Progress urged on child protection
Changes to improve protection for children need to happen faster, a Government-appointed expert said today.
Professor Eileen Munro, who suggested reforms a year ago in a report commissioned after the death of Baby Peter, said a "culture change" was under way in the child protection system but there was an urgent need to accelerate progress further.
Prof Munro said last year that social workers should be freed from Government red tape to allow them to focus on children's needs, and local areas should have more freedom to design their own child protection services, moving away from the "one-size-fits-all approach".
She said then that such changes could help prevent a repeat of tragedies such as Peter Connelly's death in August 2007, saying: "Yes, the tick-box system stifles thinking. These changes would reduce the number of such child deaths, it won't eradicate them."
Prof Munro said today that reforms had reached a "watershed moment" but, while progress was moving in the right direction, it now needed to move faster with bureaucracy stripped away so social workers were able to focus on giving children and young people the help they need.
She said social workers must be confident to use their judgment instead of applying rules that did not match a specific child's needs, and added: "This report shows an urgent culture change in our child protection system is now under way. We are finally moving away from the defensive rule-bound culture that has been so problematic.
"Reforms are rightly moving the focus of help and protection firmly on to children and young people and away from excessive bureaucratic demands.
"What is particularly encouraging is that some local authorities are already developing innovative ways of working that are enhancing the quality of help received by families.
"I believe there are many front line managers and social workers who now have the confidence to exercise their judgment and provide effective help, based on the individual needs of a child.
"However, I am concerned there are also some who are uncertain how to do this and I hope the examples of good practice that I have included in this report will lead further change."
Prof Munro said the experience of authorities who had been granted exemptions from statutory fixed assessment timescales had been positive.
They reported that the additional flexibility had encouraged better, more thoughtful working practices, and better and clearer consideration of priorities.
Ofsted's revised child protection inspection framework had rightly focused on the impact and effectiveness of help and protection for children, young people and their families, she added.
Her report also found many encouraging examples of services working together and with social services to provide better understanding of children's needs.
It also pointed out that the Government had taken steps to appoint a chief social worker and local authorities were starting to recruit principal social workers to their teams.
The report called for faster progress in reducing statutory guidance so there was more scope for professional and local autonomy.
It said there had been a delay in implementing these changes, due to the need for proper public consultation. Once this had been removed, services should be better placed to work together to offer improved early help.
The Government needed to encourage better understanding between services as reforms took place in health and policing.
Children's Minister Tim Loughton said: "I am pleased to hear that our reforms are beginning to fundamentally change the child protection system and we now need to make sure they are implemented as quickly as possible.
"We agree the pace of reform now needs to be accelerated and are committed to creating a system that is sustainable in the long term.
"This report shows progress is being made towards freeing hardworking social workers and other professionals from excessively restrictive structures, procedures and rule books so they can do their best for vulnerable children and their families.
"It is encouraging to see evidence in Professor Munro's report that services are increasingly stepping in early, rather than waiting for problems to escalate.
"These reforms go to the heart of our child protection system and require a new mindset and a new relationship between central Government and local services.
"We are committed to keeping up momentum and doing everything we can to get the right mechanisms in place and to strengthen public confidence.
"But this is about putting the power of decision making back into the hands of local authorities and they all need to step up to the challenge and be strong and confident leaders who are ready to innovate."
The chief executive of the charity Barnardo's, Anne Marie Carrie, said: "Barnardo's welcomes the work the Government has done so far to implement the recommendations of Professor Munro's review of the child protection system.
"The call to rapidly speed up the pace of change so that social workers are freed up from bureaucracy to focus on the front line work of protecting children is particularly heartening.
"But it's important to remember that it's not just babies and young children that need our protection - as the recent child sexual exploitation court cases have illustrated, there needs to be an urgent and increased focus on protecting the older vulnerable children who are currently slipping through the safety net."
Professor Corinne May-Chahal, interim co-chair of The College of Social Work, said the college's members were saying change on the ground was not happening at a fast enough pace in many areas.
"Social workers are still struggling with IT systems that do not reflect Professor Munro's principles and more needs to be done to ensure that systemic learning and managing uncertainty have political and organisational support at the local level.
"We welcome Professor Munro's recognition of the role that the college is having in developing expertise within the profession.
"Implementation of the Munro and Reform Board recommendations is key to ensuring social workers have the professional confidence and capability needed to provide the best possible protection for children and young people who experience abuse and neglect.
"The college is pleased to have been part of the work that has been done so far around the creation of principal child and family social workers in local authorities, the take-up of guidance around standards for professional development and joint working, and higher standards for student placement and social worker training.
"We look forward to continuing to work with key stakeholders across the sector to ensure that the change in culture, and the tools required to achieve it, are effectively embedded across the profession.
"We also look forward to continuing to work closely with Professor Munro in her role of transitional faculty chair of the college's children and families faculty."
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