Child care staff interviews criticised

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The Independent Online
STAFF being recruited for children's homes should be questioned about their sexual preferences and the stability of their sexual relationships, health ministers told local authorities yesterday as they published an inquiry into children's homes.

The Warner inquiry - set up last year after Frank Beck was given five life sentences for sexual abuse of youngsters in four Leicestershire children's homes - is deeply critical of present recruitment practices in homes that house 15,000 children.

Some councils interpret equal opportunities legislation to ask all candidates a rigid set of questions with no follow ups, failing to obtain personal details that could put at risk children in care, the report says.

'Little systematic attempt is made by many employers to find out anything about the way candidates relate to children; any incidents in their own pasts which might give rise to concerns; or the stability of their own sexual relationships and their ability to cope with often highly sexualised teenagers.'

References, and even criminal records - where there are up to three-month delays in police responding to requests - are often not checked properly, and in many places arrangements 'are not designed to produce safe appointments', the inquiry, chaired by Norman Warner, former director of social services in Kent, found.

Far more rigorous selection procedures are needed when many employers have 'a touching faith' that a formal 30-minute interview is the best way of selecting staff to care for vulnerable and disturbed children when, alone, that produces worse odds for a satisfactory appointment than tossing a coin.

The position of trust staff are in requires a full investigation 'into candidates' backgrounds, personalities, attitudes and track records', the report says, detailing how that should be done.

Only 15 per cent of local authorities vetted staff thoroughly and only half passed information about 'potentially unsuitable' candidates to other councils. Many did not use the Department of Health's central index of unsuitable employees and only 15 per cent followed up references with telephone calls.

Tim Yeo, Under-Secretary of State for Health, yesterday said local authorities were being told to report by Easter on progress in improving their recruitment procedures. He was, he said, 'greatly concerned' that many of the 83 recommendations in the report were not already routine practice.

The report underlines, however, that not just staff recruitment, but training and supervision require radical improvement, as the nature of children in the homes has changed radically.

Two-thirds suffer from emotional and behavioural difficulties and a third are reported to have been sexually abused.

'Thus some of the most troubled and demanding children in our society are being looked after in children's homes by a largely unqualified and often untrained workforce.'

Within 12 months structured fortnightly supervision, and annual performance appraisals of staff should be introduced, with training switched to practical on- the-job training linked to distance learning, rather than the present programme which will take 30 years to train all eligible staff for the Diploma in Social Work. 'The present training strategy seems more geared to helping the staff to obtain qualifications that enable them to leave, than to providing practical training for the majority of staff in homes looking after children.'

As the children's homes population has become more difficult, the report says, the NHS in some parts of the country 'has largely abandoned specialist support to children's homes'.

Only 40 per cent of local authority homes have anything like regular and easy access to psychologists, psychotherapists and psychiatrists.

(Photograph omitted)