Right support vital to keep families together
Tuesday, November 27, 2018
The Clear Blue Waterreport by England's chief social worker Isabelle Trowler and the University of Sheffield is a brave, compelling and defensible reminder of the care we have to take over life-changing decisions about whether and why we think a child should be permanently removed from their birth parents.
It skilfully explains the tightrope that social work professionals walk every day when making decisions about which children at risk of significant harm can - with the right support from a local authority - be looked after safely enough in their own family networks, as opposed to those for whom safe permanence cannot be secured and therefore swift court action to remove them becomes necessary.
What is brave about the paper is the explicit acknowledgement that in our everyday work, we will meet children who may or may not yet have been harmed in their family environments, but for whom removal is neither right nor intended in statute. It forces us to remember that as social workers, we have to carefully judge whether parents and wider family members can act to protect those children from further significant harm if they receive the right support.
This is immensely complex, full of uncertainty and when our fallible judgments are wrong and a child is seriously hurt or killed, there is a scandal waiting at every corner to vilify the professionals who while working within the principles of the Children Act 1989, will be said to have failed. Nevertheless, complex as our work is, we must expect to have to fully account for any use of our authority to remove children from their families and I was glad to be reminded by the paper about the significance and fragility of our decisions and their lifelong impact on children, young people, families, carers, professionals and our society.
The paper places a welcome spotlight on the principle of "no order" enshrined in the 1989 Act. We are advised that this should be more actively considered in daily practice and that we should reclaim the option of voluntary accommodation (section 20) as a significant means of supporting families and their associated networks to become strong and safe enough care arrangements for children.
Such recommendations require yet more courage in practice and more investment by senior leaders in the creation of a practice environment that can accept and work with the uncertainty of such arrangements because it is in the best interests of children to remain with their birth families if it can be made safe enough.
It will take the will, conviction and skill of the entire child protection system in England to hold safely in balance the judgments we make in relation to acceptable standards of parental care and our actions when those standards fall below the threshold for removing a child.
As the paper states: "For families subject to care proceedings, the standard of care and protection they give to a child has to be substantially lower than the standard of care and protection tolerated within society in general."
- Jacky Tiotto is director of children's services at Bexley Council