Munro’s Interim Report on Child Protection – some thoughts

Professor Munro published an  Interim Report on Child Protection – subtitled ‘A Child’s Journey’  yesterday with some ideas, thoughts and (most importantly) hard research evidence about changes that need to be made in the child protection system and particularly in the way child protection social work operates.

As will be enormously apparent to anyone who passes by here, I have no experience at all in working in child protection services so I don’t want to comment on some of the details which relate to things that I don’t have any idea about (like ICS – their computer systems).

There are a number of points though that came to me as I read through the interim report. This is, though, from the viewpoint of someone who is very much a non-expert so do take my comments with the proverbial pinch of salt.

Nothing came as a great surprise to me. I have often felt, through conversations with colleagues and friends as well as my experience as a foster carer, that some of the child protection departments sound plain toxic in terms of management styles and healthy workplaces.

Everyone is under pressure to hit targets. I have worked in that style of team myself where you really do feel like an automaton just pumping out work of varying quality to meet targets, targets and more targets at the expense of quality interactions and interventions – or as Munro puts it more simply – help.

It does seem (and this is wholly anecdotal evidence) more prevalent in child protection teams due to the pace of the work and statutory time frames in which to work.

The report itself makes interesting reading – but I fully accept that my definition of interesting might not be a standard normative base.

It is however eminently readable which isn’t always the case with these reports and documents.

There are four chapters after the introduction.

1.  Getting Help Early

This has focus on – as it says – early interventions. I do like her use of the word ‘help’ for families rather than ‘intervention’. It reminds me how distant some of the jargon becomes and how words themselves can frame ways of working and attitudes.

She mentions the planned expansion of the health visiting role and the importance of Sure Start programmes (which the government seem to be cutting).

It’s interesting as well that she focuses on the importance of universal services to ‘catch’ children and families that may otherwise fall ‘below the radar’ – or, as she puts it – meet the threshold for statutory intervention.

She also praises and seems to support the idea of multi-agency teams. For me it’s obvious having worked in a social services team and then moving into an multi-disciplinary team. Working alongside people with different professional backgrounds and specialities is both a pleasure and a very sharp learning curve. There is nothing like meeting, working and talking to people across different services and professions to build relationships informally – going for lunch together, having a cup of coffee and casual chat – to build strong professional relationships. It can’t necessarily be forced but one thing that happens where I work is that if some kind of ‘blockage’ builds up with a particular team – we then go and shadow them and/or they come and shadow us.

There is nothing like knowing the faces behind the telephone voices for promoting better joint-working.

2. Child and Family Social Work

This is a big one. It found it fascinating to read because on some levels I understood but on other levels I was having some kind of insight into an almost parallel world.

Munro ties in very tightly with the recommendations of the Social Work Task Force to improve social work practice throughout the country.

It seems she has worked closely with members of the prospective College of Social Work (the SCIE one – sigh – that is getting boring having to differentiate). I wonder if that’s why BASW have been so quiet about the report.

Munro tries to focus on the expertise that social workers bring to child protection work and particularly to the nature of the relationships that they build and how that is and can be affected by some of the borked systems that are in place – it is what she calls a ‘rational-technical’ approach to social work.  This is a term for the manageralist leaning of social work practice dependent on procedural manuals and completing reams of paperwork at the expense of the face-to-face work with children and families.

Paperwork can be faultless but does that mean practice is any better? Recording of course, is important but as she says it is often the actions that are recorded rather than the thinking and reasoning.

It’s a fair point and there may be other places to record the processes behind decisions being made. The importance is that THERE IS thinking behind the decisions and reasoning and that it does not become process-led or defensive.

There are some thought-provoking paragraphs about the importance of intuition and expertise in communication – evidenced throughout – as one would expect of a professor with a research base.

I’m glad that Munro mentions time and managers giving staff the time to develop their skills and practice. I wonder how this will be possible in a world of contracting and contracting out local authority roles and functions.

But this is a report which recommends an idealised version of practice.

Munro also considers the career path of social work which currently heads straight from front line work to front line management to senior management. There are no ‘professional experts’ within teams and few, if any, promotion or development prospects if you do not want to be a manager. That’s somewhere I’ve arrived myself actually. I’m quite happy to be a practitioner and have developed in the sense that I’m a Practice Assessor, and AMHP and a BIA but that’s probably as far as I can go without a managerial role that would take me away from front line practice. And I have over 30 years to go until I retire. If I ever retire.

