“Simple Solutions to Complex Problems”- I.T. answers won’t address Ireland’s Child Protection Crisis

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“It’s often the direct work with the child which is lost in the paperwork, form-filling and filing and administration that makes up much of our jobs. (Social worker, Dublin)

The Health Service Executive’s decision to model their new child protection information system on a failed model illustrates that there is a need to re-consider how we deal with social policy crisis.

The above lament included in the Irish Association of Social Workers; discussion paper A Call for Change encapsulates much of the frustration felt by social workers at the high levels of administration attached to modern-day social work practice. A key element of increased administration has been the increasing use of information technology in social work services for everything from risk assessments to case management plans. While I.T. can provide services with improved ways of storing information, a concern has emerged that in social work services, I.T. is being used to simplify the complexities of the work being carried out by social workers and take away face-to-face time with children.

The Health Service Executive’s proposed new child protection system (The National Childcare Information System-Business Standardisation Project) has been a cause of much consternation among child protection social workers. At a time of depleting resources and increasing pressures this system is being introduced on the basis that it will improve information gathered by those working with at-risk children. However, this proposed system bears an uncanny resemblance to the widely criticised and much maligned system used in the United Kingdom (Integrated Children’s Computer System-ICS). This system was introduced in part to address a ‘system in crisis’-a crisis highlighted in the wake of deaths of children in care. I will offer a brief overview of these two children’s circumstances here and look at the policy developments that emerged in the wake of their respective deaths.

As I write this I am keenly aware that the work of child protection social workers occurs in the most private of spaces-in camera court proceeding, family homes, agency offices. Unfortunately, for the profession, child protection social work usually becomes ‘public’ in the aftermath of a child’s death in care. Changes to social work practice are rarely discussed outside of academic and professional circles which is unfortunate as any child can become involved in the social work system at any time.

Victoria Climbie

Victoria Climbié died, at eight years of age, after months of mistreatment at the hands of her grand-aunt, Marie Therese Kouao and Kouao’s boyfriend, Carl Manning. She was residing with the couple at the their home in North London. The story of Victoria’s short life is a tragic one. She was sent to live with the pair in North London from the Ivory Coast by her parents with the hope that she would be provided with greater material and educational opportunities than those available in her country of birth. Victoria died on the 25th of February 2000 from hypothermia, renal and respiratory failure along with one hundred and eighty separate injuries on her body.

She and her two abusers were in frequent contact with a number of agencies including four social services departments, two hospitals as well as a multitude of other professionals.

The widely documented fact that Victoria had been in contact with such a range of state agencies fuelled the public’s anger at her death. The media and public outcry regarding Victoria’s death peaked at two points-at the trial and during the government ordered inquiry into her death (The Laming Inquiry). Lord Laming was instructed by the government to undertake an inquiry into the circumstances leading up to Victoria’s death and make recommendations on how the child protection system should change.

The inquiry report into Victoria’s death stated that although the social worker in the case had made serious mistakes, she had been ‘badly let down by her managers and the organisation which employed her’. Most damningly the report stated that the manager involved ‘…should not have had the responsibility she had as she was incapable of this’. This statement was evidenced through a lack of knowledge of her staff’s cases and her unavailability to staff.

As a result of the systemic shortcomings identified in Lord Laming’s report the government published a green paper entitled “Every Child Matters” and consequently passed the Children Act 2004 which legislated wide-ranging changes to the child protection system in the United Kingdom. The changes it put in place included the scrapping of child protection registers in favour of child protection plans and creating an integrated children’s computer system (ICS) to ensure information was collated more efficiently.

The Integrated Children’s Computer System (ICS)

As noted in the preamble the integrated children’s computer system has been the source of much controversy since its introduction to UK child protection services. Problems with the system began early and continued throughout its implementation. The initial roll-out of the system was delayed considerably as one local authority after another failed to meet its deadlines. Ofsted, the body charged with inspecting children’s services, found that staff in numerous councils found the system to be unwieldy, time-consuming and having a negative impact on social worker assessments.

In 2010 researchers from the University of Nottingham found at the conclusion of a two year study that ICS had a number of serious failings which were impeding social work intervention, namely:

– Social workers were spending between 60 and 80% of their time at computers
– Data needed to be completed and duplicated on complex forms
– Service users struggled to engage with/or understand the system
– The system did not allow relationships with siblings or parents to be described
– Information held in different ‘electronic window’s obtaining clear chronology difficult
– ‘workflows’-needless forms needing to be filled to reach the necessary forms
‘little scope for workers to exercise intelligent discretion’

(adapted from White et al 2010 pp 405-429 )

Some of the most stinging criticism of ICS came from Professor David Wastell of the University of Nottingham. He described ICS as:

“a crude technological attempt to transform social work into a bureaucratic practice to be governed by formally defined procedures, involving sequences of tasks to be accomplished within strict deadlines.”

Professor Wastell also noted that one of the crucial flaws in the system was that it had been created by civil servants with little consultation with front-line staff or first-hand social work experience.

