Child protection facing criticism

12 March 2009 / BBC News

Reforms brought in after Victoria Climbie's murder nine years ago have not been properly implemented, a report is expected to say.

Lord Laming led the original inquiry and was asked to review progress after Baby P's death in Haringey, London.

It comes amid criticism that his initial reforms have added to social workers' bureaucratic burden.

The government will announce that all directors of children's services in England should be retrained.

Child protection has been under the microscope since details of Baby P's case came to light.

The 17-month-old died in August 2007 having suffered months of abuse, despite being seen 60 times by various professionals, including doctors and social workers.

Lord Laming has already prompted one major reform of England's child protection system with his inquiry into the horrific death of Victoria Climbie in the same north London borough.

The eight-year-old was abused by her aunt for months before she died in February 2000.

Children's Secretary Ed Balls asked Lord Laming to examine how much things have improved since then and whether his recommendations have been properly implemented.

His report is likely to conclude that child protection in some areas of England is unacceptably poor, exposing some children to unnecessary risk and abuse.

Ways of strengthening serious case reviews - the system for learning from errors when a child has died - are likely to be recommended.

Lord Laming will also advise on how to raise the quality and status of social workers to help tackle a national shortage of people entering the profession.


Dr Eileen Munro, reader in social policy at the London School of Economics, said she hoped to see "some humility" in the report and acceptance that the reforms, especially the increased form-filling, were part of the problem.

She said now that social workers spent 80% of their time in front of their computers, they "hardly had time to talk to the parents, let alone the children".

"The reforms aren't putting children at the centre of it, they're putting the targets at the centre," she said.

"In Haringey, the Ofsted inspection went in after Baby P had been murdered and still gave them three stars.

"So they're not picking up on the quality of practice, they're picking up on the quantity, and it's in the quality that the mistakes are made."

Social worker Joanna Nicolas told the BBC a lot had changed since Lord Laming's first report, which contained more than 100 recommendations.

"We do have very effective child protection processes in place now," she said.

"The trouble is they are not being adhered to because of the amount of work social workers have.

"The emphasis from senior managers is on filling in forms... The performance indicators that each local authority are measured on and therefore their funding is affected are what counts and not spending time with families."

But Sue Berelowitz, deputy children's commissioner for England, insisted the reforms were the right way forward.

"I travel around the country, I also talk to directors of children's services. I've come out of local authority work myself and I know that the reforms are making a real difference," she said.

Juggling act

Dr Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University, believes too many changes in the past few years have led to confusion.

"One of the fears I have in terms of what's going to happen now is that we'll have more change, more re-organisation, more disruption," he told BBC Radio 5 Live.

He added that those on the frontline - the social workers, health workers, police officers - needed to focus on the child and the family but "sometimes they were distracted by the changes".

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the reforms from Lord Laming's first report in 2003 - particularly the merging of education and children's services at the local authority level - had not yet "settled down".

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme he could see the logic of "joining-up" but councils were "struggling to balance" the responsibilities of child protection and education.

He added directors of children's services had the "job from hell".

"I think part of the problem is the incredibly high profile you get in the media when these cases go wrong," he said.

"And that will inevitably cause people to watch their backs, to make sure they've filled all the forms in and so on."

Back to basics

Ahead of the new report's publication, Mr Balls said the directors of children's services would be told to spend time with vulnerable families under their department's care.

"If we are to deliver a world-class child protection system... we need excellent leadership and clear accountability at every level of the system."

He is expected to confirm plans to extend the remit of the head teachers' training establishment, the National College for School Leadership, to include programmes for training directors of children's services.

"Social workers do a vital but tough job, often under difficult circumstances - but there are real challenges around leadership, retention and career progression," said the minister.

The organisation will be renamed the National College for School and Children's Leadership.

Mr Balls has already embraced the theme of improving the esteem of social workers, setting up a task force to propose reform.

He is also keen to improve the training of social care middle managers so that they regularly "go back to the floor" and work alongside their staff, handling case files and spending time with families.



Dr Eileen Munro, reader in social policy at the London School of Economics, said she hoped to see "some humility" in the report and acceptance that the reforms, especially the increased form-filling, were part of the problem. 