I’ve pretty much exhausted available post-qualification training that is open to me at the level which I am at.

Actually, that’s quite depressing when I think about it. I’d love to study more. I sit with my nursing colleagues who are working on research projects, my occupational therapist colleague is also currently engaging in research, medical colleagues are conducting their own research. Why can’t I, as a social worker, take that path (while practising – I don’t WANT to leave the front line to do research work full time)? I can’t because the local authority have no training budget and I can’t afford to fund myself.

I hope that’s something that is picked up on. I would love to be an ‘expert practitioner’ type! Oops, got off the topic a little there.

3. Managing Front Line Social Work

Munro starts this chapter with a great line that I’ll paraphrase by saying that social workers have spent so much time on guidelines and regulations and concentrating on good reports from Ofsted that they have lost sight of the needs of the child in the process.

The bureaucratic monster is proverbially eating itself and forgetting who it is meant to serve.

Munro highlights a blame culture that seems to permeate the sector. It is hard not to feel that when you have ministers like Ed Balls showing so little support to the profession. But that was yesterday (I’m  not going to forget that, Balls).

The front-line manager often creates the culture of the organisation to their staff. This is crucial and managers need to be very good at managing and not just experienced professionals who have reached ‘their turn’ at promotion. Perhaps poor management is a reflection on the levels of progression for social workers. People might feel pressured into managing when it isn’t what they want because that is solely where the career progression lies.

Colleagues of mine often comment about me not being a manager or a senior practitioner because of the amount of time I’ve been hanging around in the service. It is rarely positive comment – something along the lines of ‘oh, you’re still in that job’. It doesn’t bother me because I have an idea of what I want to do but I can see it would play on the mind of others.

Munro also mentions the process of supervision and how it  has become a task based run down of management issues. I’m very lucky to have professional and management supervision separately.

I meet with a senior social worker in a different team and we discuss my professional development and issues away from my office. She knows my managers and colleagues but mostly just by name and it allows for some distance ‘from the ground’ and discussions about issues in social work, use of theories – it is something more like the supervision I might do for a student than the type of supervision I tended to get prior to this as a practitioner.

My manager still supervises me for case discussions and to see where I’m up to and I would go to her for advice about managing cases but being able to talk about the wider issues of social work in a different setting has been a real breath of fresh air in my practice and my enthusiasm for the job and the profession. I can’t speak highly enough of the split and I hope it is something that is promoting throughout the sector. It does take time though and partly works so well because I get along with my supervisor (which is completely random – I had never met her before she was ‘allocated’ to me). She tells me she gets as much from it as I do.

I completely understand that I am somewhat unique in that I have these two supervisors. It dates back to a particular incident where I kicked up a bit stink that went to senior management and demanded more professional support. It was conceded but it was hard fought and it is far from standard in my organisation.

4. Shared learning and accountability.

I’m not going to comment much on this because it refers to details which really are out of my sphere of knowledge.

Munro considers the role of Local Safeguarding Childrens’ Boards and the learning from Serious Case Reviews.

This is also where she considers unannounced inspections of services as opposed to planned inspections which take significant amounts of resources to prepare for.

All I will say here is that unannounced inspections are always the best way of getting a good idea and understanding of practice in any area. I’m a big fan of unannounced inspections in adult social care, care homes, hospitals and social services departments.

My old manager used to randomly patrol the office and pick out random files from the old filing system and take them to her office to read though to check on case recording quality and that paperwork was where it should be. It meant we were much more attentive and careful on a continuous basis.

This is a very slanted and somewhat haphazard almost stream of consciousness piece about my response to Munro so I apologise in advance for that. Busy week at work!

I feel the recommendations are positive but I do worry that the whole narrative of change in the social work profession is being led solely by child protection social work.

I am concerned that, for example, if there is a proposed Chief Social Worker, they will completely forget that there are other areas of social work that exist and again, just as in the training and throughout my career,  the protection of vulnerable adults and the needs of older adults will be pushed into the periphery by the more headline-grabbing needs of child protection.

