and that’s hard to achieve with the way our system currently operates. 

We need everyone playing their part with an unambiguous shared responsibility – instead of buck passing between agencies we need a system that pushes people together and gets everyone round the table. 

The role of schools in safeguarding children 

School is more than just a place to learn, for some children it is an escape from an unpleasant or perhaps dangerous home life. The ‘valuable’ year ten boy that school nurse Viki described was lucky that school played this role in his life. 

Despite school being the place children spend most of their time, and where professionals have the most opportunity to spot worrying changes in behaviour, in too many places the contribution and voice of education is missing from multi-agency safeguarding conversations.  

It feels like an oversight not to consider what bigger role education could play in partnerships. The seemingly constant new threats – from online harms to ever more sophisticated criminal networks – mean that we need our best team on the field, a team that really knows and understands children and young people and that means schools being an equal player. 

Conclusion 

Support for families, support for wider family networks, a swift and decisive child protection response, the importance of agencies working together, especially when it comes to helping teenagers, and a care system that can provide the loving foundations for a good life. I’m looking forward to sharing my recommendations on these and other areas with you in the coming weeks. 

I have no doubt you all work tirelessly to protect children. I see it as my job to make recommendations which will ensure the system works with you not against you. That you can do the best possible job because of the system not despite it. 

You and thousands of your colleagues are part of  the most valuable asset of the children’s social care system. You do a hard job in trying circumstances. From speaking to hundreds of children with experience of social care, I know you make the world of difference. You help children become the young people they always had the potential to be. You strengthen families so that they can be the source of love every child needs. You are the care system that gives children a lifeline and new foundations when they are at their most vulnerable- the people that make young people know they are valuable. There can be no greater responsibility and professional purpose. 

Thank you.  

 

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