Regular readers of my efforts in NSBS may have discerned an emerging pattern, the theme that simple solutions to problems in social care will not work because reality is complicated and perverse. That certainly wasn’t my intention when starting out. I’ve merely been reacting to some of the major news items in child care social work, specifically the government’s proposed changes to the process of assessing adopters and foster carers. Banging on about the same thing is tiresome for me as a writer, let alone the poor reader.
But here I am again, putting fingertip to keyboard in response to Community Care’s exclusive that “ministers are planning to ‘slaughter’ key child safeguarding guidance as part of measures to tackle bureaucracy in children’s services.” Apparently on the instructions of Michael Gove, Working Together is to be reduced from 300 pages to 60 or even 10. In welcoming the Munro Report on child protection work, many of us wondered exactly how the recommendation that has been embraced most wholeheartedly by the government, a decrease in bureaucracy, would be put into practice whilst maintaining quality standards and the absolute necessity of keeping good records. Now we know – by dismantling wholesale an intricate but solid structure of multi-disciplinary procedures created in response to a failing system that left vulnerable children unprotected and replacing it with a few sides of A4. It’s an absurd response to the complexities of safeguarding, almost as baffling as the concept that I have regular readers.
Over the years I’ve been asked to write policies and procedures for a variety of independent child care concerns. There’s been a noticeable shift of late towards infernally detailed documents that cover every possible eventuality. Business Continuity is the new vogue, propelled to prominence by the now annual winter flu scares. Granted it is conceivable that an entire staff group could be laid waste as the virus sweeps across the southeast targeting only social workers left vulnerable by the exhausting pressures of their job, but frankly it’s unlikely. Someone somewhere will still be standing, grasping a battered mobile phone and as the ‘battery low’ light flickers for one final time, still hanging on for the Social Services switchboard to put them through.
Organisations believe this level of detail offers protection. In any given circumstance, staff will know what to do. It’s illusory, of course, and those who put these infernal constructions into practice feel they have at best a series of unattainable expectations to fulfil, at worst, they are impaled at the sharp end of a blame culture. However, there is no escaping the complications of enabling all the agencies potentially involved in the care and protection of our children to co-operate and share information. Whilst nominally having the same goal in mind, each has not only different processes and procedures, they also have long-established and very different cultures that have proved highly durable and change-resistant. By all means cut out some of the more esoteric ‘what ifs’ but do not severely undermine the substantial core of Working Together.
Staff with plenty of contact with users do not need to know the ins and outs. What they need most is the confidence that somebody has done that work for them, and done it properly, the 90% of the iceberg that’s below the waterline or the swan’s feet paddling furiously unseen as above the surface the bird moves serenely onwards. Let’s also not forget where Working Together came from. It was forged in the heat of successive child death enquiries that from Maria Colwell onwards found fault in the system of inter-agency communication and condemned the blindness to reforms that sadly were ignored and unimplemented. This world hasn’t changed, yet suddenly the system can apparently be streamlined. I fail to see how this will help abused children and young people.
If the government want to have a go at something different, I suggest they narrow the scale of their approach. Spend more time understanding how relationships between professionals are formed and sustained. Problems here, at this level, are the single biggest impediment to working smoothly together. Take a look at those conflicting cultures and work out how to develop a better mutual comprehension of the roles of social workers, police, doctors, nurses and teachers. Enable colleagues to meet each other. I’m not reducing child protection to an absurd creation of my own because this all takes places within the the Working Together framework, but the fact is, if we know someone and have a working relationship with a person not a job title, we’re more likely to make contact, to share information, to make an enquiry. That’s how people behave. It’s what we do and who we are, so why don’t we do it in child protection?
I once worked in a community social work office alongside housing, welfare rights and homecare. Before we started work, we spent a couple of days training together. We built up and then destroyed a few stereotypes. it was fun and provocative at the same time, and it worked. It wouldn’t cost much for something similar to be a regular feature in local authorities. Granted it’s not as headline-grabbing as the proposed slaughter of safeguarding guidance, but it’s likely to have a far more beneficial effect.
I was part of another major advance in multidisciplinary working during my time as a field social worker. The police child protection team invited us to their Christmas party. A good time was had by all. Afterwards, the sergeant told me that he didn’t expect us to even turn up, let alone have a few beers and join in the karaoke. It says something about their perceptions of us as a profession (social workers, having fun, whatever next?) but believe me when I say that this one evening improved the working relationship between the two local teams no end. It became part of the new culture, passed on to new recruits. DfE sponsored karaoke, now there’s a radical thought.