Tag Archives: child protection system

How you do anything is how you do everything – the view from Finland #Nordic2015

Heading to Helsinki to take the leap of co-working

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore.  You may also be interested in this post about child protection in Finland

From 9 – 13 June I went to Helsinki to be part of the conference #Nordic2015. The theme was Courage in Social Work. Wearing my CPR hat, I gave a presentation about ‘The Courage to Communicate’ and heard presentations from Finnish groups who worked with families to support them in the community.

I also took the opportunity to have a look round Helskinki. It was interesting to note that at the cafes you would often find jugs of water and glasses. The thirsty traveller can refresh himself without cost. In England – at least in my experience – water is rarely freely offered and when requested often brought grudgingly or not at all. It struck me that this little thing was actually emblematic of a much wider gulf between our two societies, and that these different attitudes must inevitably play out in our respective approaches to child protection.

In England, the message seems to be – take responsibility for your own thirst. Buy some water or carry it with you. Why should you expect anyone else to bail you out for your own laziness or lack of foresight? If you are thirsty, that is your fault and you must take the blame.

Whereas in Helsinki there seems to be more of a recognition that life is simply nicer for everyone if we come out of our individualistic bubbles and work collectively to take care of each other. Rather than waste energy arguing over who should have provided the water, just make it available without fuss.

If you think my example is too whimsical, have a look at how Norway deals with children who kill children and compare and contrast with the response to the children who killed James Bulger. Consider again the relentless hunt for ‘someone to blame’ after Peter Connolley was killed – that ‘someone’ being exclusively amongst the social workers. As the Guardian commented about the killing of Silje Redergard in 1994:

But perhaps the most significant difference was that, in Britain, the authorities decided to let the nation judge the child killers. Trying Thompson and Venables as adults and releasing names and mugshots unleashed a countrywide roar of anguish that can still be heard today – much to the disadvantage of any damaged child who behaves badly to another, and who needs help rather than “justice”.

We are out of step with Europe

There is little doubt in my mind that the UK is increasingly out of step with other European countries and our approach to protecting children and supporting families, and there is a real risk that we end up doing precious little of either.


The courage to communicate

I first spoke on behalf of the CPR site about the courage to communicate. To say that it takes courage to speak the truth is both distorting and inhibiting, it makes the truth something to be feared. However, when that distortion and inhibition has already taken hold, courage is needed because you are trying to speak hard truths, that your listener may not want to hear.

I spoke of Atul Gawande, the American surgeon who recognised that as a young doctor he did not have the courage needed to tell his terminally ill patients that they were going to die and instead risked giving them false hope by talking of possible treatments which in reality would not help at all. I suspect the same fear – of not wanting to upset someone or make them angry with you, or having to admit that we just don’t have the resources available to help – is behind the cloaking of much of our attempts to communicate in the child protection field in terms of jargon and euphemism, which parents just cannot understand.

Social work and the work of family lawyers, is about human beings talking to other human beings, being interested in and concerned for the welfare of those other humans.  If we cannot communicate, distrust arises, which leads to fear and anger. All hope of a constructive relationship is lost. I spoke about the work of the CPR site and what we were trying to do to improve communication – by speaking hard truths plainly but hopefully with compassion.

The culmination of this work was of course the conference on June 1st – is the Child Protection System Fit for Purpose? I spoke about how surprised and pleased I had been at the number of people who came from such different walks of life and how the parents who came were also so happy to be able to speak in a room full of professionals without feeling judged or ashamed.

I hoped that what we had discussed at this conference would continue to be part of an ever forward moving project to promote continued communication and continued change for the better. It was very interesting to hear from some of the parents that the conference had made them think about their own attitudes to social workers and what they needed to change. But it sadly confirmed just how deep are the current levels of distrust and fear between families and professionals.


What’s happening in Finland to improve communication between parents and professionals?

I then listened to very interesting presentations from two groups that work with parents and children in Finland. The key message was how parents and children are engaged to work with the process.