NUI Galway’s Dr Paul Michael Garrett echoed a number of these issues in his paper on the drive towards technology in social work. He noted that while new technologies have some potential benefits to social workers they are not without fault. He identifies that this shift towards technology is occurring within a wider context of what he describes as ‘the technologizing and marketizing of the public sector’. Further, Dr Garrett gives the example of the language of the market becoming the language of human service with children in need being described in one report as a ‘key customer group’ by one agency. ‘targeting services at those not just ‘in need’ but ‘most in need’.

Added to the above the government commissioned Lifting the Burdens Task Force: Review of the Department of Children, Schools and Families (2008) described ICS as moving ‘the focus towards compliance with a standardised system…and away from using effective professional approaches (pg. 9).

“Baby P”

Two-thousand and eight marked the death of another child well-known to social services. The life and death of Peter Connelly has some tragic connections to those of Victoria Climbie. Both children died in the Harringey borough of London after sustained violence over a period of months. An other tragic similarity was the fact that Peter had also come into contact with a range of various professionals. The nature of his death again put child protection procedures under the spotlight. In the aftermath of the child’s death, then Secretary for Children, Schools and Families Ed Balls commissioned Lord Laming to prepare a second report on the child protection system.

In that report Lord Laming noted that:

“professional practice and judgement, as said by many…are being compromised by an over-complicated, lengthy and tick-box assessment and recording system (ICS)” (pg. 33).

Lord Laming also stated that these systems diminish time spent with children by social workers, reflective practice and risk analysis-two key areas of social work practice. Lord Laming gave voice to something that social work practioners had been

White et al (2010) illustrate that in the aftermath of the Baby P indications of ICS came to the fore with the system being accused of undermining safe professional practice and increasing risk.

National Social Work Task Force set up by the government in 2009 in the aftermath of the Baby P trial to undertake a review of social work services in England, The task force noted that the there had been extensive problems with ICS exacerbated by ‘overly prescriptive national requirements’ (Department of Children, Schools and Families, 2009)

The National Child Care Information Business Process Standardisation Process

When one reads the HSE’s Report of the NCCIS Business Process Standardisation Project it is difficult not to be immediately struck by the language of private industry throughout. From the first pages we have ‘child protection’ and ‘family welfare conferences’ described as ‘business areas’. Apart from echoing the work of Dr Paul Michael Garrett noted above it also brings home how policy makers within the HSE view child protection- a “business” where small changes produce better outcomes.

The HSE have already begun to argue data plays an important part in protecting children. While it is of course through that accurate information is vital to social work intervention it is far from an end in itself.

The introduction of the NCCIS-BPSP must be viewed as part of the HSE and the government’s response to the ongoing crisis in child protection services. The Irish Association of Social Workers have, rightly, described the system as ‘knee-jerk and crisis-led rather than comprehensive and systemic’. Ironically, the introduction of this model in an Irish context comes at the same time the ICS is being dismantled in the UK after a systemic review into the child protection system there (see the Munro Review of Child Protection).

The Irish Association of Social Workers have eloquently put forward their concerns about the new model stating that ‘will not only fail to provide the answers to the crisis in child welfare and protection services…but it is very likely that it will significantly worsen the crisis’. In conjunction with their criticisms of the HSE’s proposal they have put forward a number of their own proposals;

– Social work departments to provide early intervention and preventative work
– Social workers to be allowed to prioritise relationship and trust building with children
– That all children in care be allocated a social worker
– Well supported placements for children removed from their families
– Appropriate therapeutic supervision of social work staff

(adapted from IASW: A Call for Change, 2011)

Failing to Learn From History

The changes brought about in the aftermath of Victoria Climbie and Peter Connelly’s death were not made lightly or without some good intention. At the core of these changes there appears to have been a genuine desire to better protect children. It is arguable that this ‘genuine desire’ became an obsession when ICS clearly was not working.

The difficulty of course is that these changes were driven by crisis namely a system in disarray personified by the deaths of children the state was charges with protecting. Richard Wilkinson comments in ‘The Spirit Level’ on a discussion about crime policy that in unequal societies it is very often driven by moral panic and public outrage rather than empirical knowledge. There is a very real sense that because ‘something must be done’ we can disregard lessons from different places and times.

In terms of child protection this is unforgivable because what we do not lack is empirical knowledge on what keeps children safe from harmful situations such as early intervention, appropriate alternative care arrangements and social workers who are not stretched beyond their limits. These are the areas that policy makers and government must make real progress in if they are to address the chaotic child protection system which presently exists.

The arguments put forward here should not be read as Ludditte musings but that should be a given. The use of technology has undoubtedly got a role to play in modern social work practice. However, it cannot replace face-to-face contact with vulnerable children or families nor should it be used to provide ‘tick-box solutions’ to complex problems. There is a need to move away from simply implementing failed social policies because ’something must be done. What is needed is a move towards evidence-based practice that appropriately responds to specific needs of our children. It is only when our social service providers do this that we can be confident that our services are responding appropriately to the circumstances of our most vulnerable children.

[Darren Broomfield is a practising social worker and academic whose research interests include social justice, social policy and criminal justice.]