Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Looked after children and the BBC

There was a programme on the BBC last night called Home Is Where the Hurt Is which was about looked after children in Scotland. It was also trawled as a news story and a magazine piece on the website. It struck me that the research for it was truly atrociously poor.

Firstly, the presenter said that the BBC has looked for months for statistics about outcomes for looked after children and could only find education statistics. I would have thought that an obvious starting point would be the Children's Commissioner where it's not very hard to find Kathleen Marshall's update to her Sweet 16 report which has some data on discharge destinations. The original report might also have been worth reading for research purposes - it also has some destination stats and figures on the numbers with a pathway plan.

The reporter could also have looked a little more closely at the publication from which the education figures were gathered and found statistics on the economic activity of care leavers. Also available there are destination figures, pathway stats, and statute. A wee browse of a range of publications from the Social Work Inspection Agency might also have been instructive.

The figures don't paint a rosy picture, but they are there. Whether the lack of accuracy in the reporting was down to laziness, poor research or a desire to skew the report in order to sex it up with a claim that the Government doesn't collect figures, we should expect more from the BBC.

Then there was the claim that looked after children who were away from the family did better academically and that this was because they had been removed from the family - showing a stunning misunderstanding of the range of reasons why children have looked after status. This isn't the risk register. Iain Gray made the same fundamental error when he was discussing it on Newsnight as well - he was arguing that children should be removed from their families far more often, alleging that there were somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 children living in what he called "chaotic households" (I'm sure he meant households where the adults had chaotic lifestyle, and the numbers he was using changed throughout the programme). He didn't give a source for his numbers, but a wee look at the statistics again shows just under 15,000 children are looked after children - I do hope Iain isn't suggesting that Scotland's social workers are ignoring thousands of children in need of help.

Looked after children can have become looked after children as a result of some imminent danger; they may have experienced abuse through action or inaction - mental, physical, emotional, sexual or nonorganic failure to thrive. They have suffered neglect either deliberate or inadvertent on the part of their parents or carers. They may also be children with complex disabilities who require a complex package of support, children who are brought into the system for respite care or to give time put in place a care package for themselves, their families and their communities. There are some looked after children whose parents simply have poor parenting skills and need help coping. Then there are looked after children who are looked after because they have come through the Children's Panel. Some children are looked after by the local authority because a children's hearing or a court has decided that compulsory intervention is required, some through an agreement between them, their parents and the local authority.

Some children need to be removed from their family home - for others it would be incredibly damaging. The idea that social workers are taking these decisions easily or, indeed, leaving children in the family home as a result of some prejudice is ridiculous. Imposing a dogmatic and ideological requirement that more children be removed is either cynical or daft. It certainly wouldn't help anyone. Such decisions are, surely, best made by the professionals - the social workers and social carers.

How many of those looked after children would you imagine were children at risk? The number of children on Child Protection Registers in Scotland was 2,437 at the end of March last year (that's the latest available figure). 14,886 was the number of looked after children on the same day - 12,449 of the looked after children in Scotland are not on the Protection Registers - why should we be ripping these children out of their homes?

Should we read anything into the fact that looked after children left in the family home have a lower education attainment than those removed? Not on its own - we'd have to compare children with a disability in each setting, children who have come through the justice system in each setting, children who have complex needs in each setting, and so on. The simplistic knee-jerk "something's wrong" doesn't help.

Part of the BBC reporting was that
One of the recommendations of the inquiry set up after the murder of eight-year-old Victoria Climbie in London in 2000, was that social workers should supervise no more than 14 such cases.

No it wasn't, there was no such recommendation. I've read the 108 recommendations from the Climbie inquiry. The only recommendation which mentioned caseload was number 29:
Recommendation 29 Directors of social services must devise and implement a system which provides them with the following information about the work of the duty teams for which they are responsible:
Timescale for action 2

• number of children referred to the teams;

• number of those children who have been assessed as requiring a service;

• number of those children who have been provided with the service that they require;

• number of children referred who have identified needs which have yet to be met.

Nothing about 14 cases being the maximum caseload - simply invented. That's a shameful thing for the BBC to do.

Why did the BBC get it so wrong? Apart from obvious poor research, they engaged as an expert a chap by the name of Dr Donald Forrester who qualified as a social worker in 1992, spent seven years in the field and then went into academic research and lecturing. The reason he was such a bad choice is that he qualified in England as a social worker, he worked in England as a social worker and his research and lecturing on social work has all been in England and concerned with England - and England's social work system is nothing like Scotland's.

The systems are different in direction, aim and scope. They differ in legislative framework and in organisational framework. There is no English equivalent to the Scottish Social Work Act; the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970 Schedule 1 (in force from 6th April this year in its current form) defines social work services for children which are extremely limited compared to the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 as amended which even includes a general duty to promote social welfare.

The 1995 Children (Scotland) Act places obligations on local authorities which simply don't exist down south, there is no direct equivalent of the Protection of Children and Prevention of Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2005. English social services have a more restricted scope of operations than their Scottish counterparts.

There is no English equivalent of the Children's Panel - probably the biggest difference - and there is a difference of approach which is embodied in that - Scotland's youth justice system is child focused rather than accusatory and adversarial. There are others who will happily point up the differences between Scotland and England in this respect - Community Care, for example, the old Scottish Executive's working groups, and the British Association of Social Workers.

Dr Forrester simply could not have been expected to know the system in Scotland. Why did the BBC not engage someone who would? Someone from Dundee University's School of Social Work, for example, or the Strathclyde one (joint initiative with Glasgow Uni), or Edinburgh, or Stirling, or Robert Gordon (which includes the Scottish Institute for Residential Child Care - surely appropriate for this story?). Aberdeen University hosts the reSearchWeb (yes, they really did that with the capital letters), Glasgow Caledonian provides shedloads of graduates in this and associated fields, and surely there are squads of on-the-ground professionals with more experience of social work in Scotland than poor Dr Forrester? What about the Association of Directors of Social Work? The British Association of Social Workers in Scotland?

I hope that it was just poor performance from the Beeb on this occasion, I would hate to think that anyone at our public broadcaster would want to be disingenuous in an attempt to make a story out of an old felt hat.

Mind how you go now.

1 comment:

BellgroveBelle said...

Excellent post - and better researched than the beeb too.