She said now that social workers spent 80% of their time in front of their computers, they "hardly had time to talk to the parents, let alone the children".

"The reforms aren't putting children at the centre of it, they're putting the targets at the centre," she said

The bureaucratic world of targets and quota has shown up far too many times in all the discussion about Social Services and it seems to me it is one of the diseases we have inherited from the 1990's. As part of the outsourcing and privatization movement that swept many public services, those agencies that remained public all fell victim to performance indicators, targets and quota. Many agencies nowadays work under contract that requires certain performance to receive the budget assigned. As a result the organizations have started to focus mainly on making those target, thereby neglecting the non-targetable aspects of work.

A couple of years ago the town I live in set a target for local police which quantified the sum of money they had to collect through writing tickets. The budget of local police is even partially funded from writing those tickets. Thereby the police becomes dependent on ill behaving citizens. If all of a sudden the speeding rate drops, less people illegally park their car (the main sources of income), police has a budget crisis. So there is no encouragement for police to help drop the number of offenses, because they have become dependent on people doing so. That's not what police was ever intended for. Police has the job to enforce the law, not to milk offending the law.

The world of performance contracts, outsourcing etc. in principle makes people focus on the targets only, while neglecting the overall outcome of a mission. Several Years ago I was working for a project at the Justice Department here in the Netherlands, intended to create a new reporting system for the prison system. This project was outsourced to two software companies, one doing the design stage and one doing the implementation phase. Being Bob the Builder, I became part of the implementation phase and soon discovered the design I had received simply would not work. What I received was a theoretical possibility but not a practically working one. That is by itself not all that rare in software development. All sorts of wish lists are gathered and tried to be put into a coherent design. Often because some of the wishes/demands come from high up in the hierarchy people don't dare to speak out about the practical consequences. Other designers simply lack the technical experience to make an assessment about the practical feasibility of a chosen design.

Anyway. things like that happen all the time and usually it is not a big deal. Address the issue, make it known, ask for a redesign and reconsideration of some of the demands. It's part of the work of a software engineer. In this case though the company that had hired me was very reluctant to let us get back to the drawing board. Their position was that the contract stated what had to be made and that was what they were going to deliver. What I learned there and it probably applies to many more projects done by companies working for the government is that these companies like when things fail, as long as they did what the contract stated. There is simply more money to be made by doing the same project two or three times (I worked on the third attempt and though this happened six years ago the system is still not operational). It's never the fault of the contractor, so they are asked back.

Eventually I did find a loophole that allowed me to talk to the people of the Justice Department about the design flaw, but that was only because I was determined to find that loophole. It's not in me to make something that is not going to work, but I know many software engineers would have fully cooperated in creating something unworkable. Suffice it to say, I wasn't invited back for later stages of the project.

Would this have happened if the Justice Department had done this project themselves? Probably not. Other things would have gone wrong, but the walls created by contracts has simply created a climate in which only working towards the letter of the contract has become the rule.

I see that same mentality in many public services that have to work according to contract, have to reach targets, receive bonuses or has to meet quota. The overall performance drops because everyone starts to focus on the goal that has been set, while many of the important aspects of the working of public services is not simply measurable. How do we measure the well-being and safety of children? How do we measure meeting the care need of the elderly?

Because the core aspects of much work cannot be measured, all sorts of targets are invented that seem to be indicators of the performance of an organizations. The number of adoptions performed by social services is one such thing, the number of children removed from their families is another. With these targets it's even worse, because they actually contribute to milking the public cash cow further. The more children are removed the more public money is being spent, money that usually goes to sub-contractors that run residential care institutions or foster care programs. The more children are being placed for adoption, the more money goes to sub-contractors for those placement services. All the while there is no incentive at all to improve the lives of children in their families. It's a vague and immeasurable notion, yet I bet every good social worker is able to assess which child is doing well and which child is not. It is not a science, like counting paperclips is, but humans have the capability of using their empathy to assess the well-being of other human beings. You can't quantify it, it's not necessarily a transparent or even rational process, but we do have that ability.

