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Workforce challenges ‘undermining’ ability of agencies to protect children

Publishing its annual report, the Child Safeguarding Review Panel says accelerated change in multi-agency safeguarding practice is needed.

01/02/24

Workforce challenges ‘undermining’ ability of agencies to protect children

The Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel published its fourth annual report today, saying recruitment issues and a lack of high-quality placements are undermining the ability to effectively safeguard children.

The independent panel of experts reviews local safeguarding incidents when a child dies or suffers serious harm and abuse, or neglect is known or suspected. The panel can also commission a national review where necessary.

Within its period of focused analysis – April 2022 to March 2023 – the report observes that the panel received 393 serious incident notifications, of which 146 (37%) were in relation to child deaths and 227 (58%) were related to serious harm. Over half of reviews received by the panel featured a child who had experienced neglect. Another was that a high proportion of school-age children who died or were seriously harmed were either not in school (11%) or reported to be regularly absent (29%).

Analysis also shows that, in over three-quarters of cases reviewed, the family of the child was known to children’s social care, and a third of children were either on, or had previously been on, a child protection plan. In addition, nearly a fifth of children were being ‘looked after’ by the local authority, either at the time of the incident or prior to it, while 21% of children were reported to have a mental health condition.

Annie Hudson, Chair of the Panel, said we must never become “inured or habituated” to such incidents.

“What happened to these children cannot be undone. but it is vital that we learn from how well safeguarding agencies responded to their needs, acting at a national and local level where necessary.

“That 53% of our reviews concerned children who had suffered neglect prior to the incident, for instance, is striking and warrants attention. Likewise, the fact that 21% of children were reported to have one or more health conditions underlines the vital importance of health, local authorities, police, education and other services working seamlessly together to help keep children safe.”

The report also found that feedback from safeguarding partners highlighted a range of issues which can hinder their capacity to help and protect children. This includes challenges in workforce recruitment and retention, preventative and early help services, and in provision for children with mental health needs.

Ms Hudson added that despite these challenges, many agencies are working creatively to protect children.

“A range of factors are exerting considerable pressure on agencies: workforce challenges (for example, in social work and health-visiting) and the sufficiency of preventative services and high-quality placements can undermine the ability of agencies to help and protect children. Notwithstanding these system pressures, practitioners and leaders are bringing creativity and resourcefulness to protecting children.”

John Pearce, ADCS President, said it is crucial that the social care system learns lessons when things go wrong and continuously strives to improve safeguarding.

“Child protection is difficult and complex work, even where children are known to us, abuse and neglect can be actively hidden by individuals seeking to deceive professionals.

“The report also identifies other issues that can hinder our collective ability to help and protect children. This includes workforce challenges, a lack of suitable placements and the loss of preventative services over time. It also identifies systemic issues and injustices that need action to radically improve all children’s experiences, including poverty and racism.

“Councils and our partners cannot address these issues alone, we need support from government. While there is a national plan in place to address some of the workforce challenges councils face in relation to social workers and a wider children’s social care reform agenda, this must be properly resourced and rolled out at pace.”

The report found that there were a number of misconceptions for practitioners regarding domestic abuse cases.

“It was clear from the reviews that some practitioners have a limited understanding of domestic abuse, which is affecting their ability to respond in a timely and appropriate way. This may be exacerbated by approaches to assessing and responding to domestic abuse that may not be suitable for some circumstances, such as when the perpetrator is not an intimate partner (e.g. a parent’s sibling or friend), or when both parents perpetrate abuse,” the report said. “This was reflected in some practitioners’ binary and gendered approaches to domestic abuse which appeared to make assumptions about who the victim may be, or which did not fully consider relationship dynamics.”

Dr Jo Casebourne, Chief Executive of Foundations, said the report is a stark reminder that domestic abuse is an urgent and pressing issue.

“The report highlights that whilst practitioners demonstrate some good practice when working with families where domestic abuse is a risk, there is still much more work to be done. And despite the Domestic Abuse Act establishing children as victims if they see, hear, or experience the effects of domestic abuse, the Panel’s report found that the impact of domestic abuse on children was not always considered or assessed. The scale of this problem is alarming - in 2024 alone, 827,000 children are likely to be victims of domestic abuse.

“Local areas need guidance on ensuring child victims receive the most effective support available, but currently there is a lack of robust evidence on what works. At Foundations, we take pride in spearheading the charge for evidence-based practices. We’re testing best-bet approaches and advocating for a shift in the use of evidence to significantly improve support for child victims.”

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