Safeguarding our children
FIVE years on from Victoria Climbie's murder, her name still rings in the ears of social workers across the country. Society moves on but doesn't forget, and as Suffolk County Council strives to protect the children of Suffolk today, it faces new pressures.
By Tracey Sparling
FIVE years on from Victoria Climbie's murder, her name still rings in the ears of social workers across the country. Society moves on but doesn't forget, and as Suffolk County Council strives to protect the children of Suffolk today, it faces new pressures. Features editor TRACEY SPARLING reports.
HOW would you feel if the phone rang, and it was a social worker asking about your child's welfare?
Some people panic that the authorities will turn up on their doorstep to whisk their baby away, and what parent could fail to feel some level of concern?
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Yet taking your child in to care, is the very last thing the child safeguarding team at the council wants to do. To put it in context, over the past year senior social worker Pat Leach has only had to remove one child, and two babies from their homes. She said: “Lots of people think social workers just go in and remove children- that does happen but it's very rare.
Cliff James, head of safeguarding added: “The best place for children is with their parents, and we always work towards the child staying at home.”
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In fact, social workers spend most of their time giving advice and support to help the families which have been referred by somebody who is concerned, to help them overcome their problems. Yet Pat and the rafts of other professionals in schools and other places which see children on a regular basis, have to be ever on the alert for cases of physical, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect.
After eight-year-old Victoria Climbie was murdered in London in 2001 after a young lifetime of torture, a catalogue of failures by child protection services emerged. Lessons had to be learned, and procedures changed, to try and prevent another tragedy.
This montth the Evening Star revealed how stricter checks are now being carried out to find parents who deliberately harm their children, after a baby girl was poisoned by her mother.
“I still mention Victoria's name,” said Pat,” to people who are concerned when I talk to them and their child. I use her name, and it is such a well known case that people understand we have a job to do.”
The council's safeguarding team might be called in by a concerned teacher, health visitor or member of the public, and the first step would be for a social worker to ring the parent to ask for permission to chat to the child, often in school and sometimes with a teacher or other responsible adult present.
Pat said: “We have to use our professional judgement, and assess lifestyles in the context that every family is individual. Everybody is entitled to live their family life the way they choose, and we would only intervene if the child was at significant risk of harm.
“Sometimes families come to us, and say 'please help us, our 12-year-old is out of control and using cannabis' for example. We sit down with them and explore the issues and they welcome that. They are actually quite pleased that somebody is giving them attention and acknowledging the pressures they are under, and starting to work on sorting it out.
“The vast majority of people want to be good parents. They love their children and want to give them a good start in life; a good education and a happy, safe environment. They are distressed as anybody else when there are problems and they get into a muddle. They might feel it's an admission of failure to ask for help, or they may recognise something has got to change, but they don't always understand how to achieve that. Parenting is the hardest job any of us can do.”
Social workers also have to find out about any background issue or trauma which may have triggered the problems.
Domestic violence is an increasing concern today, as research has shown how traumatic it is for children to witness violent parents. A child may say 'I don't like mum and dad arguing,' and violence may be the result of a problem with drink or drugs.
Pat said: “Our job is to listen, and get the child to open up. We are strangers going into see them, maybe at school after getting the agreement of the parent, and they don't have to talk if they don't want to, but we reassure them that our job is to help sort out the muddle, and whatever they say will only be shared with people who will make sure they are safe. For example if it's the stepfather the child is worried about, we will speak to the mum initially.”
In some rare cases the mum will stick by her partner who is accused of abuse or neglect, rather than her child, and in those circumstances social services would look to trusted neighbours or relatives to help support the child.
Sometimes parents are asked to sign an agreement for the party under suspicion to stay away until the issue is resolved, and Cliff said most of the time the family is happy to abide by such an agreement.
Pat said: “Parents can feel shocked, angry and upset at any allegation, and it can take time to explain the process ands why we want to make sure little 'Johnny' is okay. It could well be the first time they have had to deal with a subject like sexual abuse and they can't take it in straight away, but we are used to it, and it is in cases like this where the child is at significant risk that we have to make decisions fast and exercise quite a lot of influence.
“It's all about what's best for the child. I would feel devastated if a child we knew was at risk, was hurt. I have to say luckily for me I haven't been through that.”
Cliff added: “Social workers come into this job because they love children, like working with families and want to make sure people are safe. If there is a tragedy while they are trying to help the family it would have a huge impact on all involved, from the health visitor to the school to the social worker. That's why everybody puts a lot of effort into getting it right.”
April 1 will see a new independent chairman appointed to the Children's Safeguarding Board.
Has the team helped your family to stay together through difficult times? Write to Your Letters, the Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Did you know? The Child Safeguarding Team receives 5,000 calls of concern about children in Suffolk every year. There are 720 children in care , and 400 on the Child Protection Register at any one time, who have a plan from the professionals to protect them.
Vanessa Feltz is urging people in Suffolk to dig deep in their pockets to help the region's estimated 1,100 runaway children who flee violence and family problems each year.
The newspaper columnist is asking residents to give generously when The Children's Society's house-to-house charity collectors come calling this month. The charity's annual fundraising appeal takes place until April 8. Mum-of-two Vanessa is knocking on her own neighbours' doors to ask for support. She said: "The House to House envelope will be on your doormat soon so please dig deep into your pockets. Your spare pennies could add up to pounds for The Children's Society. The people who knock at your door are dedicated local volunteers who take time collect the envelopes in the hope that together you can give runaway children safe refuges."
The Children's Society funds a refuge for runaway children fleeing family problems and is campaigning for the Government to set up similar safe havens across the country.
An estimated 100,000 children, aged eight to 16 years old, run away from home in the UK each year.
One in six say they are forced to sleep rough or with strangers.
One in 12 say they are harmed while away from home.
Charity hotline: 0845 300 1128.