Protecting children at risk of abuse is one of the most important things a council does. The work carried out by teams of professional social workers only hits the headlines if something goes tragically wrong. The social workers do a tough and demanding job, and on the whole they do it extremely well in very difficult circumstances. I spent a day out with our child protection teams finding out more about the work they do in Lambeth. All the cases I refer to in this article have been anonymised to protect people’s identities.
I sat in on a case conference to see how the professionals decide whether a child needs protection and what that might include. The mother – let’s call her Miss A – was a foreign national who, because of her immigration status, was not entitled to public support in terms of housing or financial benefits. She appeared to have some difficulty understanding the process taking place despite very sympathetic treatment from the social workers. Miss A has recently had a baby but is living in temporary lodgings with a co-tenant she doesn’t know and who objects to having the baby in the communal living areas. The baby has no separate sleeping area of its own. Miss A has a medical condition that she is failing to treat properly despite being at risk of collapsing unconscious. If that were to happen she has no plans for who would look after her child. The father lives elsewhere in London, she appears to have no close friends, has never worked, and her family all live abroad in her home country. There are clear risks to the child’s wellbeing and the team are keen to try and minimise these.
The case conference includes social workers, police, health visitors and an experienced social worker who chairs the proceedings. Decisions are taken about the kind of support the mother should receive. It strikes me that she seems rather confused by what’s going on and I later suggest that unaccompanied adults who are involved in this kind of process might benefit from the support of a volunteer who’s gone through a similar experience and who could act as their friend, explaining what’s going on in a friendly and impartial way.
After the case conference, I join a social worker on a home visit. We get in her car and drive a mile or so away to a flat in a converted Victorian house. We meet Mrs B, an African woman in her late 40s, mother of six children. Two of her daughters, both under 16, have got involved with a violent youth gang and Mrs B is at her wits’ end with worry about how she can regain control over them. They frequently stay away for days on end, apparently abusing drugs and alcohol. They are not present, as they should be, for the social workers’ visit. They have lost all respect for their heritage and culture, both have been arrested for involvement in offending – some of it seriously violent. Both have been excluded from school. Frequent appearances at court mean little to them as they receive extensions to their community sentences – wearing electronic tags and taking part in community reparations that they simply ignore without any serious consequences.
Mrs B feels she has been prevented by British law from using traditional models of discipline common in her home culture that she believes would have kept her daughters out of trouble. There seems to be a real issue about the lenience of punishment given to the girls – instead of learning to respect the law they are learning that it won’t do anything serious to stop them. That cannot be right. I discuss with Mrs B and the social worker whether we need a different approach. The Boston model, first trialled in the United States, brings together community leaders and public service leaders to confront young offenders with two stark choices: either they accept the support on offer to steer them away from offending, or they face serious consequences that might include custodial sentences or intensive foster care placements with foster carers experienced at controlling unruly young people. It seems to work in the US and I wonder whether a similar approach here would help mothers like Mrs B regain the control they have lost over their children.
I’m also impressed by another initiative to help struggling parents recently introduced in Lambeth. The Council has joined up with Home Start UK to get volunteers who have experience in bringing up children in difficult circumstances to support parents who need their help. This is a great project, offering support that really makes a difference for families in addition to the support available from the Council. It strikes me as a great example of what we’re trying to achieve with our cooperative council proposals.
Back at the office, I join the referrals team to see how vulnerable children are identified and allocated support. I’m astonished to learn that there are 22,000 referrals a year, including from the police and schools. That’s nearly 500 a week, most of them highly urgent. The majority of cases involve some kind of domestic violence and this is often associated with drugs or alcohol abuse. The assessment team officers review the cases and pass them on to the social work teams best able to investigate and offer support. The council is keen to support children in their own families where it’s safe to do so, but will take them into care if there is a serious and immediate risk of harm. In a few weeks’ time the council’s referrals team will be relocated to work alongside the police so that it’s easier to cross-refer past criminal records of adults who are reported to them, leading to better decision-making about which children are at risk.
I was deeply impressed by the professionalism, dedication and commitment of Lambeth’s child protection teams. They really do an important job for which they get little public thanks. What could matter more than protecting some of our community’s most vulnerable children from harm? It was a privilege to spend some time with these people, and I will continue to work with them to explore some of the ideas for improving the excellent service they offer.