Taking a look at new child protection guidance for Scotland
The child protection landscape in Scotland has changed considerably in the 12 years that have passed since the publication of the Scottish Office guidance, Protection Children – A Shared Responsibility. In recognition of this, earlier this month the Scottish Government published revised national guidance on child protection, which, it says, reflects this “changed and changing” landscape.
The guidance will be the “lynchpin” of the Government’s work going forward, argues Children and Early Years Minister Adam Ingram in his ministerial foreword, consolidating good multi-agency work already under way and challenging us to think “how we can more effectively spot those children who fall under the radar and miss out on the early support and protection they need.” So why was the decision taken to update the guidance now?
“We had had a significant review of child protection ongoing since we came into this administration responsible for rolling out the multi-agency inspections for child protection across the country, and from that we’ve gained a great deal of learning,” Ingram tells Holyrood.
He continues: “We also want to absorb the lessons from the significant case reviews that we’ve had over the last ten years or so. Child protection guidance has developed over that period and I think it is appropriate that we took a comprehensive review of the 1998 guidance to really address all the issues that we need to address.” Essentially the guidance, which Ingram says has been developed “by practitioners, for practitioners”, is a best practice guide for professionals who are working with children and young people and who require to be “alert and engaged” with child-protection issues.
In particular, it introduces more detailed advice on information sharing – ensuring that when information is shared a record is made of what, when, with whom and why; suggests the end of the requirement for professionals to identify a specific category of registration, such as physical neglect or sexual abuse, when placing a child on the register; and expands the range of organisations responsible for child protection in order to stress the fact that this is everyone’s responsibility.
It also reflects the Government’s commitment to the Getting it right for every child (GIRFEC) approach for the future of children’s services and embeds child protection within the wider GIRFEC context.
The publication of the guidance, which is out to consultation until Friday 17 September, was roundly welcomed by Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, Tam Baillie.
“The guidance is long overdue and it brings Scotland into line with other jurisdictions in the UK and it also brings our child protection into line with main government policies for children and young people, particularly GIRFEC, and actually, it has been a very inclusive process,” says Baillie. “I think that it is right that the Government consult on them but I think there is widespread recognition that our child-protection policies were in need of updating.” One really welcome introduction is the focus on new risks such as online safety, says Baillie, which he describes as an area of “recent and growing concern.” The guidance points out that while the internet and other emerging technologies are “integral” to children’s lives and present many educational and social opportunities; they also bring a variety of risks, such as exposure to obscene or violent material, cyber-bullying, identity theft, and may also leave children vulnerable to exploitation from online sexual predators.
“We are living in circumstances where there are new ways and means of contacting children and young people and we know that people who are intent on doing harm to children and young people are quite tenacious and quite clever about how they go about accessing potential victims,” says Baillie. “So it is helpful that the guidance actually covers that as well.” It also brings greater protection for unborn babies by ensuring that where professionals identify the need for an unborn child to have a child-protection plan, the child is also placed on the protection register.
Baillie says he is glad to see this early focus on children’s rights in the guidance.
“I think, generally, we are getting more confident in terms of knowing that we need to make early decisions about children’s lives.
This fits with some of the concerns that have come up again through Social Work Inspection Agency (SWIA) reports about a lack of permanent planning, for instance, in our very young children.
“I think we need to, as a society, be confident of our assessments at the earlier stage and be prepared to make decisions on those, hopefully thorough assessments, because actually, children do have rights that need to be protected,” he says, adding, “I’m saying that not to be gung-ho about going in to interfere in children’s lives but to be prepared to protect at whatever age that we sense there is risk.” “The interests of the child are paramount in all of this,” agrees Ingram, “but clearly how you interpret that is always a subject for debate.” While opposition politicians such as Labour’s leader in the Scottish Parliament, Iain Gray, have called for action to intervene earlier and more often in taking “at risk” children into care, with Gray arguing that, “We have to challenge the presumption that the best place for a child is always with their family”, Ingram says he “does not recognise that presumption”.
He continues: “Every case has to be taken on its merits and on individual circumstances.
I don’t think it is appropriate to establish some sort of threshold or that an arbitrary point is reached where every child must be taken into care. I just don’t think that is either sensible or the right thing to do.
“Now, it may be that we do need to take the child into care, but I think there is a lot that people can do to support a vulnerable mother before you get to that stage.” Another key strand running through the guidance is the emphasis on ensuring that child protection, traditionally seen as the purview of social work and the police, is recognised as a shared responsibility among all agencies and also individuals.
“It was noticeable after the Baby P and Brandon Muir cases that there was a significant increase in people registering concerns about children,” says Ingram.
“That is an area that we are looking at in terms of how best can we engage with the public in bringing concerns to local services, police and social work. We do have a national helpline as well, although we don’t get a huge number of calls to the national helpline, it is something like 200 a month. So we are looking at how best we can ensure the public can notify authorities about concerns, because I think it is very important that people do.
“It is not a question of interference,” he adds, “it is a question of we all have a responsibility for the children in our community and if something comes to our attention that we are concerned about, we have a duty to pass those concerns on.” The deaths of Baby P and Brandon Muir drew an enormous amount of media attention, so what did Ingram, as the minister responsible for children, make of the coverage and how does he feel it impacted on professionals involved in child protection?
