A new protocol between Ofsted, police, local authorities and the Office of the Children's Commissioner on sharing information about children's homes gives opportunity to a new good-faith collaboration characterised by transparency.
Several statements clear the decks of past misunderstandings and misrepresentations about children's homes. Free from that past and now in one team, we can now all make rapid progress and, as the protocol heralds, 'maximise the welfare of looked after children who rely on children's homes placements'.
At Government level with the data on the location of children's homes known and the information to be used to 'contribute to better informed policies' it must presage a national strategy for residential child care. There is nothing to stop it.
A particular myth, in newspapers even last weekend, is busted with the protocol stating that the 'police and local authorities are likely to already know the locations of children's homes in their area, and there are well established patterns of partnership working in place'.
This protocol has a clear commitment from the Association of Chief Police Officers to
better support children in children's homes through 'a strategic and operational approach to safeguarding looked after children living in children's homes e.g. to offer homes more targeted support to prevent children going missing from these placements'.
The protocol also contains the commitment to 'deter potential offenders from targeting children living in children's homes'. Knowledge of concerns affecting individual homes will be shared with Ofsted to inform their regulation and inspections.
It's a delicate balance to achieve positive protection for looked after children. Looked-after children are entitled to the same privacy and protection as all other children.
The protocol contains safeguards about the disclosure of details relating to children's homes that should meet concerns about looked-after children being inappropriately targeted in local crime enquiries.
The protocol recognises that looked-after children in children's homes can be more vulnerable to crimes involving exploitation and there is a need to balance their privacy and safety.
Inevitably, there will be some residues of the past to be worked through but with public authorities pledging that 'monitoring is transparent' and that the 'public can obtain on request how frequently by this data has been processed' we can hasten a national methodology for access, scrutiny, accountability, and reporting.
All that is yet to be done but, given new local relationships that must follow this national lead, all eminently achievable. Establishing vibrant local partnerships will really make this protocol sing.
There are two urgent tasks. The protocol devolves one to the Information Commissioner. The protocol appreciates that there may be occasions when 'a children's home or individual child may feel that they have been unfairly targeted, or that their safety, rights or welfare have been damaged or infringed as a result of unfair or inappropriate use or sharing of this information. Individuals (including children) will be informed about how to make representations to the service concerned and about their right to complain to the Information Commissioner.'
Anticipating this situation, a complaints procedure that supports a person by knowing what to do when the inevitable happens given the amount of information that will be transferred to various agencies will do much to sustain good-faith collaboration.
Secondly, everyone involved with this protocol needs to have a common core of knowledge, skills and competencies about looked-after children. There will be different levels of training for different staff activities linked to the required learning outcomes for each as well as training options available to help individuals achieve those outcomes. Again local partnerships can develop what is necessary
locally from the nationally available materials.