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Problems with Social Work Law

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

The key question here is that if the new assessment framework and reformulation wholly successful, then how did another serious case result in the death of Baby Peter six years after the new assessment framework was put in place? Although some individuals in health and social work were at fault, evidence from the serious case review of Baby Peter suggests that this is a result of lack of inter-agency collaboration and accountability (Serious Case Review Baby Peter).  In my critical analysis of current legislation, I address the issues and limitations of social work legislation under three main categories: Multi-agency working, assessment and discrepancy and subjectivity within the law. I then consider whether more recent developments such as Every Child Matters Children’s Plan (2007) and the Common Assessment Framework (2010) to investigate how legislation has been ironed out with the aim to prevent future cases similar to Baby P and Victoria Climbie.

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Multi Agency working

In August 2007, the horrific death of baby Peter occurred, and although I recognise that this was not the sole fault of the legislation in place, and was due to some incompetence on the part of the social worker and medical professionals involved, the lack of multi-agency collaboration is evident.  It is clear from the Serious case review that baby Peter should have been removed from the family in 2008, and also that there were several case conferences where the GP was not present either due to other commitments, or not being invited. 

Calder correctly points out that no single agency has the responsibility, resources or skills to meet all the needs of the children in greatest need (Calder, 2003).  Indeed, following the Baby Peter case, these issues had to be addressed.

The every Child Matters agenda was reformulated in December 2007.  It was developed through publication of the Children's Plan with specific focus on providing a ten-year strategy to make England the best place in the world for children and young people to grow up. The Plan aims to improve educational outcomes for children, improve children's health, reduce offending rates among young people and eradicate child poverty by 2020. This recent  legislation to aim to overcome the obstacles to multi agency working and inter-governmental department  Link to Multi Agency work.

The Every Child Matters Change for Children programme aims to put in place a national framework to support the joining up of services so that every child can achieve the five Every Child Matters outcomes. These outcomes are that every child, regardless of background, should have the support they need to be healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution and achieve economic well-being.

The ten key elements of the national framework are:

1.         The duty to cooperate to promote the well-being of children and young people

2.         The duty to make arrangements to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and young people

3.         The development of statutory local safeguarding children boards (LSCBs) to replace non-statutory area child protection committees (ACPCs)

4.         The appointment of local directors of children services

5.         The National Service Framework for Children, Young People and Maternity Services

6.         The Outcomes Framework

7.         The development of an integrated inspection framework

8.         The appointment of a Children's Commissioner

9.         The development of a Common Assessment Framework

10.       Workforce reform to help develop skills and ensure staffing levels


Social services play a central role in trying to improve outcomes for the most vulnerable and a key measure of success will be achieving change through closing the gap between their outcomes and those of the majority of children and young people.

The Children Act 1989 functions of social services remain unchanged, but how they are delivered at local level is set to change radically. The Children Act 2004 requires local authorities to lead on integrated delivery through multi-agency children's trusts, to develop a children and young people's plan, and to set up a shared database of children, containing information relevant to their welfare.

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The Assessment Framework

The first issue that arises is the rigidity of assessment resulting from the 2001 assessment framework.  This links into the political contextualisation as outlined by Paul Garrett, and also links into the issue to be discussed is the implications of inter-governmental and multi-agency working. Secondly, the issue of discrepancies between legislation needs to be discussed, in particular discrepancies amongst the 2001 assessment framework and ‘working together’ and the Children Act 1989 and the Human Rights Act.  The final area of criticism is the subjectivity and possible misuse of Section 47 of the Children Act 2004.  This also links in with thresholds, and I aim to relate this to my Local Authority of North Yorkshire.

The 2001 framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their families should be located within the context of previous child protection policy and welfare, but also politically located in the New Labour governments agenda (Garrett, 2003).  Garrett argues that the framework’s preoccupation with an ecological approach to assessments with questionnaires and scales are likely to have major implications for social work practice.   Because this new framework was to be used in all initial assessments, it is consequently embedded in the revised ‘Working Together’ to safeguard children (Garrett, 2001).  Tony Blair’s governments preoccupation with their Quality protects programme meant that their aim was for referral and assessment processes to discriminate effectively between different types and levels of need and produce a timely response, sometimes leading to barriers between the social worker and service user.  This highlights into the issue of rigidity of assessment, as assessment in the 1990’s was criticised for becoming a ‘tick-box culture’ (Garrett, 2001).  A link here should be made to the work of ….. on models of assessment. 