“There is a terrible tendency for the media to try to identify a scapegoat and nine times out of ten that is the professionals who are engaged with the child protection system, whether it is social workers or health workers or whoever hadn’t been doing their jobs properly. But to my mind, the ultimate responsibility for keeping children safe and well is with parents and carers. Professionals do have a significant role to play but I think it is all too easy to blame a third party when things go wrong.
“That is not to say that we shouldn’t have the best possible protection system in place,” he says, adding that that is, after all, what the new guidance is all about.
“But we individually have a responsibility to care for and look after our children. We can’t make the world a perfect place. There are evil people out there who will do unspeakable things to children and we can’t guarantee that that will never happen.” However, while he says he doesn’t think the media is “generally helpful” in their coverage of such issues, he does volunteer that the Scottish media’s response to the Brandon Muir case was “a lot less knee jerk than their colleagues down south over Baby P,” and said there was a lot of “thoughtful” coverage in the Scottish press that reflected the differences in the cases.
But while the coverage has ensured that the names of Baby Peter and Brandon Muir became ingrained in the public psyche and are now synonymous with the child protection debate, how big an impact have such cases had in terms of policy?
“I think they’ve had a huge impact,” says Dr Sharon Vincent, a research fellow in child protection at the University of Edinburgh and NSPCC’s joint Centre for UK-wide Learning in Child Protection (CLCP).
“Looking back over the past ten years, the whole of the audit and review in [the] child protection reform programme came really from the Kennedy McFarlane case, which led to a whole programme of reform. Then as the child protection reform programme was being undertaken there was the Caleb Ness case that had an influence on drug and alcohol policy in Scotland. And then again, Brandon Muir has influenced not just at local level but nationally. And Baby P has obviously had a huge impact throughout the UK.” Vincent, who is about to embark on an international study around child deaths that will see her considering cases from Australia, New Zealand and the States to establish if there is learning from these countries for the UK, had previously been involved in a programme of work in conjunction with the Children’s Commissioner, examining child deaths and significant abuse.
“We identified it as a bit of a gap,” she explains. “There has been lots of research done in England and Wales around cases – the Government has a commitment to review cases on a national basis every two years which hasn’t happened in Scotland, so for that reason there has been a lot less information about cases in Scotland.” While the study was published prior to the death of Brandon Muir, it did include other well-known cases such as Caleb Ness and Carla-Nicole Bone.
“It was a useful piece of work, I think, because there had been so little done with cases in Scotland and since then I’ve done a number of presentations based on that work. Child protection committees have approached me because there is such a lack of work done in Scotland and practitioners particularly are looking for Scottish cases. There is loads of stuff around Victoria Climbié and Baby P but it is useful to look at some of the Scottish findings.” As part of this, Vincent is also currently sitting on a short-life working group that is being led by the recently created Multi- Agency Resource Service (MARS) – the UK’s first hub of child protection expertise that is based at the University of Stirling – which, she says, is likely to recommend to the Scottish Government that there should be a baseline study of the cases since the interim guidance for child protection committees for conducting a significant case review came out in 2007.
“Somehow we should be able to look at trends either through national analysis every couple of years as in the rest of the UK, or just some way of collating the data at a national level, because at the moment, we don’t even know how many significant case reviews have been undertaken across Scotland,” she says.
However, while she says it is important that we do take stock and learn the lessons from past mistakes, she says we should also be learning from near misses and the many good examples of when things work as they should.
“There is a need to look at cases and think about what went wrong but I think there has been too much emphasis on that,” she says.
“At the end of the day, very few children die.
There hasn’t been an increase in the number of children dying so most practice is actually very good. So there should be an equal emphasis on looking at those cases where things are good.” But for this to happen, we need to address our blame culture that prohibits this open learning and sways the public’s understanding of these issues, she argues.
“I was in a taxi going to an event at the police college around inquiries and the taxi driver asked where I was going and I made the mistake of telling him and it was unbelievable. He started to say, ‘I know exactly what should happen, all these children should be taken away from their parents,’ and then he started going on, saying things like, “95 per cent of social workers are just mad,” she says, laughing.
“It is funny but it is also the public’s perception, which is not great.” Similarly, Baillie also calls for a sense of perspective.
“Child protection is always one of the areas that brings with it the most anxiety for people. We must pay attention to the lessons of child tragedies, but also we have to recognise that day in and day out, there are thousands of life-saving decisions being made by our child protection system, but it tends to get characterised through the negative and widespread publicity when things go wrong.
So we have to listen to the lessons but we have to place that in the context of all the other things that our child protection system does.” We are in a strong position in Scotland of knowing where the strengths and weaknesses are, thanks to a thorough process of review and inspections of children’s services led by HMIE, he argues.
“Yes, there are always improvements that can be made and that is why we have to learn lessons when things don’t work out,” he says, “but we always have to keep that in perspective in regard to what we know are the good things that are going on in terms of the protection of our children.
“And I don’t think we speak up often enough about the strengths that we have got.”