Monday, 26 May 2014

Why shouldn't we privatise child protection services?

In the news this week, quietly shuffled out behind the much larger and louder European Elections, were Michael Gove's plans to privatise child protection services. 

There's a lot of hatred for rubber-faced, self-satisfied despot Gove in the literary world right now, mainly around his fuckwitted decision to take To Kill A Mockingbird out of the GCSE English curriculum. But this blog is not about that, infuriating though it be. This is about child protection. 

Child Protection services - services which are meant to protect and remove children from situations of abuse and neglect - are currently provided by statutory social services departments, under the auspices of the local authority. Most are stretched and understaffed. But they are still a statutory service, paid for by your council taxes, and your and my income tax. There's no profit involved. 

Child protection is extremely specialised work. No child walks around with a sign around their neck, which reads, "I am being neglected by my parents", or "I am being abused." The protection of vulnerable children relies on the co-operation of all sorts of agencies who might come into contact with a child - the school, health professionals like nurses and doctors, even the assistants who run after school clubs. 

Following the death of Victoria Climbie in 2000, a child who died despite being seen numerous times by doctors, there was an enquiry to find out what had gone wrong. There were several findings from the Lord Laming enquiry. 

One was that, even though Victoria had been seen by lots of different doctors, and lots of different social workers, nobody was holding 'all the pieces of the jigsaw'. Though lots of people had concerns that Victoria was being maltreated or neglected, there was no single named person (for example, a social worker) who knew about all of these concerns, and could patch them all together into a comprehensive picture of neglect and abuse. One finding of the Lord Laming review was to compel all agencies working with children to stay in better contact, to help protect vulnerable children like Victoria in the future. 

Since those days, child protection has improved. Yes, other children have died since; the case of Baby P, in 2007, highlighted the lengths that some abusers will go to to mislead the investigating services. In Baby P's case, the mother was able to hoodwink social services into thinking that she was engaging with them in order to improve her parenting skills. 

So, you can see from this how specialised child protection work is. It's not easy for social workers to tell whether a parent genuinely engaging with them, nor is it easy for social workers to piece together all the parts of a 'neglect jigsaw' to see when a child is being mistreated by its parents. This kind of work takes a lot of expertise and, most crucially, support and supervision. 

Now I'm not an expert in tendering procedures, so I don't really know how this stuff works. But I'm imagining that when child protection services are put out to tender, for bidding by private companies, the 'winner' of the tender will be the company that says it can provide child protection services the cheapest. 

How will they provide these services cheaper than the local authority can? Hazarding a few guesses here:

  • By cutting managers' salaries ("You get what you pay for", as the saying goes; cut managers' salaries, and you'll attract less experienced managers, perhaps managers who don't know anything about children's services or child protection)
  • By cutting staff costs (by lowering pay)
  • By increasing social workers' caseloads; (and higher caseloads means that social workers won't be able to do their jobs properly; they won't be able to do preventive work with the most complex cases, mistakes will be made; phone calls to schools & doctors' surgeries not returned; social workers might not have time to look for the best possible placements for looked after children)
And let's remember that some of the global privatising companies do not have good records when it comes to organisation of large-scale events, or of protection of the vulnerable:

In 2011, the army had to step in to take control of Olympic security when it was revealed that G4S, the company who had run the tender, had 'underestimated the scale of the event'

Earlier on this year abuse cases came to light from an immigration centre run by the company SERCO, who apparently went to great lengths to cover the abuse up, rather than making it stop

These are the kinds of companies likely to be bidding for tender to look after the most vulnerable children in our society. Please take a moment to sign this petition to help put a halt to the plans:

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