The first part of the Munro review of child protection was published on 1 October. At first glance its relevance to education staff may not be apparent. However, Eileen Munro has been asked to look at the child protection system as a whole and not just social work. This first report acts as a scoping exercise to establish which areas need re-examination and reform and to start to identify best practice examples.

Munro’s report starts with a series of statements about the nature of child protection:

‘Child protection work involves working with uncertainty: we cannot know for sure what is going on in families; we cannot be sure that improvements in family circumstances will last. Many of the problems in current practice seem to arise from the defensive ways in which professionals are expected to manage that uncertainty. For some, following rules and being compliant can appear less risky than carrying the personal responsibility for exercising judgment. Social workers are only one of the many groups who work with children and all have a responsibility to protect them, to watch out for signs of difficulty and take responsibility for considering how those difficulties might be tackled.’

‘Fear of missing a case is leading to too many referrals and too many families getting caught up in lengthy assessments that cause them distress but do not lead to the provision of any help. This is creating a skewed system that is paying so much attention to identifying cases of abuse and neglect that it is draining time and resource away from families.’

The second paragraph above is a reference to the increase in referrals since 2008:

  • 547,000 children were referred to children’s social care in 2008-09. There has been an 11% rise to 607,000 in 2009-10.
  • 6% in each of the two years became or continued to be the subject of child protection plans.

Despite the rise in referrals, the overwhelming majority of cases were not deemed to contain any actual or risk of significant harm. Many of the families, however, were likely to be struggling and would benefit from receiving some support and help.

Children receiving social care support are described as ‘children in need’ and numbered 382,300 in 2009-10 (up 25% from 304,400 in 2008-09) according to provisional figures from the latest Children in Need census published by the Department for Education on 30 September 2010.

The report suggests that over the last two decades much of social work reform has been reactive and in response to high-profile cases that have ended in tragedy. These well-intentioned reforms have led to increased regulation, guidance and scrutiny and the effect has been an over-reliance on technical solutions designed to regulate evidence and account for social work interventions. Munro argues that the introduction of expected time scales for the completion of each stage of the child protection process has caused unrealistic target setting against which social work is measured.

Munro argues that process and its measurement has become so high on the agenda that social workers are unable to concentrate on engaging with children and their families and are less able to use the skills that they were equipped with and that the work demands.

Many local authorities are having trouble in recruiting and retaining staff, so that the most challenging social work tasks in frontline child protection work are increasingly being undertaken by the least experienced staff. The Social Work Task Force found that ‘social workers feel that their profession is undervalued, poorly understood and under continuous media attack. This is making it hard for them to do their jobs and hard to attract people into the profession.’

Early intervention
The concept of early intervention is discussed in the report and Munro refers to MP Graham Allen’s independent review commissioned by the government, looking at how children at greatest risk of multiple disadvantage get the best start in life and the best models for early intervention.

Munro describes the ‘early’ in early intervention as ambiguous because it refers to intervening early in a child’s life and early in the genesis of problems, which may emerge at any point in childhood or adolescence.

Munro describes the first form of early intervention as seeking to counter the effects of socioeconomic disadvantage, as in the Graham Allen review.

The second form of early intervention is embodied in the ‘Every Child Matters’ reforms introduced by the last government. Part of the Every Child Matters agenda is to increase participation of all agencies in observing and recognising early low-level signs of difficulties and to motivate the contribution of several different services to support children and their families.

Problems with referrals
Munro’s opens the section headed universal services by stating that:

‘Professionals in universal services cannot and should not replace the function of social work, but they do need to be able to understand, engage and think professionally about the children, young people and families they are working with.

‘Families should be referred on to social workers either because they need support services that the local authority can provide (for example respite care for a disabled child) or because there are concerns about abuse or neglect. The problem is in determining what level of concern warrants a referral for a child protection investigation.’

