With no small amount of trepidation, we gathered at the NCVO venue in London on June 1st. We had no idea how it was going to go, if we had been over ambitious in our scope, if the different participants really had anything to say to one another that could lead to anything constructive.
By the end of the day, all earlier trepidation was wiped out by the energy and the enthusiasm of all the participants. The feedback was almost universally positive so we will give serious consideration to meeting again for #CPConf2016.
The purpose of this post is to summarise what we discussed, what was the feedback, and what is the way forward. We don’t want to lose this momentum and excitement.
What was going on at the conference?
We got together in one room about 100 delegates and speakers representing all those involved in the child protection system – lawyers, magistrates, Cafcass, social workers, guardians, psychologists, therapists, charities, parents, care leavers, campaigners, McKenzie friends. On the table was discussion about whether or not the current child protection system is fit for purpose.
Sir Mark Hedley opened the event. He highlighted the need for an honest acceptance that no system could ever be perfect and broke the disappointing news for the lawyers present that whenever we cite his famous dictum from Re L that is because we know we are going to lose.
Presentations followed from Dr Lauren Devine of UWE who is carrying out research into the efficacy of the current system; Brigid Featherstone, co-author of Re-Imagining Child Protection, psychologist Lisa Wolfe and social work practitioner Vicki Ellis. Cathy Ashley also spoke about the work of the Family Rights Group, highlighting her frustration at the reduction of funding to this organisation, at a time when more and more parents were looking for help.
Kirsty Seddon, a care leaver, spoke of her frustration at a system which doesn’t seem to recognise that the corporate parent needs to be the best parent it can be; the outcomes for care leavers remain bleak. Parents, both of birth and adoptive children gave their perspectives about the system and spoke with powerful and raw emotion. There was uncomfortable unanimity from these speakers about just how brutalising and traumatic the whole process had been.
Dr Kate Harrington of Exeter University spoke about the impact of language on how we think and analyse cases and delegates completed a questionnaire to discover how they understood certain common professional terms such as ‘attachment’ and ‘pre-contemplative change’. She noted with interest that although most delegates claimed to find the terms ‘clear’ – almost all gave a different definition of their meaning!
Representatives from Kid’s Company attended and noted that the conference echoed the themes in their own campaign ‘See the Child’ which calls for improvements within the current structures – which often attribute blame to individual workers without acknowledging that fundamentally the delivery of care to vulnerable children in Britain is not fit for purpose.
All participants soon recognised that a common theme could be found for every speaker – we are drifting ever further away from the guiding principles of the Children Act 1989. This has led to the emergence of policies and practice that judge and condemn families without actually helping children or keeping them safe. Of particular concern was the approach of ‘muscular authoritarianism’ towards struggling families, coupled with the climate of austerity, which meant that social workers were not encouraged to recognise that children are embedded in the networks of family and community, which should be protected and supported. Instead, the system was in danger of becoming just about managing professional anxiety and ticking boxes, with little or no accountability when things went wrong or willingness to learn from mistakes.
The professionals identified their dismay that their efforts to help families were frustrated by the deficiencies of the current system; caused either by deliberate policies to limit their engagement, or as the unfortunate by product of the climate of austerity. All agreed we were missing an opportunity to really engage with parents.
There was recognition of the impossible tension in current social work practice between supporting and policing that is inimical to the building of trusting relationships and has a significant impact upon parents’ capacity to engage and benefit from support on offer. But credit was also given to social workers who in spite of the difficulties are striving to do an often impossible job.
What was the feedback?
As of 3rd June 2015, 25 people have given feedback, either via email or via the feedback forms on the day. We would be delighted to get any further feedback!
We asked the following questions:
- What did you think was useful/helpful about today’s event
- What did you think did not go well or could have gone better?
- What did you think of the speakers?
- What did you think of the workshops?
- Would you be interested in attending any future events like this?
- What would you like to discuss at any future event?
What went well?
Almost all of those responding wanted to attend a future event and found the speakers impressive. What they found most useful was the range of perspectives on offer:
‘Brilliant range of speakers. Tough subjects handed well. A call to arms most welcome’
In particular, people said they benefited from hearing from the parents and Kirsty:
‘Hearing from care leavers and parents left a lump in my throat, but it was essential to remind those of us working in system the importance of what we do’.
What didn’t go well?
Yes, we have to accept – we could have been better organised and our ability to keep to time was woeful! In our defence, it simply did not feel right to cut off some speakers but we we can learn for the future and be more disciplined at starting on time and nominating one person to be the enforcer of the timetable.
There were 2 responses who criticised the substance of the event:
I think a lot of the speakers were one sided. Very negative about social workers/social care. There are positive outcomes for families that also need to be acknowledged….talked a lot about what has gone wrong but not solutions.
I did not feel that this conference supported dialogue between different parties involved in the child protection system…it was interesting material with an ambitious remit but it was poorly managed, disjointed and did not encourage communication
These are interesting responses because they are so different to the others’ perceptions. I certainly struggle to understand how anyone could feel that communication was not encouraged – it was the whole point of the day! I can understand how someone might feel it was ‘negative’ – but unfortunately that is the nature of the beast. Things are going very wrong with our current system and sadly the good news is often drowned out by the bad.
So where to we go from here?
But it is perfectly legitimate to point out that its all very well harping on about the negatives – what are we actually going to DO about it?
What we are going to do is to try and harness the momentum and hopefully turn it into practical changes that will benefit all in the system. Almost all agreed that we needed to carry on working together to look at constructive ways to tackle the issues.
Delegates suggested the following areas needed more consideration:
- Changes in social work practice to improve the process
- Information about alternative resources for families and courts
- Research into open adoption and post-placement contact
- Examine the effectiveness of the Public Law Outline
- Is there a national threshold criteria?
- Litigants in person
- Is adoption the answer?
- Better dissemination of current research
- Chronic child illnesses and child protection
- Rights of adoptees
- How do we shift the focus from child protection back to supporting families?
- the role of the media
- The difficulties faced by social workers and how parents and social workers can be helped to form better relationships.
- The child’s experiences
- How cases get to court without rigorous evidential basis – whats the role of the LA lawyers?
Over the coming months we hope to continue the discussions about what we can achieve to make sure we all have the child protection system we deserve. Any other comments or suggestions always welcome. Both Dr Devine and Cathy Ashley encouraged people to get in touch if they are interested in taking further the issues raised at the conference.
- Publish a transcript of the afternoon question and answer session and invite comments
- Compile a data base of those who wish to attend future events
- Continue the discussion on line and in person
For those who couldn’t make it in person, the conference papers will be published in a special edition of Seen and Heard to be published in the summer of 2015.