The Three Ghosts of Child Protection

It’s been a depressing time for child protection in the UK recently. Admittedly, child protection work rarely hits the headlines for the right reasons, as confidentiality restricts the pronouncement of victory, and the media rarely gets excited about restoring safety and normality. The prevention of bad outcomes doesn’t make for headlines that sell newspapers in the same way that terrible events do.

This year, historical accusations of abuse have been a recurring feature in the news, sometimes too late for justice to be served, but sometimes with successful convictions against perpetrators who probably thought they had gotten away with it. Many of us felt that the public figures involved in these crimes were people that we could trust, and feel a sense of revulsion that we innocently did so. At the same time, it is some comfort to see that fame is no protection from justice.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the widespread sexual abuse of vulnerable children in Rotherham, which has garnered widespread media attention, sometimes for the wrong reasons, with several media outlets quick to place the blame on the race of the perpetrators, and ignoring the police inefficiency at following up complaints. Perhaps what’s most worrying are the disturbing reports of attempts to silence those who spoke up to report the abuse, and the repeated instances of incompetence such as losing or destroying evidence.

Earlier this month, the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg announced new legislation that will make a failure to report child abuse a crime. The motion was originally tabled by the Prime Minster in July, and takes the form of an amendment to the Series Crimes Act, which is currently sponsored by the Bishop of Durham and Baroness Walmesly. Concerns have been raised that this may result in malicious or nuisance reports, but where similar legislation has been enacted abroad, the proportion of reports deemed to be nuisance, has not been shown to have increased.

For those of us who work with vulnerable children and adolescents, the knowledge that our attempts to keep children safe, and bring justice to those who seek to harm them are being undermined elsewhere is disheartening in the extreme. We as medical professionals can only so much to collect evidence and share with external agencies, in the hope that due processes will be followed.

We can but hope that an increased media focus on child protection issues will encourage the government to fund social work and charitable organisations which work to safeguard children, but for all the talk of Big Society, the lack of cohesion between voluntary sector organisations and local authorities has been thrown into sharp relief by the publication of the Centre for Social Justice’s Report “Enough Is Enough” earlier this year, which worked with the charity Kids Company to detail instances of failure to act by local authorities where the charity had voiced concerns.

In Ofsted’s 2013 social care report, the cost of looked after children had increased by £173 million pounds, and at the same time, funding for social work had decreased by a quarter over the last four years, with an overall 4% decrease in social worker psoters. Whilst local authorities with difficulties achieving good quality safeguarding services for children have complex problems underneath, a lack of funding is a chronic drain on any social work budget.

In the last month, in an attempt to rectify child protection serves which had been found to be inadequate, Doncaster has removed child services from the local authority, instead setting up a third party, not-for-profit organisation to manage services instead. Obviously, this had raised accusations of stealth attempts at privatisation; although the company will continued to be funded by the local authority. This is not the first attempt to manage childrens’ services in this way, and results from previous similar initiatives have been mixed, largely blamed on chronic budget cuts.

Ultimately, children are safer now than previously, and it’s a testament to the hard work of those in child protection that this is the case; however, we cannot continue to make gains in this area unless we are willing to priorities support for the most vulnerable who need our help.