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Government Spin Alone Won't Protect Our Children

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Following the conviction of Magdelena Luczak and Mariusz Krezolek for the murder of four-year-old Daniel Pelka, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said on his LBC Radio show "his death should be on all of our consciences."

This is not a sentiment likely to be echoed by the media or the general public, who perhaps understandably lay the blame squarely on the professionals whose job it is to protect children.

In the media blitz that accompanied the conviction, Mr Clegg and former children's minister Tim Loughton rushed to reassure the public that the government is doing everything possible to "reduce complexity and bureaucracy" in the child protection system, and that deaths like Daniel's are isolated cases.

Government spin belies the reality of child protection.

Such optimism from politicians falls flat when considering that a quarter of all councils in England are currently believed to be judged "inadequate" by children's social care inspectorate Ofsted.

If you asked someone on the street what should be done to help children at risk of abuse in the home, they would no doubt say get those children out and get them out quickly.

It is rarely as simple as that, and every case must be properly assessed on its own merits by a skilled professional with the necessary time and resources to ensure that the best decisions are made for the children.

Politicians know that rhetoric such as pledges to "cut red tape" makes for good headlines, and that's why they say it.

In reality, a complex case cannot be made less complex just because an MP wills it, and imposing sound-bite friendly deadlines just creates more pressure on an already beleaguered workforce.

That said, while the complexity of child protection can and should never be negated, something is clearly not working in the current system in England.

It is necessary to note that just as parenting cannot be properly assessed in a context of abject poverty, social work cannot be properly assessed in a context of cuts and lack of resources to do the job.

After the death of Peter Connolly, the horrifically abused toddler more commonly known as 'Baby P', secretary of state for education Michael Gove asked Professor Eileen Munro to conduct an independent review of child protection in England.

Munro concluded that the child protection system had become too obsessed with procedures and had lost focus on the needs of the children concerned.

The government accepted Munro's recommendations at the time but have done little to implement them, instead using the report as something of a comfort blanket whenever there are high profile criticisms of the system.

Members of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), the majority employed by local authorities, have been raising concerns about the "dire" state of their working conditions for some time.

One told me, "The government has to make its mind up about what it wants from us. On the one hand, Michael Gove wants us to take more children into care, yet on the other there are not enough foster carers or resources available."

The government has been extremely vocal in the media about its push to get more children in care adopted. Just this week, the Department for Education announced that an extra £16m in funding is to be given to adoption charities in England.

Just recruiting more adopters is not the answer. Adoption is not the only option for children in care and is only suitable for a small number of children.

There has to be recognition of the role that foster, residential and kinship care play in the care system as a whole and make sure they too are properly resourced.

The current political dogma of "doing more for less" simply cannot be applied to a public service like child protection.

Social workers employed by local authorities are finding themselves working within a landscape of ever-changing goalposts in a culture that has become more target-driven, not less.

Ofsted already introduced a new inspection framework in May last year, which means yet another new set of guidelines to work to and paperwork to fill in.

In September of this year, the "adequate" judgement is set to be scrapped and replaced by "requires improvement".

A label with such negative connotations is unlikely to either improve the morale of social workers or boost the confidence of the public.

BASW Chief Executive Bridget Robb shares members' concerns that not enough of their working day is spent seeing children.

"If all your time is spent preparing for inspections, how can you possibly be expected to improve your practice?" she said, adding "the needs of children are being lost in a target-driven culture; this makes us wonder if the good work proposed by Munro is simply being swept aside".

The increasing trend to bring in the private sector to rescue "failing" councils will not necessarily shift the blame away from social workers when tragedies occur.

Legislation states that the local authority remains the "corporate parent", even if it has little control over an outsourced service.

There remains confusion in the public consciousness as to what is the responsibility of central government and what is the responsibility of local government.

We need people to understand the enormous challenges currently faced by local councils, who are struggling to deliver services under massive pressure, both to meet increasing demand for social services from the public, as well as delivering the large budget cuts required by central government.

Ms Robb says we need to take a hard look at the best ways to deliver services in future, "Regardless of who delivers that service, the way forward for child protection has to see an urgent reduction of caseloads, more preventative services to keep families together where that is appropriate and get social workers back to the job they are trained to do, building relationships with children and families."

Until then, at best, politicians far removed from the reality of front line child protection social work are being naïve about the progress being made.

At worst, they are deliberately setting out to deceive the public that it's all the fault of hapless professionals, when government are undermining the very foundations of the system.

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