Political contextualisation, therefore, is essential in an understanding of social work policy.   Garrett identified that Labours focal ideas included ‘new paternalism’ and ‘social exclusion’ (Garrett, 2001).   New Labour’s ideas on welfare echoed the reforms of the Clinton Administration.   Ideas such as new paternalism (the strategic use of welfare benefits to encourage people to stay at school, in work, or even get married) have suggested that people need assistance, but also direction if they are to live constructively.  Garrett suggests that a British variant of the American concept of ‘new paternalism’ can be understood to provide part of the ideological backdrop for the new framework. Garrett’s point links into social work ethics of equality and being non-judgemental - the danger of such an ideological basis for an assessment framework is that it can create an image of ‘the ideal family’, which fails to recognise the diversity that exists today.  As social workers, we should be practicing anti-oppressively (Dominelli and Thompson), yet this ideological framework may prevent us from doing so.

Smale and Tuson identify three models of assessment: the questioning model, the exchange model and the procedural model.  In the Questioning model, the professional is assumed to be the expert in identifying need.  In the procedural model (a variation of the questioning model), it is assumed that the managers drawing up guidelines for workers have expertise in setting the criteria for resource allocation. However, in the exchange model, it is assumed that the client and the professional both have equally valid perceptions of the problems and can contribute to their solution. (Smale and Tuson, 1993).  I believe that the exchange model is more successful in children’s services because it acknowledges that people are experts in themselves, and that the product of questions by the worker is only one of many sources of information.

Social Services are expected to make a decision on whether to act in 24 hours, and produce an initial assessment within 10 days, meaning that they have to collect a great deal of data quickly.   (Draw on the case of Victoria Climbie).  Pressures of time may impact on the exchange.  Some social workers may feel forced to read out and list questions to gain a prompt response.  I did observe a social worker complete three initial assessment interviews in just 20 minutes during my time in the Selby child protection duty team.  However,  many of the answers did come from the parents rather than the social worker, and the process way two-way, demonstrating that even with constraints on time, the exchange model can still be used.


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Discrepancy and Subjectivity in Social Work Law

The three areas I will focus on here are the subjectivity of the Children Act 2004, apparent contradiction between the Children Act 2004 and the Human Rights Act and the possible misuse of the Children Act to gain resources.

contradiction in legislation apparent contradiction between Children Act 1989 and Human Rights Act. Human rights Act – Article 8 of the HRA specifies the right to family life, which could potentially conflict with the welfare of the child unless the court is satisfied that interference by a public authority is warranted (Brayne and Carr, 2010).

Some misuse of Section 47 of the Children Act 2004 may occur on two different levels.  Firstly, to access services and resources required, and secondly to avoid cases such as Baby P.  If the choice is a child protection service or nothing, more cases may continue to be sucked into the child protection system either because those making or receiving referrals will continue to believe that that is the only way to receive a service, or because staff feel uncomfortable in screening out people when the alternative is no service at all (Calder, 2003).   Statistics released by the Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service (Cafcass) show that in November of 2008, when details of the Baby P case first came to light, 592 applications were made, 96 more than the previous month and 53 more than during November 2007.  The evidence shows that the number of child protection cases rose substantially again in December to 716, during critical publicity of Haringey Council's handling of the case (294 up on the same month the previous year).  The result of such high numbers of child protection cases can put pressure on services.

A common misconception about the law is that it is clear-cut and provides unambiguous answers to solutions, whereas this is, in fact, not the case (Brammer, 2008).  With regards to the Children Act of 1989 and 2004, subjectivity is a key concern. According to Section 47, what constitutes significant harm?

With regard to Section 17, how do we define need?  Need is not an absolute concept – people have to agree on who is in need and who is not.  What became confusing for social services n the 1990’s was that the government provided two further pieces of guidance on defining ‘children in need’ that differ ed from Section 17 (Calder, 2003).

This links into thresholds links in to Thresholds for the provision of social work services.  Local authorities cannot limit the legal definition of children in need in Section 17, but they can give guidance as to how the definition of how ‘in need’ should be interpreted.



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