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Thinking out loud: three dilemmas

When we published the Case for Change in June I wrote that people who work in and around children’s social care need to dig deep and step out of their comfort zone so that we can give attention to some of the knotty topics that deserve our attention. Since June we’ve received over 300 responses to the Case for Change. We’re still considering these responses and will be sharing a summary and reflections on our website in the coming weeks. We’ve also continued to hear directly from people with lived and professional experience of children’s social care running over 150 events, hearing from over 1,000 people with lived experience of children’s social care, and a further 1,000 professionals.

It probably won’t surprise you to know that some of the messages we are hearing are contradictory. Given the diversity of experiences and the incredibly broad nature of children’s social care – covering everything from help for families through to the family courts and support for those who have been in care – this is to be expected. We are also hearing about problems from all perspectives – from birth parents to care experienced people, from social workers to foster carers, from local authorities to Ofsted. We will highlight some of the most common areas of difference when we share our summary of the responses.

But before we publish a summary of your feedback I wanted to share with you what I’m calling three significant ‘dilemmas’ we are currently grappling with as a review team. This is a way of thinking out loud which I hope will bring people into the conversation on the discussions I’m having with the Expert by Experience board and members of the groups that are feeding into the review.

These dilemmas cut across almost all areas of children’s social care and they relate to some of the knottiest issues that need addressing. For those of you who have worked in children’s social care policy for a while these will not be new, indeed some of them were described in earlier reviews. And of course these three dilemmas aren’t a reflection of all the issues and areas that the review is looking at but they do cut across all of them in some way.

I don’t know the answer to these dilemmas, and as someone from our design group told me last week – “there almost certainly isn’t a right answer”. I’m therefore sharing these dilemmas so that you can understand the current thinking in the review and so that you can contribute your own ideas.

But first, a health warning!

The dilemmas below are not position statements from the review but a summary of the divergent messages that we’ve picked up so far. All of the messages make sense to me and I find myself agreeing with what seem to be contradictory statements. But finding a balance or resolving the tension in these dilemmas is, I believe, the key to unlocking some of the big problems we have faced for decades in children’s social care.

The continuum of help and protection

We hear that helping families and offering protection to children are not distinct tasks but complex and intersecting work that is best done together. Safeguarding children is everyone’s business and protection only works if it comes with help that can address the concerns people are worried about. Potential harm for children isn’t static and can increase or decrease rapidly. There are concerning examples from other public services – such as probation reforms – where high risk work was unsuccessfully separated out.

However, whilst the current system is a continuum it also has a significant and binary ‘checkpoint’ where a minority of parents involved with children’s services are forced to engage with social workers. The possibility of this compulsion shapes the interaction for many more families who are not causing or likely to cause ‘significant harm’ to their children. For example, parents can be told that if they don’t engage with a voluntary ‘child in need’ plan they will be placed onto a child protection plan. Or parents might be less open about things they are struggling with where they need help, for fear that it is treated as a child protection concern.

Professionals have been more likely to tell the review that help and protection needs to be done together on a continuum whereas parents are more likely to tell us that having the same professionals providing help while also holding them to account for protecting their children presents problems.

Local, regional, national

Doing parts of children’s social care nationally or regionally could address wide and concerning variation in decision making, how children and families are supported and the services they have access to. We hear about this postcode lottery directly from children and families and see it in the data. Having bigger scale for some types of work that are hard to do across 152 local areas, particularly specialist services that might only be needed for a small number of children, could be another benefit. Furthermore, children’s social care policy has been focussed on improving local authority services yet many of the same problems persist. A clean break with the old might allow for something new and better to emerge.

However, local authorities are well established and structural change would be disruptive and could distract from what may lead to bigger change for children and families- changing the culture, improving management and leadership, or increasing opportunities for professional development. Reorganising services from local authorities could have unintended consequences for other important services, such as the housing that care leavers might need or access to special educational needs support. And children and families live in local communities not regions, so localised services stand a better chance of responding to need the closer they are to the people they serve.

Freedom and responsibility

The way children’s social care works is too prescriptive, bureaucratic and it pulls practitioners away from spending time with children and families. This makes it harder for social workers and others to respond to the complexity of families’ lives. It means children and families get very limited face time with social workers and prescription often results in families battling to meet narrow eligibility criteria for help. This way of working in children’s social care is the result of a lack of confidence and trust in social workers and a misguided belief that risk management can eliminate, rather than manage, risks. Adding even more rules into the system is a tried and tested way of keeping the system stuck in the same position that it currently finds itself.

However, removing duties, guidance or prescription in a system with wide inconsistency and underlying performance issues could be unsafe for children. Many of the rules and checks and balances we have in the system were created in response to things going appallingly wrong from children and understanding how we got here is essential before making any future changes. There might even be a case for more prescription in places where problems urgently need addressing and where more central direction is needed to get various services onto the same page. Clearer objectives for the system and checks and balances might give us assurance in order to allow a safer reduction in prescription.

What now?

There aren’t straightforward answers, but how the review works through these issues will shape the kind of recommendations we make to government next Spring. We want to organise some events to explore these dilemmas over the coming months so that everyone can join the conversation. We will share more about these soon and if you would be interested to join these debates then sign up for updates from the review here.

I would also encourage people to write and publish their own ideas for recommendations the review should make. There probably isn’t one right answer to these dilemmas but by discussing them together we stand the greatest chance of reaching answers that are most likely to better guarantee love, safety and stability for children growing up in England.

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