As a former social worker and assistant director for children's services, chair of the APPG on child protection, Meg Munn MP, talks about the findings in Action for Children's 'Child Neglect in 2011: An annual review'.
Given your expertise, and background as a social worker, were you surprised by the findings in 'Child Neglect in 2011: An annual review', that 51 per cent of social workers feel powerless to intervene?
I think that is a higher percentage than I would expect, but neglect has always been a difficult area to deal with. In terms of neglect there is a whole range of thresholds that, as a social worker, you are looking at. There are a lot of factors to take into consideration, such as when a child has a very strong attachment to a parent, but at the same time the parents are not really meeting the needs of the children.
Do you think the threshold for intervention is set too high?
That is the difficulty of the whole area of neglect, because there isn't one threshold, as it were. The threshold in terms of child abuse in legal terms is 'serious harm'; again, there are always judgements around that. In terms of neglect you could be talking about a wide range of issues, such as physical neglect, the circumstances of a household and emotional neglect, which is often overlooked. There are lots of different thresholds. If a child has been physically injured, for example if they have broken a bone, you have something that is very clear. In terms of neglect it is a much more difficult use of judgement.
Action for Children highlights that the current system is designed to respond more appropriately to other forms of child abuse, for which there is 'hard' evidence, rather than neglect. Would you agree?
I don't think it is necessarily about the system, but the issues themselves. There has been a move towards a much clearer timeline for child abuse cases, which makes a lot of sense when you are dealing with physical or sexual abuse, because you can say an incident has happened and it is much more reasonable to expect that within this period, or the next stage, a meeting will have been held or action will have been taken. Whereas in terms of neglect you are assessing a situation over a period of time, and the difficulty comes in defining a point at which you say, okay we need a child protection case conference.
I think Action for Children's review of neglect is very helpful in highlighting the real difficulties around this issue.
If local authorities do provide parenting services for young parents, is it often the case that those in most need are not aware of the services? Do you think greater effort needs to be made to join up local services?
I think the development of Sure Start family centres was a very positive move under the previous government, because they were aimed at being much more of a universal service within certain areas. The hope was that they would lead to a universal service across all communities, where people could get help and support.
Traditionally there is always this view that you can be a parent without any help and support, because most people rely on their own experience, which may have been good or bad. The opportunity to discuss these issues, the opportunity to get some help and support and to have some indications about parenting from these services, is really good. Obviously at the moment that is going to be more difficult because there is a squeeze upon those services.
In terms of neglect, in essence the help that somebody gets when a child is very small is very important, because developing a good bond, a good understanding of a child's needs, from day one, not only helps with emotional issues, but also means that the empathy required with children is less likely to lead to neglectful situations, in terms of the physical provision for children.
Can you draw on any examples of services, either within your own constituency or from your previous role as a director of children's services, that early intervention can be effective in helping prevent and tackle child neglect?
Absolutely, I think there are two examples: firstly the Sure Start example, getting families involved from an early stage. Certainly from the outset when Sure Start was first setting up, before it even had buildings, in a way I think it was a little bit more effective because they were not tied to a building. The workers had to go out and find people. There were some very good examples, for example, they managed to increase breast feeding rates of new mothers, all issues right at the start of a child's life.
The other example I would look to was many years ago when I worked in North Nottinghamshire. We have a family centre there which has a really good mix of social workers based in the family centre and childcare workers who can really help families when things aren't going well. I am thinking back to a case where a previous child had been adopted because of child abuse and neglect issues. When the same family was expecting a second child, because a level of trust had been built up even before the child was born, the parents were able to deal with issues which had happened in their own childhood which meant they struggled to be good parents.
I think there is a need to have more than one approach. I think the universal services are fine, but for some people, because of their own experiences – they have probably been abused themselves – they need help to come to terms with that and to look at how they can avoid repeating their own situation with their own children.
As Action for Children is planning on making this an annual review of neglect, what progress would you like to have seen addressed this time next year?
I think I would like to see a redraft of 'Working Together to Safeguard Children', so that it responds to all of the issues identified both within Professor Munro's review of child protection, as well as Action for Children's findings looking at neglect.
I would also like to see greater recognition right across a range of services. This isn't just about social workers, but a wider range of services including schools and health visitors. This is about identifying where there are concerns and being able to respond appropriately. When services get squeezed what we find is, if a child has been hit, or we have got an allegation of sexual abuse, you have got to do something, whereas neglect cases can rumble on. I think we need to have some recognition that when a situation is identified, early intervention is there to prevent ongoing damage to children.