Austerity – The Impact on Child Protection

5 ways the cuts affect safeguarding...

Photo courtesy of ©123rf/Lucian Milasan

Photo courtesy of ©123rf/Lucian Milasan

Since 2008 the western world has been in financial trouble. And most of us have been affected by it in some way.

Those working with disadvantaged and vulnerable people are seeing this first hand…

Worryingly, child protection is a case in point…

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Just to be clear, the government’s efforts to pay down the country’s debts are laudable.

That said, the difficulties caused by current policies are many, particularly for the poor, disabled and vulnerable. But my focus today is on child protection.

Rotherham and the start of the historical child abuse enquiry, have followed quickly on the heals of the Jimmy Savile scandal. We’re in a time when our country is re-assessing it’s history and the way our children have been treated.

Image courtesy of ©123rf/Neculai Carmen

Image courtesy of ©123rf/Neculai Carmen

And yet, every day around Britain, social workers and allied professionals are feeling the impact of financial cuts. At the very time we should be pouring resources into this field, the well is dry.

I don’t have time to unpack the detailed complexities of government national funding allocations and the local implications of these – I’m not sure I could!

Suffice to say that what central government gives out is directly reflected in what local authorities have to spend. And they pay for child protection.

The nub of it…

There is one key feature of current public sector spending policy which trumps the rest. One thing which is at the root of the problems now affecting child protection practice…

RESOURCE LIMITATIONS HAVE NOW TRUMPED RISK CONSIDERATIONS IN CHILD PROTECTION PRACTICE.

Before anyone gets defensive and shouts that social workers and others are doing their best to protect kids – I completely get that. I’m not knocking professionals here.

My point is that when money is this tight, and the demands on child protection systems are so great, it’s impossible to square the circle.

Something has to give.

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The impact of scarce resources on child protection practice…

Community Care recently surveyed over 1000 social workers. Here is a summary of some of the views expressed there and in other recent news:

  • Thresholds increase – the point at which cases are considered to merit a child protection response, gets more and more serious. So cases that would, in richer times, have raised concerns and triggered responses, no longer do so. This leaves some children at risk and without an adequate response. One example of which is social work students being asked to be responsible for assessments completed on placement.
  • Cases get re-classified – social workers are being encouraged by managers to re-classify cases as Child In Need – less serious and urgent than child protection – in order to make the numbers work. Less money means fewer staff, fewer staff means fewer investigations so we have to downgrade some cases to reduce demand. Regardless of classification, many of these children remain at risk. What is procedurally expedient may not be safe.

    Photo ©iStockphoto/enieni

    Photo ©iStockphoto/enieni

  • False dichotomies – these first two issues mean that there is an increasing sense for workers of being asked to either downgrade the case, or escalate it and remove the child; i.e. “Pull out and investigate another one, or eliminate the risk altogether.” No one ever says this, of course; it’s more subtle than that. But the result is the same: some cases don’t get the attention they need and others get more – but money is the driver, not risk.
  • Brain drain – reduced resources for protecting children means heightened risks for professionals too. Our society – fuelled by the media – tends to vilify social workers when other people do bad things to children. So those who’ve been around the longest have had enough and are quitting while they still can. Early retirement and voluntary redundancies encourage the trend. The field of child protection is losing a wealth of knowledge and experience that it can ill-afford.
  • Procedural obsession – when people fear being blamed, they become defensive. The same applies to governments and to individual members of staff. So governments impose procedures, professionals get bogged down in following them, less time is spent with children and their families. And risk increases.

What results is a perfect storm of factors that is very worrying: limited funds, increased referrals, procedural overkill, pressurised staff – all of which affects practice standards.

At a time when the profession in general – and child protection in particular – is most under scrutiny, we are least well resourced to do a good job.

I realise that this is a vast over-simplification of the issues. It’s complicated.

But the nub of it, in my view, is correct. Ask anyone working in child protection.

Context revisited…

In our post-Savile era, you’d think that we’d be prioritising child protection. We’re not. If anything we’re neglecting it.

Image courtesy of ©IICSA/crowncopyright

Image courtesy of ©IICSA/crowncopyright

In the throes of the Goddard Inquiry into historical child sexual abuse, you’d think we’d ensure there were adequate resources available – there aren’t.

Post Baby P you’d think we’d learned the lessons about how futile it is to blame innocent staff. But instead we’re distracted with talk of local councils, social services and police forces not taking their responsibilities seriously enough.

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Final word…

So here’s our wish list:

  • Public – the public wants a system that responds to child protection concerns with professionalism, balance and rigour.
  • Professionals – those working in the field want to feel they have the time, space and resources to do the great job they know is possible.
  • Policy-makers – the government wants a legacy of having dealt with the issues of protecting children well during their watch.

In the end, all of this can happen. But it’ll mean spending some money.

Can you really put a price on child protection? I don’t think so…

Question…

How is austerity affecting your practice? Leave your comments below or click here.

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© Jonny Matthew 2015

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