The question of at what point a case becomes a child protection issue is always difficult. School-based staff have been traditionally trained to err on the side of caution and recognise that low-level concerns may be the surface signs of more serious harm. Child protection training in schools tends to encourage early discussion or referral to children’s social care in case the family is already known because of a referral from another agency. A number of agencies may have made referrals or had discussions with social workers and, while each individual concern raised may be of a low level, when they are seen alongside other concerns a much more difficult picture can emerge.

Munro follows her opening statement by saying: ‘Professionals need the ability to make an expert judgement about which cases should be referred.’

It is difficult to understand what she means here. On the one hand, she is saying leave social work to social workers, on the other, become experts on judging which cases should be referred. This, I would guess, is a reference to the statistical information that shows an increase in referrals since the Peter Connelly case. The suggestion is that universal services are referring cases that do not really warrant statutory intervention and that this is causing a problem at the front door of children’s social care, running the risk of urgent cases being missed.

While I recognise that there has been a massive increase in referrals, the claim that thresholds are too high was being made long before the Peter Connelly case. There are a number of possible reasons for the difficulties presently being experienced by social workers and the overreaction of universal services to low levels of risk is only one. Another is the well reported reduction in people entering the social work profession – there are simply fewer people trying to manage an increase in workload. Another reason, in my opinion, is the reluctance of many professionals to use the CAF process or the difficulties that professionals experience when attempting to instigate a CAF.

Munro goes on to say:

‘The judgment is necessarily fallible. Violence in families can suddenly escalate without any visible warning signs; a minor injury can, with hindsight and fuller knowledge, be seen to have been visible evidence of serious abuse. Managing this fallible judgment is significantly affected by anxiety and defensiveness, both of which lead to increasing and indiscriminate referrals to social workers. Some referrers, for example, automatically refer all cases of domestic violence without any indication of priority. This avoids the referrer making any judgment but increases risk to children and young people because it is difficult for the social work team to respond to so many referrals and the child who is in serious danger might be missed.’

Again I am struggling with the view that referrers make ‘indiscriminate’ referrals to social workers. Most universal services are trained to be cautious, to act rather than not act and that it is not their role to investigate. Munro gives domestic violence as the example of where indiscriminate referrals are made. However, universal services may be reacting to the body of research that shows a very high correlation between domestic violence and the abuse of children and as universal services are discouraged to investigate themselves they turn to the agency who has investigative powers.

Universal services in my own area have been very much involved in the development and use of the MARAC, regular multi-agency meetings about families experiencing domestic violence that develop strategies to manage the risks to both adults and children. These meetings have proved very successful and, I would suggest, reduce the indiscriminate referrals that Munro talks about.

What happened to strategy meetings? Meetings of professionals about individual cases to plan a way forward, and having the opportunity to properly discuss the issues with other professionals, including social workers, can also reduce the risk of indiscriminate referrals. I understand that these types of meetings are time-consuming and sometimes it is difficult to get people round a table at short notice, but where it does happen the spin-off in respect of understanding another professional’s role, role restrictions and possibilities and the development of trusting relationships is a key element in reducing indiscriminate referrals.

Munro states:

‘In evidence submitted to the review, examples were given of local innovations, for example, exploring whether it is more constructive for experienced social workers to have conversations about the best action to take and even form integrated teams with potential referrers instead of having a single process of completing a standardised form for the full variety of needs and concerns.’

On this I agree!

Next steps
It is clear from this first report that universal services are not viewed as having fully accepted the corporate ownership and responsibility for safeguarding and still see social workers as holding the overall role. Munro suggests that the judgements made by universal services about which cases need to be referred require more refinement and better management. Hopefully, her second report will address these issues in more detail and make further constructive recommendations about how this can be achieved. She is expected to publish a further report in January and her final report in April 2011.

The report closes by saying:

‘There are questions and observations throughout this initial report that we hope will stimulate local professional discussion and national debate. There will be opportunities for feedback and discussion going forward and we suggest you keep referring to the website for the review.’

Read the full report