JimKenThis has been a week full of important developments in the children’s services world. Some have pointed the way forward, some have been ominous, and one has again thrown light on the tragic lives, and deaths, that some children lead and suffer. CareKnowledge editor Jim Kennedy gives his view on the key issues:

The serious case review on Hamzah Khan has just been published. As is widely known, Hamzah died in December 2009 but his body was not discovered until September 2011. He was 4 years old at the time of his death.

Hamzah died of starvation because he was neglected by his mother, Amanda Hutton. She was convicted of manslaughter and child cruelty in October 2013.

Hamzah’s body was only discovered because the police had visited his home as a result of concerns about the physical state of the house, and the whereabouts of other young children in the family who had not been seen for some time.

During his mother’s trial, it was not clear which agencies – and to what extent [they] – had had contact with Hamzah and his family. The SCR shows that a wide range of agencies, including the local social services department had had involvement with the family, over several years.

Broadly, the Review concludes that Hamzah’s death could not have been predicted but finds that systems, many of them national, let Hamzah down both before and following his death. The Chair of the LSCB also argues that there was insufficient information and no evidence that would have allowed any agency to take statutory action to safeguard Hamzah.

This is, of course, another in what is now a very long list of cases involving children who have died in appalling circumstances, and where agency involvement has been extensively scrutinised. However, it’s relatively unusual for Ministers to do what they have done in this case, and directly criticise the quality and conclusions of the SCR.

Edward Timpson has written a strongly worded letter to the Chair of the LCSB, raising questions about the lack of information on 10 key incidents highlighted in the Review. Almost all relate to apparent failures, by social services to follow up on identified concerns.

Moving on to the ominous development – which has re-surfaced this week – the possible Government takeover of Birmingham children’ services. This has appeared as a news story linked to Ofsted’s current inspection in the City. The story suggest that if no improvement is identified in the inspection, the Government will move to impose new management and accountability arrangements for children’s services in the City.

Unusually, the newly-appointed Director of Children’s Services in Birmingham is quoted as saying he recognises the serious problems with which Birmingham is still grappling, and accepts that the situation will pose a real dilemma for the Government.

The developments which may point to some of the national way forward in all of this come in two major speeches by DFE Ministers, Michael Gove, and Edward Timpson.

Whether or not you agree with his conclusions, Michael Gove’s speech (to the NSPCC), is, in particular, a substantial and passionate one, in which, I think, he sets out to show his ownership of the social services elements of his portfolio – an issue on which he is often accused of being lukewarm.

Mr Gove’s speech is packed with positive references to the work that social workers do, and to the extreme difficulties they face in the complex family and practice situations that confront them.

As is usual in Ministerial speeches, he points to a number of government initiatives, planned and underway, that are designed to strengthen the profession and the service – and meet some of the deficits in them that Ministers have identified.

Those initiatives include the new, elite Frontline recruitment programme, the Martin Nary-led review of social work training, the recruitment of Clive Cowdery, of the Resolution Foundation to lead a new social work innovation project in the DFE, the steps taken to speed up care and adoption processes, and the requirement to publish SCRs in full.

However, it’s here that I think joined-up thinking might be more fully demonstrated in DFE behaviour. One of the key points made in Mr Gove’s speech is that other professionals share child protection responsibilities with social workers. The concern is best illustrated by a direct quote:

“But one of the most important lessons I have drawn is that the focus which sometimes gets directed on the role - and decisions - of social workers leads us away from the critical role - and often the terrible failures - of other professionals.

Whether it’s the police, or doctors, or local government lawyers, or the impact of poor judicial decision making, it is important that we hold other professionals, and other institutions to account for child protection just as much as we do social workers.”
I am sure it would be really reassuring to the social work profession, and all those who work in social services, if that rhetoric was followed through into action.

However, however….

I have not had time to fully scrutinise the Hamzah Khan SCR, and I cannot be confident about the questions that might be asked of other professions and agencies, but the Minister’s letter certainly exposes a number of areas where he believes social services activity should be further scrutinised. I can see no similar questions that are directly, or solely, focused on the roles of other professionals and agencies.

Whether such questions are justified in Hamzah’s case or not, if Ministers mean what they say about highlighting the shared accountability of other professions, they are going to have to show clearer evidence, in the future, that they will raise awkward questions in relation to those professions and their agencies, when they believe that is necessary.

Then, we may just see public perception being shifted, if people can begin to understand that it’s not just social workers who struggle with the challenges and complexities of working with often chaotic families, and ensuring adequate protection of the children involved.