Finland seems far ahead of the UK in its willingness to recognise the continuing importance in the child’s life of loved family members. The view is that care away from families should be for a short time and that children should go home – adoption is currently not possible in Finland.

(EDIT – this is what I was told by the Finnish delegates, but it does not seem to be true! Please see this post by Claire Fenton Glynn. I will attempt to find out more and clarify this position. Edit 9th August 2015, Claire Fenton Glynn clarifies the position in this post.)

But if a child can’t go home, the family remains important. There was also recognition that professionals should not be ‘gate keepers’ to a child’s participation in the system; they should ask the child if he/she is ready to participate.

The Lahemmas (‘closer’) project is part of the Pesapuu organisation, which is a nationwide child welfare association bringing expertise to the field of child welfare. Lahemmas seeks to enhance the recognition of family relationships in child protection in Finland.  Its goals are:

  • to promote the relationships of children and their loved ones and their right to be heard
  • to reinforce expertise of experience in developing child protection
  • to provide support for children and families to cope with the help of relatives and other important people
  • to find solutions in child protection based on the help and support of people close to the child.
  • to create new child-orientated methods in social work which take parents, relatives and people close to a child into account.



With regard to parents, the group Voikukkia (‘Dandelions’ or ‘can bloom’) was set up in the early 2000s when it was discovered that the parents of placed children often remained without support and were left alone to deal with the crisis of that removal. The group recognises the shame parents can feel when their child is in care and are determined that no one should feel alone in the process.

The group’s objectives are:

  • to justify and convince others about why parental support after custody removals is important and worthwhile. The parent’s own voice is a crucial element in this.
  • to disseminate their proven peer support group methods, so that Voikukkia peer support groups would be available to all who need it.
  • to train professionals and experienced parents of the group to become the peer support group facilitators, as well as better identify the need for assistance of families in crisis.

Voikukkia now has more than 200 trained instructors in different parts of Finland and has published a book about parents’ experiences.


Take the leap of co-working

Both groups promote engagement between children, parents and professionals.  At first, ‘co-working’ with families had seemed like an impossible step but now in Finland it is difficult to think of developing the child protection system without the parents and children having input and we were urged to ‘take the leap of co-working’  – this struck an immediate chord with those following the CPR twitter feed in the UK and was the most re-tweeted comment from the session.

This is very far from my own experience as a lawyer at the adversarial end of  the child protection system but clearly brings with it enormous benefits. I am interested to keep exploring the Finnish model and hope to bring some of the speakers over to #CPConf2016 – watch this space.


A system in continual crisis – what happens when all you do is try to shift the blame?

The House of Lords – as they then were – discussed the inglorious history of the child protection system in 2002 in the case of S v S & Others [2002] UKHL . See para 29 of that judgment:

The Children Act has now been in operation for ten years. Over the last six years there has been a steady increase in the number of children looked after by local authorities in England and Wales. At present there are 36,400 children accommodated under care orders, compared with 28,500 in 1995, an increase of 27 percent. In addition local authorities provide accommodation for nearly 20,000 children under section 20 orders (children in need of accommodation). A decade’s experience in the operation of the Act, at a time of increasing demands on local authorities, has shown that there are occasions when, with the best will in the world, local authorities’ discharge of their parental responsibilities has not been satisfactory. The system does not always work well. Shortages of money, of suitable trained staff and of suitable foster carers and prospective adopters for difficult children are among the reasons. There have been delays in placing children in accordance with their care plans, unsatisfactory breakdown rates and delays in finding substitute placements.

30. But the problems are more deep-seated than shortage of resources. In November 1997 the Government published Sir William Utting’s review of safeguards for children living away from home. Mr Frank Dobson, then Secretary of State for Health, summarised his reaction to the report :’It covers the lives of children whose home circumstances were so bad that those in authority, to use the jargon, took them into care. The report reveals that in far too many cases not enough care was taken. Elementary safeguards were not in place or not enforced. Many children were harmed rather than helped. The review reveals that these failings were not just the fault of individuals – though individuals were at fault. It reveals the failure of a whole system.’

