WillisPalmer's Philip King on what he hopes a new decade will bring for vulnerable children

A Happy New Year to all our readers – a new year and a new decade!
I hate to start the decade on a negative note but the stories in this newsletter sadly reflect that, in some fundamental ways, things are not getting better for the most vulnerable people in our society. They are important reading though, as each one highlights failures that are continuing to be made despite the volumes of regulation, guidance and research published over many decades. They reflect some crucial recent research.
The IICSA Truth Project Thematic Report dealing with sexual abuse within residential care indicates that the basics are continuing to be missed. Such basics are listening to children and providing the right opportunities for them to trust and confide in a safe person. The barriers to disclosure will be reduced by providing the right culture and environment rather than deflecting or ignoring concerns that may be raised by disturbing conduct or allegations, plainly made or otherwise. All workers involved (social workers, teachers, police) need to coordinate their efforts to get behind the presenting behaviour (for example, running away, drug misuse, self-harm, criminal acts) to understand what is happening so that a range of targeted support can be provided. The research on children’s care records also reinforces the point about children’s narratives and the importance of its inclusion in the records, for various reasons. All staff involved need to have sufficient training, support and supervision to ensure these basics are covered. It is a sad indictment of our child protection and welfare systems that these failures are echoed within several research reports some 30 years after the Children Act 1989; the Utting Reviews of Residential Care (1991 and 1997), convened because of serious public concern in light of widespread abuse of children in care; and the Wagner Report (1992) which was the inquiry set up in the wake of the conviction of Frank Beck for numerous sexual offences against children in local authority homes. The recent uncovering of events in places such as Rotherham and Telford serve to underline the point.
Removal of a baby at birth is one of the most difficult things I have ever done as a social worker and as the Nuffield Report indicates  (in another story in this newsletter), it causes all involved varying degrees of ‘acute pain and stress’. Interestingly there has been a marked rise in the number of new-borns being removed at birth with some regional variations in these rates. Alarmingly, just over half of the new babies taken into care did not have a family history of a sibling subject to care proceedings, which is the more understandable reason for new-born removal. We urgently need to find out what is going on here. This research underlines the need for timely and good quality pre-birth plans, interventions and decisions which regrettably do not routinely take place.
At the other end of the spectrum, there is interesting research in another story in our newsletter which examined a range of home visiting programmes aimed to reduce child abuse. The interventions were targeted at pregnant and new mothers and the conclusion was that many of these programmes were effective at reducing abuse (particularly effective when intensive and of longer duration) and also cost effective. Again, it is sad to reflect that this is being said some 36 years after the seminal Second Report from the Social Services Committee Session 1983-84 on Children in Care House of Commons 28/03/84 (Short Report – Chaired by Renee Short). The report covered many topics (still relevant today) but focused on the prevention of children entering care. Although recognising that some children required permanent removal from their families, it argued that the pendulum had swung too far towards permanency in alternative care and strongly argued that more resources should be devoted to supporting families with a range of interventions. It blamed local authorities for the lack of organisational commitment to prevention – ‘If half the funds and the intellectual effort which has gone towards developing strategies for finding alternative families had been put into what we can only lamely call preventative work, there would be unquestionable advantage to all concerned’ (para 30). The Committee also strongly recommended that ‘More funds and more intellectual effort should be devoted to the prevention of child abuse’ (para51).
And so, we are now entering a new decade. Who knows what is in store but I would like to hope for moves towards better protection for the most vulnerable children in our society and good timely redress when things go wrong. What I can promise you though, is that we will keep you in touch with the latest developments in this newsletter.

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