Children at risk: but who's risk is it anyway?
Keeping children safe has to be a collective responsibility. Former police officer Essack Miah argues that children protection should be about professionals sharing ownership of risk and emphasising support to families as early as possible.
It is the responsibility of all professionals to ensure vulnerable children coming into contact with them are not falling through the gaps between services.
As a former police officer, I often went into households with young children growing up in difficult and troubled circumstances. Sometimes these children would have to deal with the consequences of their families' misfortunes and suffered neglect, abuse or cruelty.
Bizarrely, these instances were the easiest to deal with from a ‘what to do next?’ point of view, the circumstances were clear, and the child/children needed to be protected because clear acts and omissions were there for all to see.
However, in the majority of encounters where children are present, the answers are not clear cut and fall under a ‘grey zone’. This is where all services need to get better.
The sort of situations I am talking often arise when dealing with an entirely different issue. A policeman’s instinct or ‘gut feeling’ that something doesn’t feel right, more often than not will have merit, without being able to pinpoint a specific cause.
This is where a dichotomy presents itself. There’s a clear argument for following up on that suspicion and doing something about it. Also to be considered though, is the idea that by ‘doing something’ you could potentially be bringing unnecessary scrutiny and disruption to a family.
But what if all this worrying about scrutiny and disruption is the wrong way to look at things? Rather, what if the system is viewed through the lens of a ‘support’. The purpose of following up with a family then is to act early and ensure they has the help they needs so that issues can be resolved and, wherever possible, a child can stay within their home.
Since joining Mutual Ventures after spending almost 7 years on the frontline of policing for the Met, I have been involved in the Department for Education’s Families First For Children Pathfinder (FFCP) programme. This rightly places an emphasis on multi-agency partnership working with local authorities, police and the health services. It contains bold and ambitious reforms where the duty of care to safeguard a child is shared amongst the services and not placed solely on the local authority.
To ensure that these working practices are fruitful, one of the key aims of the FFCP programme is to allow for statutory partners, including the NHS and police, to design effective multi-agency ways of working.
Far too often, initiatives are designed with partnership working at its core, but fail to land as the process of designing the partnership ways of working, ironically, is not very collaborative.
For instance, when it was first introduced, the Early Help Lead Practitioner role sat with children’s services in local authorities. Now, it is a role that is no longer defined by profession, but based on the professional most suited to that relationship with the child or family. This might be a pastoral worker within that child’s school, a health visitor, a police liaison officer or a social worker. Importantly, the organisation that person works for doesn’t matter as much as them having the relationship with the family and the support around them to do the job well.
So the emphasis needs to arguing about 'whose risk a child is' to ‘what can be done collectively to ensure the risk is minimised as much as possible’. In this context, it's always better to act early than to wait – and, in so doing, give children and young people the best opportunity to thrive.
To read about Mutual Ventures' experience in children's services click here.