31. In autumn 1998 the Government published its response to the children’s safeguards review (Cm 4105) and launched its ‘Quality Protects’ programme, aimed at improving the public care system for children. Conferences have also been held, and many research studies undertaken, both private and public, on particular aspects of the problems. Some of the problems were discussed at the bi-annual President’s Interdisciplinary Conference on family law 1997, attended by judges, child psychiatrists, social workers, social services personnel and other experts. The proceedings of the conference were subsequently published in book form, ‘Divided Duties‘ (1998)….

The death of Victoria Climbie and the Laming Report

The pressures on the child protection system increased from the time of Lord Laming’s report in 2003 into the death of Victoria Climbie. Victoria was only 8 in 2000 when she finally died from the many injuries inflicted upon her by her adult carers, despite involvement from four different local authorities, hospitals and the NSPCC.  The Laming report

 …discovered numerous instances where Climbié could have been saved, noted that many of the organisations involved in her care were badly run, and discussed the racial aspects surrounding the case, as many of the participants were black. The subsequent report by Laming made numerous recommendations related to child protection in England. Climbié’s death was largely responsible for the formation of the Every Child Matters initiative; the introduction of the Children Act 2004; the creation of the ContactPoint project, a government database designed to hold information on all children in England; (now defunct after closure by the government of 2010), and the creation of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner chaired by the Children’s Commissioner for England.

Children’s social care services were combined with education to form children’s services departments, most of which were headed by Directors with no experience of social care (thus it is no longer accurate to refer to ‘the SS’ as many who dislike the system do).

Local authorities were required to introduce the Integrated Children’s System (ICS), a computerised system for recording casework and decision-making for children, with the consequence that social workers spent more time in front of screens and less time with families.

The death of Peter Connolley

In August 2007 Peter Connolley died as a result of the severe injuries he had received over months from his adult carers. He was 17 months old. In 2008 the criminal trial and conviction of the adults who killed him provoked a media storm quite unlike any other that had been seen before, probably because Peter also died under the watch of Haringey, one of the local authorities who did not act to protect Victoria.

Much blame was generated which became focused on Haringey and its social workers, rather than the police or the medical profession, despite their significant contributions to a system that failed to protect Peter.

The first Public Law Outline (PLO) was then introduced in the autumn of 2007 to try and speed up care proceedings. This brought in new and onerous requirements for LAs in terms of case preparation.

As a consequence of all these pressures, some LAs had enormous difficulties in recruiting and keeping social workers. There is still heavy reliance in many areas on expensive agency staff to try and fill high vacancy rates. Of course, it is not just the LAs that are under pressure. The courts are too, there are often difficulties in listing cases quickly or maintaining judicial continuity.

2008 then saw a substantial rise in the number of applications for care orders, called by some ‘the Baby P effect’  – suggesting that LAs were now over cautious and issuing unnecessary proceedings.

However, research from the University of Bristol in 2011 thought it was more likely to be a consequence of the PLO:

The significant increase [in care proceedings] from November 2008 is likely to be a result of the delay of applications occasioned by the introduction of the PLO with its substantial pre-application requirements. The continued increase may reflect a change in the operational threshold but the greater scrutiny which is now required before applications are made means that the local authority will have been advised that the threshold is met, and social work managers will have taken the view that proceedings are required.

Whatever the reason(s) behind the rise, it was significant and had an impact on the entire system. As Baker J commented in 2013, with reference to the serious negative consequences that can flow from failure to appoint a guardian at an early stage in care proceedings:

A crucial feature of the guardian’s role has been the early appointment, right at the outset of the proceedings. So often it is decisions taken at that stage that have a defining influence on the eventual outcome as well as a fundamental impact on the child. An experienced guardian is able to come fresh to a case and bring the wisdom of their expertise to bear on the immediate decisions that have to be made at the outset of proceedings … In cases where the social worker, advocates and the tribunal may lack much experience, the guardian’s role is vital….The rise in public law cases following Baby P accelerated a crisis that had been threatening for some time so that Cafcass was no longer able to provide a service at the outset of proceedings and vital decisions were being taken without their input.

