“Serious Case Review”, the three rather matter of fact words which follow the tragic and untimely death of a child. Since their inception as part of the Children Act 2004, following the death of Victoria Climbié, Serious Case Reviews have provoked controversy as other children died as a result of neglect, violence or systematic abuse. Like Victoria, many have also become household names; Ayeeshia Jane Smith. Peter Connolly. Daniel Pelka, Poppi Worthington.
Alan Wood, a former president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, was asked in December 2015 to carry out a review of an increasingly discredited process on behalf of the Department of Education. Unsurprisingly, he concluded that the current system is not up to the job and its replacement must be more transparent, more challenging and more robust. He identifies communication as a key weakness in the current system and recommends that any replacement must develop a communication strategy that incorporates the needs of all relevant agencies.
At Crest, we’ve acquired extensive experience of helping public services, agencies and independent inquiries engage, explain and encourage as part of their work, so we’ve asked ourselves: how would we help the system improve as Wood prescribes? To start things off, we have considered the emerging replacement for Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards (LSCB) and the corresponding Serious Case Reviews. But how can professionals use more effective communications to deliver both the change and ultimately better social justice?
Good communications increase transparency
The current system has been criticised for its lack of independence. Although the Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards, which oversee Serious Case Reviews, have an ‘independent’ chair, the Wood Review sets out significant inconsistencies in how this role has played out in practice:
“the effectiveness of an LSCB is due to the ability of the Chair… It is clear that the duty to cooperate has not been sufficient in ensuring the coherent and unified voice necessary to ensure multi-agency arrangements are consistently effective.”
Clearly any new system needs to be more transparent; internally to those directly involved in delivering the new system; but also externally, to other stakeholders working with children and families and to the general public – for whom perception is often everything. Rarely is sunlight not the best disinfectant.
But it also needs to be more challenging. Those overseeing a new system need to be visible, accessible and accountable. Only then will they, and their findings, be seen as credible. Effective communications, within understandable parameters of confidentiality, is key to making that happen. Progress reports and timelines with accountable actions would be major progress. When someone wants to suggest problems in the current system, the challenge cannot be silenced or ignored. And arguably that means any new system cannot be delivered by those protecting the reputation of any organisation being subject to criticism.
A process that is more transparent will invariably both be, and be perceived to be, more independent and effective and so increase public confidence.
Effective communications speed up a process
Serious Case Reviews had a hugely important job to do; fully understanding the circumstances behind the suspicious death of a child or vulnerable adult, and ensuring local authorities learned lessons, thus preventing similar incidents from happening in the future.
But to date this has been a lengthy process. Guidance states that local authorities should aim to complete a Serious Case Review within 6 months but the reality has been somewhat different. A study of published Reviews in 2010 found that of the 147 they looked at; 60 met the six-month timescale, 60 took 6-12 months, 19 took 1-2 years, and 8 over 2 years. Added to which, there has been huge variance in the quality and detail of reports – and therefore the ability for lessons to be learned.
As the Wood Review states, the new system will have to focus on a rapid response. It’s not enough to just get people in a meeting – whether that’s physically or remotely using new technology – they have to act effectively and decisively implement change.
Communications can and should both speed the process up and make it more effective. The purpose of any new inquiry must be made clear, along with the means being used to achieve it. The key players need to know from the start what their role is and what is expected of them. And then throughout an inquiry, communications can keep a process on track.
Communications and stakeholder engagement will deliver buy-in
One of the main criticisms of the current system is that lessons are not systematically learned and changes implemented. Although there are three core agencies involved: health, the police, and the local authority (the official ‘corporate parent’), there are often dozens of others involved too, including academies, housing associations and charities.
That is a large group of frontline professionals around each child/family. Of course agencies already try to cooperate. But going forward they are going to have to modify their strategy to find ways of doing it more effectively, and efficiently.
As Baroness Jay told the Wood Review,
“An issue which belongs to everybody round the safeguarding board table, effectively belongs to nobody.”
The new system has to embed strong leadership and ownership of its activities. By investing in good and effective communications, deeds can be swiftly turned into actions with each agency playing their critical role in delivering agreed changes and demonstrating progress to the public.
Use communication to empower practitioners
If change and improvements to child protection are really to come out of the Wood Review then those working on the front line need to feel part of the process.
The Wood Review states that there has been too much timid inquiry, too much acceptance of poor performance and existing processes. But if people are to improve and accept help to improve they have to feel they are part of the solution and not just part of the problem.
And it’s not just social workers and their managers; police officers, GPs, nurses, teachers and care workers all need to feel involved and their opinions valued. But these are all people with a demanding day job to do. So finding ways to engage them so they can share their views and concerns in a timely fashion is key.
Good communication can put children and young people at the heart
Finally – it is easy to forget what it is all for. One of the more poignant sections of the Wood Review is feedback from the Children’s Commissioner for England who says,
“Many children complain to my office about poor co-ordination between agencies – especially when things have gone wrong.”
As she sets out, this often comes down to people not taking responsibility, mixed messages, having to share difficult experiences multiple times, and not knowing who they can talk to or who is there to help.
Those working with children and young people have the best of intentions. But children and young people communicate differently to adults, especially adult professionals – and those methods have changed, and continue to change quickly.
Professionals need to both keep up with changing technology and use it to communicate. Better still, involve children and young people who’ve been through the system to do that.
Change is on the way
Change is on the way and the pace of change is speeding up. With budgets still constrained, and likely to remain so, the only way forward is for organisations to work differently, in smarter and more effective ways to get more done with fewer resources.
Ultimately those responsible for child cruelty are those who perpetrate it. But professionals who work with children have the enormous responsibility for running effective services to protect them and, when those institutions fail, learning quickly from any mistakes.
At the heart of the new local learning inquiries will inevitably be renewed efforts to communicate and collaborate more effectively. And off the back of that, a safer future for vulnerable children. If we are to avoid a longer list of extreme and heartbreaking cases, everyone has to bring their best game.
Senior Communications Consultant
Jo Coles is a Senior Communications Consultant at Crest. Jo brings expertise in the political and voluntary sector delivering politically-sensitive campaigns and communications. She gave strategic communications advice to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse between October 2015 and May 2016.
Associate Director of Communications and Engagement
Charlotte Phillips is Associate Director of Communications and Engagement for Crest. She has led communications teams across a spectrum of high profile organisations, advising ministers, CEOs and senior officials on corporate affairs and issues in politically sensitive environments.