Local blog – Children’s Services

How do we prevent vulnerable children being killed by toerags passing off as parents, or, as likely, by the mother’s latest boyfriend? That is a question to which Lord Laming has again given his judgement.

Way back, David Hunt and I went to the then Health Secretary about Wirral’s chaotic children’s department. I asked the Minister whether our children’s department was the worst in the country.  The expression on the face of Lord Laming, then the Government’s Chief Social Work Advisor, suggested to me that it may well have been.  

David and I therefore spent the rest of the meeting asking what could be done to turn around this broken-backed department. Under pressure following a debate I held in the Commons, one Director of Children’s Services was shoehorned out and the council did not renew the contract of another.

Lord Laming promised to help find us a new Chief Officer worthy of that name. The long-haul to rebuild children’s services began at that point.

So there is no greater fan than I of Lord Laming. But let me give you one example of how our children’s services can sometimes operate in Birkenhead which questions whether this huge emphasis Lord Laming puts on procedure – rather than judgement – is quite the right balance for running the most difficult brief in local Government.

I was at one of our primary schools, like practically all of them run by a brilliant head, who told me the following tale. She was worried about two of her children who were looked after by their mother, an alcoholic. The mother would be seen driving around Birkenhead with the children falling about the back of the car. Meetings had been arranged with children’s services, only for the meetings to be cancelled when the Headteacher and Classteacher arrived at the council offices.

On one occasion the children did not arrive in school. Immediately on the following day, when there was again no sign of the children, the head asked the police to investigate.

They broke down the door, found the mother dead and the children greatly distressed. Being eminently sensible, the police then took the children into school. The Head, calling children’s services, was told not to worry as the children would now be put on the “at risk” register.

The Head replied, I would guess with some anger, that the children had been at risk, and that she had been trying to draw attention to this fact. With the mother’s death they were no longer at risk. What they needed was not an entry on the “at risk” register but a foster parent that night.

Having guidelines on what to do is crucial for all of us, and social workers are no exception. My worry is that we are beginning to develop a culture where ticking the boxes, which covers your back if things go wrong, is not only immensely time-consuming, but defocuses social workers from exercising judgement.

On some occasions, social workers have to be extremely brave. No-one is suggesting that the group of adults surrounding Baby-P were anything other than the most awful thugs.

None of the professionals involved with Baby P exercised any judgement whatsoever. It would have been judgement, that something very serious was wrong, despite whining protestations from Baby P’s family that could have saved a life. If we are to save more children’s lives then the exercise of judgement, not just by social workers, but by neighbours, friends and voluntary works is what will do it.

In the meantime, my thanks again to Lord Laming who exercised his judgement all those years ago over a Chief Officer’s qualities in Wirral.

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