For the moment though, I hope it becomes an opportunity to improve social work practice across all sectors.

(Don’t worry, I’ll get back to the Mental Capacity Act tomorrow – I just couldn’t resist the opportunity to comment on this review!)

Report Reporting

So the Task Force report yesterday was pretty much as predicted. Personally, I think a lot of the contents are very welcome with the main concern being the lack of money to implement them – but I’m willing to engage positively with the process of change in the hope that some of the issues that we have been complaining about in social care will change – it’s that old chestnut – the triumph of hope over expectation but leave me in my ‘happy place’ however briefly!

I thought it was interesting to consider how some of the press reported on the publication of the Task Force report which in it’s full glory can be found here. I was about to print it out at work to read later when I realised it was 71   pages and thought that was a bit much –  more trees saved.

The Independent focuses on the tagline of ‘better pay’ for social workers but no money to fund it – which is the crux of the problem really.  Similarly, the Times also looks at the ‘elephant in the room’ – namely funding for the additional money that might be spent to implement the recommended changes.  The comments though are a little disheartening. There seems to be a perception that anyone with a bit of ‘common sense’ and ‘life experience’ can be an effective social worker. I think there is so little understanding of the importance of training that it is almost frightening.

The Daily Mail meanwhile go for a whiny

‘Social Workers to be given pay RISES in the wake of the Baby P scandal’ which is a disgustingly ignorant headline. Their capitals by the way. It is a plain misrepresentation which panders to their insufferable readers. The comments are enough to make my stomach churn. I would love that reporter to come to my office to see the work we do on a day to day basis.

The Sun’s agony aunt, Deirdre Sanders who actually sat on the Taskforce tells her readers

How we can stop another Baby P’

She seems to put things in patronisingly simplistic terms but it gets the general message across although I think that relating all the changes to a single child’s tragic death is not entirely a fair explanation of the scope of the work done. There is a generalised thought lingering in my mind that there should be a wider understanding of what we do as social workers in adult and mental health services rather than the focus solely on child protection issues as the Task Force was to concentrate on social work as a profession rather than one aspect of it.

Meanwhile on the safer arms of the pages of the Guardian, there are a number of articles addressing different parts of the report.  From the details of the report to opinions by Peter Beresford who discusses the long term commitment needed across the political board for the reform process to Ray Jones who writes in praise of the taskforce – although not without a well-aimed kick towards Ed Balls (and quite rightly in my opinion) who

followed through on the tabloid-generated victimisation of social work and social workers by himself vilifying those who gave their professional lives to protecting children. Not surprisingly there were then major problems in recruiting and retaining social workers, and the workloads for those who stayed increased. Who wants a job where, when a tragedy occurs and the going gets really tough, you and your family are hounded by the paparazzi and hung out to dry by politicians?

I was applauding in my chair as I read that!

Community Care, a magazine aimed specifically at those in the social care sector in the UK, unsurprisingly has a lot more in-depth coverage – from their own discussion of the main components to reactions from ADASS (Association of Directors of Adult Social Services) and ADCS (Association of Directors of Childrens Services) which understanding question where the money is going to come from to their own views (via the Group Editor, Bronagh Miskelly’s blog).

Personally, I think the issues around training and recruitment are far more important than the pay issue but I accept it’s because I’m not unhappy with my salary – although more is always good..

One of my favourite (and I mean that in an ironic way) quotes comes from the Independent piece where Tim Loughton, the Conservative shadow children’s minister says

“The task force makes some sensible suggestions for improving social work and child protection, many of which we proposed some time ago.

“Ultimately the success of these proposals must be judged on whether they improve conditions on the front line. This Government has strangled social work with 12 years of bureaucracy – it is important that it now acts to improve the situation.”

Sorry, but a Conservative shadow minister saying the government has strangled social work with bureaucracy? Shows very little understanding of the last Conservative administration… and the one before that, and the one before that.

I am no fan of the government and couldn’t despite Balls any more than I do at the moment but the Conservatives are hardly speaking from a position of authority after seeing what they did with and to the profession.

But in general, I am left with a warm buzz of excitement that changes might be implemented to benefit the profession and most importantly those who use the services provided by social workers in the future.