Using contracts/targets/quota all forms of social work whether it relates to children, elderly or is part of the health care profession takes away the human factor that is key to that line of work. Not everything is a science. Many things are a craft and there is nothing wrong with that. Measure what can be measured. I have no problem with the Treasury counting the money received and spend. I have no problem with customs counting and measuring goods entering a country. Some work is quantifiable and can be made transparent, some work simply doesn't fit that idea and we should try to fit round pegs in square holes. It just doesn't work that way.

Relying on failure

It just so happens I posted an article on money-recovery, as seen through the eyes of the juvenile justice department in California.  [See:  L.A. County spends nearly $13,000 to chase $1,004 ]

What I keep sensing is this:  certain groups want people to fail.  Certain companies/industries want people to me miserable and unhappy.  Certain services WANT more failure because failure brings more work, money and job opportunity.

God forbid people should be happy and self-sufficient.  What ever would the government, (the well-paid leaders and decisions makers of our nations), have to do then?



I found the following article just today that nothing is being learned and that in fact the general public is being scammed over and over again. In this case it deals with the foster care system in Washington and the panacea for all troubles is of course: PRIVATIZATION.

As the article states, no one knows if it's going to work, how it's going to work, even what performance indicators or contracts should be used, but there already is large support of the further privatization of the Washington foster care system.

Of course privatization is not going to be the solution. Private companies are not able to work miracles where the public sector constantly fails. In fact it is my contention the public sector is often made to fail to pave the way for privatization. Simply make the people working in the public sector crazy with reorganization after reorganization, Then claim everything has been tried to improve the system and then propose privatization as the miracle solution.

With privatization finally money is being made. Money that flows right out of the pockets of tax payers, into the pockets of private organizations. Some will claim many of these are non-profit organizations. For those I'd like to point out the salaries earned in some of the non-profit organizations (the organizations may be non-profit, the people working for them are not).

In an article I found yesterday, related to a sexual abuse case in a residential care center, I noticed the following observation made by the attorney of one of the victims.

"They buy these homes, staff them with people they pay $6 an hour and just warehouse the children and don't give them any meaningful therapy," Pasternack said. "They can get Medicaid money doing virtually nothing. What a great racket." Pasternack said the homes are not staffed with professionals.

With a set-up like this, the problem has been transplanted to the private sector. Polititians can now claim it all happened beyond their control and  through affiliations, campaign contributions etc. some of them probably directly benefit of the failings of the system.

I hope it's not too late for Washington, but it doesn't look good when privatization is so triumphantly embraced.

Bill would revamp child-welfare system with private contractors

Lawmakers are considering a proposal to radically transform the state's child-welfare system by requiring the state to hire private contractors to work with children and troubled families after verified complaints of abuse or neglect and the first dependency court hearing.

Jennifer Sullivan and Maureen O'Hagan
Seattle Times March 11, 2009

OLYMPIA — If there is one point of agreement in Washington child-welfare circles, it is this — the system is broken. The evidence is everywhere, but nowhere so stark as in the dozens of child fatalities that agency critics say could have been prevented.

Key state legislators think they have found the answer: privatization.

Senate Bill 5943 would radically transform the state's child-welfare system by requiring the state to hire private contractors to work with children and troubled families after verified complaints of abuse or neglect and the first dependency court hearing.

The proposal would impact thousands of families and force hundreds of state workers out of jobs. No one knows how much it would cost, or even how, exactly, it would work.

And yet, supporters say, they can't stand by and let the current system continue.

"We have seen very little progress for all that we have invested," said Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, who has worked for child-welfare changes for 20 years. "The current system is dysfunctional."

Considering the size of this potential undertaking — and the unanswered questions — Hargrove has garnered considerable support for his bill. So far, opposition comes mainly from the Washington Federation of State Employees, the union representing state workers.

The Children's Administration, which is a part of the Department of Social and Health Services, has been plagued by problems for years.

A study released in January by the Office of Family and Children's Ombudsman showed that complaints against the Children's Administration were at an all-time high in 2008.

A relative newcomer brought the idea of privatization to the forefront in Washington. Two years ago, the University of Washington recruited Mark Courtney, a professor at the University of Chicago who was known nationally for his studies of foster children, as a professor in the UW School of Social Work and executive director of Partners for Our Children.

