Signs of Safety 'not a magic bullet' for child protection

By Tristan Donovan

| 13 July 2017

A much-heralded social work model being tested by 10 English councils is delivering positive results but is "not a magic bullet" for the child protection system, a study has found.

An evaluation found little evidence that the Signs of Safety model improved the quality of child protection assessments. Picture: Shutterstock

An evaluation of the strengths-based Signs of Safety approach to child protection found it had improved social work practice in the pilot authorities but warned that the gains could be lost by restructures and staff turnover.

Signs of Safety is designed to integrate professional and family knowledge in the assessment of risk and any subsequent planning.

It is based on honest relationships between the worker and families and between all professionals involved to achieve a shared understanding of what needs to change, and critical thinking to minimise error and create a culture of reflective practice.

Researchers from King's College London found that Signs of Safety is "workable" where authorities make the necessary commitment of trust in their staff at all levels, backed up by resources and time.

"Our conclusion is that, while SoS is not a magic bullet for the challenges that face children's social care, it has the potential to help improve services for children and young people," the report states.

Researchers said that Signs of Safety resulted in improved co-operation between social workers and families, enhanced the implementation of safety planning, and contributed to making parents feel more satisfied with their contact with social workers.

They also reported that social workers believed the approach made a positive difference to the lives of families. However, the study found the progress authorities gained from using Signs of Safety was "not linear".

"Sometimes pilots considered to be most experienced appeared to take a step backwards when plans and achievements were thrown off course by reorganisations and staff changes," the evaluation said.

"In the long term, for the framework to be successful, it must be able to absorb such shocks."

One senior manager from a pilot council with more than two years' experience of using Signs of Safety told the evaluation: "My worry is that we've done the reorganisation…and potentially it could look like we've gone backwards, and I think in some ways we may well have done."

The researchers noted that the current lack of funding to support the continued embedding of Signs of Safety at the 10 councils creates a risk that the gains made so far might not be sustainable.

There was also little evidence that the approach had enhanced the quality of assessments, although the evaluation said this "was not a failure of Signs of Safety but of how it was interpreted by some social workers".

The Signs of Safety approach was first developed in Western Australia during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The English pilot project was funded by the Department for Education's Children's Social Care Innovation Programme.

The councils involved received support to develop their use of the approach from Munro, Turnell and Murphy Consulting, the consultancy co-founded by Professor Eileen Munro.

The 10 councils involved are Brent, Bristol, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Tower Hamlets, Wakefield, West Sussex, and Wokingham.

Lincolnshire County Council will be speaking about its use of Signs of Safety at Children & Young People Now's early help conference on 27 September.

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