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From The Socialist newspaper, 31 January 2003

After Victoria Climbie: What future for child protection?

TWO YEAR old Ainlee Walker died a most horrendous death with 64 injuries on her body. Her parents received long jail sentences for manslaughter and cruelty. The enquiry into Ainlee's death found that health visitors and social workers that were supposed to protect Ainlee, were terrified of her parents.

Jean Thorpe, Nottingham City Unison

Health visitors had stopped visiting the family after one of them had been seriously assaulted.

The police had visited the family on 32 occasions whilst Ainlee was alive, to investigate complaints of domestic abuse. The enquiry highlighted a huge lack of coordination between the police and other agencies.

Ainlee's death followed that of 8-year-old Victoria Climbie who had been tortured and starved by her carers. Both children had been known to social services.

Whilst in Victoria's case the social worker was scapegoated by both the media and her employer, the enquiry into Ainlee's death concluded that health and social work staff shouldn't be disciplined. The report stated, "Given the lack of effective ways of recruiting, training and supervising staff, it would not be fair to blame them... responsibility is a management issue" (quoted in The Guardian).

Lord Lamming's enquiry into Victoria Climbie's death, had promised that her death would mark a turning point in the care of vulnerable children. However according to the NSPCC, at least one child is killed by a parent or carer every week.

The government has been shocked by the publicity surrounding these enquiries and also a damning report into the various services that work with children at risk, which said that lack of financial resources, properly trained staff, and coordination between agencies, was undermining Britain's child protection services.

Support and protection

Far reaching reforms of child protection services are now being proposed. It has even been suggested that local authorities should be stripped of their responsibility for child protection, and that it should be given to a separate external agency, effectively privatising it. However, this has been met with considerable opposition, even from the government.

It has been pointed out by practitioners that the line between children in need of support and children needing protection is often blurred. The same children may at different times need both support and protection. It would be ludicrous and also confusing for parents, for different agencies to deal with these different aspects of services to vulnerable children.

The government's current proposal is to set up "children's trusts" to work with vulnerable children. These would be similar to care trusts that were set up last year to integrate health and social services for vulnerable adults.

One improvement would be that unlike care trusts which are led by the NHS, children's trusts would be based within local government and therefore would be accountable to local communities. However the government has also said that children's trusts could include the private sector.

Whatever restructuring of child protection services takes place, the central problems of lack of resources, a shortage of qualified social workers, and caseloads that are too high, will remain. The long list of tragic child deaths have all taken place in a context of underfunding, staff shortages and low morale. Across the public services, social services are given a low priority. There is a huge recruitment and retention problem particularly in London and other areas where housing costs are high. Many social work teams have more than 50% vacancy levels.

Despite the recent local government pay settlement social workers are still the lowest paid group when compared with nurses, teachers and police officers. Despite a chronic national shortage of social workers, the only government action has been an advertising campaign and a new bursary system for social work students.

The government's disgusting name, shame and blame culture has demoralised staff working in difficult circumstances. Their obsession with star ratings, league tables and performance targets does nothing to improve services.

Only a huge increase in resources going to social services alongside measures to improve the pay, conditions and training of staff, will attract and retain people in this difficult area of work where burnout rates are high.

Instead, cutbacks are constant. Family centres and other support services are being reduced. Thresholds for accessing services are constantly increased to try and reduce workloads. But all this leads to is vital preventative work not being done, and families plunging into crisis before they can get help, which may then be too late.

Frustration On The Frontline

SABRINA IS a social worker for children in the London Borough of Newham, the borough where Ainlee Walker was tragically killed. She spoke to The Socialist about her experiences.

To be a front-line social worker is a really difficult task. Even though you love the job you do, management plans make it much more difficult.

The workload we have to carry is so enormous. At the moment I'm managing 23 caseloads and each case has got complex needs.

Realistically it should be 12 to 15 cases for each social worker.

What makes it worse is the lack of support you get from managers. Being a newly qualified social worker it can be really difficult if you haven't had previous experience of the statutory sector.

You need a lot of management input but in the real world it's not like that. It's chaotic, and often you get bullied instead of supported. That has an impact on your health

I am committed to the work I do, I care about the people I work with and I try to provide the best possible care for them. It's very frustrating because you go to the family, you assess their needs but because of lack of funding your hands are tied.

You go to the panel, you advocate on behalf of your client but you are not able to meet their needs.

You try as hard as you can, you bring work home to meet deadlines but it's still not always possible.

I hope the Victoria Climbie inquiry will show a way forward. There needs to be more funding and there needs to be changes at the top. Managers need to listen to social workers' individual experiences and give us the support we need.

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In The Socialist 31 January 2003:

No To War On Iraq

Preparing For War

Build solidarity action with the firefighters

After Victoria Climbie: What future for child protection?

Fight Back Against Fees

Iraq War: Blood For Oil

World Social Forum: For A Socialist Alternative


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