Partners for Our Children was a new public-private partnership aimed at changing the state's child-welfare system. The organization began with $12 million in seed money, mostly from Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and his wife, Connie. Among child-welfare experts, landing Courtney was seen as a great coup.

Last fall, he hosted a symposium on private contracting. Many left thinking the idea held promise.

Hargrove says contractors would be held to performance standards, although they have not yet been developed. If an agency doesn't make the grade, it could lose its contract.

The proposal would impact only the state's foster-care system, not Child Protective Services. That means the state would continue to investigate child-abuse complaints and decide whether a child is safe in the home, or whether he or she should be made "dependent."

At that point, the contractor would take the lead. That means conducting regular check-ins, arranging for services like mental-health counseling and making recommendations to the courts.

The state, however, could still be held liable if a child is harmed on the private agency's watch.

The legislation is aimed foremost at improving the lives of children, not saving money. Hargrove said savings would be seen down the road because he believes more children would be reunited with their families. If there were fewer children in foster care, contracts could be scaled back.

The new contracts could leave about 1,000 social workers and support staffers out of work, said Randy Hart, interim assistant secretary for the Children's Administration. The agency isn't taking a position on the bill but appears to be urging caution.

"This is a pretty large public-policy decision," Hart said.

Gov. Chris Gregoire isn't taking a position, either.

The proposal could go before the Senate for a vote as early as today. The measure has bipartisan support, including from legislative leadership.

Better? Or worse?

Private contracts are nothing new to DSHS, or even the Children's Administration.

Interim DSHS Secretary Stan Marshburn said the agency contracts out 70 percent of all of its work — everything from elder care to group homes to services for people with mental illness. Private contractors supervise visits between parents and children who have been removed from their homes, provide certain kinds of family-support services and license some foster parents, among other things.

Currently, Courtney points out, there are no performance standards for these private agencies.

In Kansas, performance-based contracts are being linked to an increased rate of children in safe foster-care homes and increased adoptions, said Michelle Ponce, spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services. Similar contracts are used in Tennessee, Chicago, New York City and Milwaukee.

Some say there isn't enough information to determine whether private contracts are actually better. Others point to what they see as failures.

In Milwaukee, the private contracting system came under fire last year when a 13-month-old boy was killed and his sister was tortured after being placed with their 24-year-old aunt.

In Washington, the use of private contractors was cited as a main problem in the case of Shayne Abegg, who was hospitalized in 2007 after being purposely starved. Initially, the contractor had been assigned to work with the Everett family on "food issues," after reports of abuse or neglect. After several months, the contractor told the state that the family was doing well and the case should be closed.

A week after the contractor's last visit, 4-year-old Shayne was hospitalized weighing less than 25 pounds, severely malnourished. Not long after that, the contracted agency was sued by former employees who said they weren't being paid for their work.

One father's concern

Tumwater social worker Christine Kerns wonders how private agencies would handle the intricacies of the child-welfare system — working with law enforcement, courts, counselors, schools and employers while addressing the agency's focus of getting children into permanent, safe homes quickly.

Robert Dunlap, 37, of Lacey, worries that the services his family receives from the state would decrease if he were assigned to a private contractor. Dunlap, who has been battling methamphetamine addiction for more than 20 years, was granted custody of his sons, ages 12 and 9, in December.

Dunlap said DSHS helped find bunk beds for his sons when none could be found in local thrift shops. The agency also helped connect him with substance-abuse treatment courses and family counseling.

Dunlap has monthly meetings with Kerns, his social worker, and will continue to do so until she clears his family from state supervision.

"I don't think the private sector would help," Dunlap said. "I have quite a safety net."

Jeanine Livingston, with the state employees union, said change at the agency is sorely needed. But one of the biggest problems is staffing — something borne out by a December 2007 study calling for 1,200 additional caseworkers. About 400 were hired after that.

"They're completely buried," she said. That problem likely wouldn't be solved by hiring contractors, who need to make a profit.

Still, the union isn't opposed to some additional contracting, Livingston said. State workers "really value their private partnerships and need them desperately," she said. "It isn't 'us versus them.'

"But we all need to work together to find a real solution, not jump to another model just because it's new and different."

Jennifer Sullivan: 360-236-8267 or Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or

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