Our overwhelmed children’s social care system needs love — and a lot of money

1st June, 2022 2:29 pm

Despite the scandals of the deaths of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson, the system still struggles to see the real threats, resulting in a toxic legacy of bitterness

The poet Lemn Sissay, who grew up in care, sums up the brutality of a system devoid of love. “Our care services are told to not be emotionally involved in our cases. Social workers said to me, ‘I can’t be emotionally involved.’ That’s an emotional statement in itself. It’s a violent one,” he says. “It’s all about love. How do we account for the greatness of love?”

There was little sign of love in the experiences of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, and Star Hobson, murdered by step-parents in separate incidents in 2020.

The safeguarding reviews into their deaths, published last week, showed a litany of failings by the system that was meant to protect them. Arthur, 6, was murdered by his stepmother Emma Tustin at their home in Solihull in June 2020. His father, Thomas Hughes, was found guilty of manslaughter.

Social workers visited their home after family members’ warnings — including photographic evidence of bruises to his body. But they closed the case after believing his father’s claim that those family members were harassing him.

In the case of Star Hobson, who was 16 months old when she died in Keighley, West Yorkshire, it was her mother’s girlfriend who killed her. Bradford social services, which was “in turmoil” at the start of the pandemic, was told by her mother that allegations of Star’s abuse from her family were malicious and rooted in their disapproval of their same-sex relationships.

The review highlighted the fatal missed chances to save both children and like a long roll call of reviews dating back to “Baby P”, Peter Connelly, in 2007, and Victoria Climbié, 8, in 2000, it recommended better information-sharing between the agencies working with families. But it also highlighted a “lack of robust critical thinking and challenge among social workers who visited the family”, stressing the lack of “sharper specialist child protection skills” that would better assess risks, and engage reluctant parents.

Put simply, in isolation the social worker did not have the nuanced and fine judgment skills to work out when they were being lied to. At the heart of this is trust and the corruption of the relationship between social workers and the families who need their help.

I spent three years examining the hidden world of children’s social care for my book, Behind Closed Doors. I spoke to dozens of families who occupy this secretive system as well as social workers, teachers and lawyers. I spent days in airless courtrooms, shadowing family judges.

I found a system that has removed more children into care than since current records began — 80,000 at the last count — but is still missing children like Arthur and Star. It is where neither party can believe in the other. Social workers are trying to fill two roles: the supportive friendly face for those in need; then the detective who will gather the evidence to take a family to court to remove their child.

Phillip Davis (not his real name) is a social worker in the southwest. He is softly spoken and considers his words carefully. He describes the reality of trying to build trustful relationships with families: “There’s an in-built impossibility of being both a source of support and a threat to your family staying together. Just the fact that we are agents of the state makes it more and more impossible.”

To flex between the two, and keep a family talking to them, is the heart of the challenge. “Some parents are outright hostile: that’s usually a fear-generated response,” Davis says. “Some parents are overly inviting and overly familiar. That’s the challenge. You can’t separate those who are using tactics to evade you versus those who are just trying to build a meaningful relationship and work with you.”

Distrust is abundant on the family’s side as well. One parent whose two sons were removed told me that a social worker said to her, as she was pleading for them to listen to her: “Why should I believe you? Baby P’s mother lied.”

This fundamental faultline between carers and families has infected the whole system. Lucy Reed, the respected family lawyer based in the Bristol area, told me: “The thing I would really want people to understand is about the breakdown of trust between families and social workers.

“I think it’s really corrosive and a barrier to everything else. They have been told awful things — some of them true. They are primed to be suspicious. The whole thing is really toxic.” It also often the last straw: one of the most common factors cited in court documents seeking the removal of a child is the parents “inability to work with social workers”.

So how do you solve a problem that is so complex and so deeply embedded? Another review published this week attempted to set out a pathway. The wide-ranging Independent Review of Children’s Social Care delivered by Josh MacAlister, an ex-teacher and founder of a fast-track social work scheme, warned that the 80,000 children in care would bulge to 100,000 by 2032 if the system is not radically reformed.

He correctly identified that funding would be central to this. One reason for the current tension in the system is the lack of resources available to social workers, the shortage of support services for addiction or domestic abuse, which would allow them to help families earlier, and instead means that they reach too quickly for court orders.

It has created a system so overwhelmed that it struggles to see the real threats and created a toxic legacy of bitterness and resentment. Stories of child removal live on in community folklore that then infects trust in the whole system, perpetuating the cycle.

MacAlister made the case for investing £2.6 billion now in more skilled, evidenced and early help for families, with a separate workforce of expert child protection specialists. His recommendations would support 30,000 of those children to stay safely at home, he claimed.

While costing in the short term, it would save taxpayers money within seven years. In my book I, too, argued that we need to reset the system to rebuild that trust by investing in early help for families, giving families with chronic struggles the support to prevent them from reaching crisis point, and separating it out from the acute work of child protection.

There are local authorities who are paving the way. Leeds has introduced family group conferencing, a system that was developed in New Zealand to tackle the injustices that the Maori community had experienced at the hands of social services. It puts the decision-making in the family’s hands and the onus on social workers to support families to find their solutions. In Hertfordshire, extensive early-help services have reduced the numbers of children in care — and the cost to the taxpayer. With more support, time and experience, families could learn to trust social workers again.

Both of the reviews published last week called for more specialist and experienced child protection officers deployed where there are serious concerns to address the problem of identifying where parents were covering up their crimes. But the MacAlister review makes the case for something different as well: to place love back at the heart of social care, just as Sissay said. The word “love” features 42 times in MacAlister’s report, while “loving” appears 50 times. There is a mission that every child who leaves care should have at least two people who love them.

It’s a different sort of public service that gets into building better bonds with people. It is perhaps the most overt example of a new way of thinking about public service reform. My day job is as interim chief executive of the think tank, Demos. My predecessor, Polly Mackenzie, calls this new way of thinking “relational public services”.

It’s about how we can create a state that supports families and communities to pull together, by building trusting relationships within communities, and between people and the state. It is about a state that supports people to be their best, rather than testing them when they are at their worst. What is abundantly clear is that we need to do social work differently.

Source: Our overwhelmed children’s social care system needs love — and a lot of money | News | The Sunday Times (thetimes.co.uk)

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