Philpott child deaths ‘not preventable’ but protection work could be better

Who were the Philpotts? Rui Vieira/PA

The serious case review into the deaths of the six children who died in a house fire started by their parents Mick and Mairead Philpott has concluded that their deaths “could not have been predicted or prevented”. It follows a similar finding of a review this month into the death of two-year-old Rio Smedley who was killed by his mother’s partner.

While the Philpott review said that little was known at the time about violence in the household (but there were some opportunities to get to know the family better), in Smedley’s case professionals were involved with the family and the review acknowledged that the toddler’s needs had not been adequately assessed or addressed.

Serious case reviews are launched when a child dies because of abuse or neglect. Last year there were 59, with a large proportion of these relating to death or serious injury at the hands of a parent, a parent’s partner of another family member. Many of these children were already known to social care departments and subject to child protection plans, which clearly failed to adequately protect them.

There are themes that are highlighted time and time again: non-engagement of parents, lack of sufficient information sharing between professionals, and the views, wishes, feelings and needs of the child becoming lost in the bureaucracy of safeguarding procedures and processes.

In her 2011 report on child protection, Eileen Munroe recommended that local authorities review and redesign the way in which they deliver child and family social work. The current system, she said, was too bureaucratic and target driven – which is still very much the case.

A different way

With this in mind, it’s time to review how decisions are currently being made in the forums that are convened to discuss safeguarding children, particularly child protection conferences and child in need meetings. In these meetings, family members are often outnumbered by professionals, many of whom they may not have met before. And decisions are made by professionals and families are informed of these decisions.

Instead, we should look to family group conferences where families and social workers develop their own plan for the care or protection of a child or young person. They offer a credible alternative to the system currently in place that doesn’t fully include them and is much too adversarial.

Family group conferences were developed in New Zealand in the 1980s in response to the disproportionate number of children of Maori origin in the care system at that time. And they are a legally recognised part of child protection work. The process is also now used in several countries and a number of councils use it in the UK. However, they are a used only as an “add on” to existing processes, like the statutory meetings, unlike in New Zealand.

In conferences, a family is supported by an independent co-ordinator, who has the role of ensuring that all family members or those that will be attending the meeting understand what is expected of them. The local authority is expected to be very clear with the family by telling them what issues and concerns they would like them to address.

They also set out what they will not agree to. For example,a local authority might state that they would not agree to a child remaining in the full-time care of their parents but would agree to another family member caring for a child, and what the implications will be if the family aren’t able to develop a “safe” plan for the child or young person.

The idea is that the family is able to use the strengths and resources that already exist within their unit and which recognises that families know what works for them. Each family is different, and plans will be made that reflect this. Unlike plans currently developed by practitioners, which tend to look similar as a result of the limited range of resources and services available, no two conference plans look the same.

Yes, it is more expensive

One of the criticisms made of family group conferences is that they don’t adequately manage and address risk to children and so fail to adequately protect them. The idea of giving families responsibility to develop their own plans and taking some control away from the professionals leaves some feeling very anxious.

But professionals are still very much in control and ultimately the council still decides whether a plan is robust enough to ensure the safety of a child or young person – so its statutory duty towards the child is still very much the same. And engaging families in a process that empowers them to make decisions about their children does improve their sense of responsibility and can significantly reduce risk.

While professionals are still very involved in this model, they do not dominate them, in stark contrast to existing meetings. Sharing information between all parties is also encouraged. And the child still has a dedicated social worker who takes responsibility for this. Children are also present, which reminds family members – and professionals – who the meeting is about.

Another big difference to existing meetings is that a family has private family time to develop their plan, which involves professionals leaving the room so the family can have discussions, facilitated by the independent co-ordinator, if they feel they need that support. In current child protection conferences, it’s the other way round: family members are asked to leave the room while professionals have a “confidential slot” to share information about the family and discuss what plans should be put in place, without the family.

Family group conferences have also been criticised as a resource-intensive luxury that local authorities can’t afford. They are more expensive in cost and in terms of professional time than the way things are currently done, but, if the evidence suggests that this way of doing things works and can keep more children with their families, we should be doing them more.

Not all children can stay with families when they are at risk. But we need to find ways of intervening better with families and with their help, than repeatedly dealing with the aftermath in serious case reviews which conclude a tragic event could or couldn’t have been predicted. Perhaps it’s time to leave predictions behind and find a better way of making sure it doesn’t happen.