The Munro Report

In June 2010 Professor Eileen Munro was asked by the Department of Education to report on the state of the child protection system in England and Wales. Her third and final report came out in 2011. The first report identified the ‘four key driving forces’  that had shaped problems in the system, following the pressures and challenges outlined above. These forces had:

come together to create a defensive system that puts so much emphasis on procedures and recording that insufficient attention is given to developing and supporting the expertise to work effectively with children…

The Driving Forces

  • the importance of the safety and welfare of children and young people and the understandable strong reaction when a child is killed or seriously harmed;
  • a commonly held belief that the complexity and associated uncertainty of child protection work can be eradicated;
  • a readiness, in high profile public inquiries into the death of a child, to focus on professional error without looking deeply enough into its causes;
  • the undue importance given to performance indicators and targets which provide only part of the picture of practice, and which have skewed attention to process over the quality and effectiveness of help given.

The Munro report made a variety of recommendations to reform the system particularly to:

remove unnecessary or unhelpful prescription and focus only on essential rules for effective multi-agency working and on the principles that underpin good practice. For example, the prescribed timescales for social work assessments should be removed, since they distort practice.

The Inquiry into the State of Social Work Report 2013

However, there are concerns that the Monro recommendations have simply been sidelined and the system continues along a target driven path which focuses on ‘rescuing’ children rather than trying to support families.  See the Inquiry into the State of Social Work Report in 2013 published by the British Association of Social Workers on behalf of the All Parliamentary Group on Social Work. The report commented:

Excessive bureaucracy continues to work against, not in support of, practitioners. ICT systems remain not fit for purpose. Dangerously high caseloads for too many social workers mean serious risks for the people who need their assistance.

Low morale is not unique to social workers but if it is endemic across the profession, as some witnesses describe, then the ability of these practitioners to provide high quality services to families themselves confronting depression, poor self-esteem and even despair, must be questioned.

The inevitable consequences of a culture of blame

The list of children killed when known to children’s services and the inquiries into their deaths is now long indeed. See for example the serious case reviews collected on the NSPCC site.

The same mantra is repeated every time: ‘lessons will be learned’. However, it is difficult to see what lessons are being learned other than how best to attempt to shift blame once a crisis has occurred.

It sadly seems that despite the wealth of investigations and inquiries over the past 20 years, children remain badly served by a system supposedly designed to keep them safe.  The most recent depressing example is found in the criticism by the Children’s Services Development Group of the Department of Education not using data to adequately reform the commissioning of children’s services. Spokesperson Lizzie Wills commented that lines of accountability for vulnerable children remained unclear:

“Senior representatives “passed around” responsibility for ensuring placement stability and positive outcomes, revealing an overwhelming and fundamental lack of coherence in the care system for looked after children,” she said.

But while the focus after a child’s death remains fixed on finding who we can ‘blame’  –  will we ever see a shift? This is well explored by Ray Jones in ‘The Story of Baby P’. He comments:

For the child protection system more generally, it is now creaking at the seams, and at or near the point of collapse. Workloads have rocketed…The fear and threat that was now a burden on every social workers’ shoulders that they, too, could become a target of The Sun and others has, in part, led to more children being removed through the courts from their families. Others then, such as The Times and the Mail castigate social workers for taking children from their families. The media know how to have it both and every way…

…This book reflects my horror at how good people  who undertook distressing and difficult – and sometimes dangerous – work to protect children were attacked and abused by powerful media forces, with other powerful forces getting drawn into the process. But the greatest horror is what happened to a little child, Peter Connelly, and my concern is that the campaigning by The Sun and others has done nothing to make it safer for children like Peter.