RIP Child Protection

April 28, 2008

The mainstream press has belatedly picked up on the news that the cost to councils of issuing care proceedings is to rise from £125 to £4,000. A shame they couldn’t have done so when the government might still have been persuaded against it, rather than two days before the new rules come into effect, but that’s life.

I wonder how much longer the government can maintain the fiction that it is committed to child protection.


Pinging ARCH members

April 26, 2008

There have been some ongoing problems with the ARCH mailing list for updates etc (for various reasons that I won’t bore you with). We’ve now sorted it out, fingers crossed. If you are an ARCH member and have not been receiving updates, can you contact us and make sure we have your correct email address? archrights(at) Ta.

Suffer the children

April 25, 2008

On Sunday the Observer carried this shock story:

The scale of violence against children has been revealed in new figures which show that in England an average 58 youngsters a day are being admitted to hospital after being deliberately injured. The numbers, contained in National Health Service data, suggest that the incidence of intentional harm against children may be rising. Five years ago some 16,600 were counted as having suffered deliberate harm, but the figure rose to 21,859 last year.

…For doctors, the situation is intensely difficult as they have to explain to parents why they are carrying out investigations on a child who has what appears to be suspicious fractures or burns.

The message that the person on the Clapham omnibus would get from a quick scan of this article is clear: last year nearly 22,000 children were hospitalised by their parents.

Now look at this rather more measured item on BBC News:

Violence against babies and young children in England and Wales more than doubled last year, a survey of accident and emergency unit data suggests.

The Cardiff University study indicates the number of under-10s who were hurt rose to 8,067 from 3,805 in 2006.

The report said: “It is not clear whether violence at the hands of parents or carers is responsible for this increase. Recent evidence suggests that violence between children at school and in public places is also a problem.”

Why the disparity in the figures? Because the first article is talking about all children – that is, everyone under 18, while the second concentrates on the physically more vulnerable under-10s. The Observer article also fails to make clear that it’s talking about injuries received from all sources, and not only as a result of parental violence.

The problem is that such vague, breathless reports do no favours to child protection work because they make the more pertinent figures for abuse seem trivial by comparison. Each week, 150 young children are deliberately hurt by somebody else, and badly enough to need hospital treatment. Even if only ten percent of them were to be assaulted by their parents, that would still be appalling.

We can do without the Clapham-bound traveller thinking: “Oh, so it isn’t actually that serious after all” because from there, it’s a short step to discounting what may be happening right under your nose. But believing hyped-up figures is equally dangerous because it encourages an idea that abuse is so widespread that all families must be monitored, with the result that the relatively tiny number of children whose parents are frighteningly violent towards them disappear into a swill of trivial observation.

We’ve now had several years of increasing ‘information-sharing’ about children, but the figures for non-accidental injury seem to be getting worse. Contactpoint and eCAF are not going to make any difference: by the government’s own admission they are not child protection tools. Meanwhile, the Integrated Children’s System – which is replacing child protection registers – isn’t fit for purpose and many authorities are dragging their feet in implementing it because it’s worrying the hell out of them.

While all this fiddling around with shiny, fantastical new technology goes on, too many children are getting hurt. What will it take to persuade the government to shut its toybox and re-focus attention and money on honing the child protection workforce?

The goldfish bowl

April 22, 2008

The latest news on data breaches:

Government departments and private companies have reported an “alarming” number of new data breaches in the wake of the recent HM Revenue and Customs fiasco.

Details of nearly 100 cases of data breaches, two thirds committed by government departments or other public sector bodies, have been passed to the authorities, the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, said.

He warned organisations to step up security as he released details of the wave of new breaches, including unencrypted information lost on laptops, computer discs, paper records and memory sticks lost, stolen or missing in the post.

Undaunted, the government bulldozers ahead towards its goal of a single record system. I’ve just been re-reading the government’s ‘Harnessing Technology’ (pdf) today. Ostensibly it’s about using ICT in education, but as the role of schools expands into welfare, inevitably education and social care records start to merge.

It’s an extension of the approach piloted in Connexions, where personal problems are seen as ‘barriers to learning’ that must be dealt with. Thus the government wants to:

Ensure integrated online personal support for children and learners…

Support children’s and learners’ transition and progression by developing and implementing a common approach to personal records across education and children’s services, including public and private organisations and industry.

It hardly needs saying that the scale of data breaches can only increase with the amount of data collected. How strange to think that the government was once so wary about the collection of children’s personal data that they introduced the School Census one small step at a time. Less than ten years later, it’s hard to think of any personal data that isn’t fair game for the ‘joined-up’ treatment.


April 17, 2008

I used to love those bits of the bible that went something like: “And Ahitub begat Zadok, and Zadok begat Ahimaaz, and Ahimaaz begat Azariah” etc (Yes, I was a strange child, OK?)

There’s something similar over at Ideal Government, only this time it deals with the convoluted and incestuous history of the biometrics company expected to win the contract for the National Identity Scheme. Fascinating.

What Mr Justice Coleridge really said

April 17, 2008

A couple of weeks ago, much was made of a speech by a judge on the family circuit who was, so journalists told us, banging on about the breakdown of the family and how society is going to hell in a handcart. I managed to read a transcript today, and it’s in fact about:

“the way in which the Family Justice system in this country has been and is being mismanaged and neglected by government…And when I say the family justice system I do not just mean the forensic process involving lawyers, judges and courts. I mean the whole range of professional expertise and experience which is routinely required and deployed in the preservation of family life and resolution of family disputes.”

He talks about the chronic shortage of social workers and the rising costs of care orders; the fact that Cafcass can’t meet the demands upon it, and the fact that those using the courts can’t get legal aid because it has been:

“killed off by government by the simple expedient of reducing or not increasing the financial threshold to such an extent that almost no one qualifies”

He points out that local authorities are:

“unable to fund proper residential assessments to enable the critically important questions about removing children from their parents to be properly considered”

To be sure, I think he may be painting a rather melodramatic backdrop when he talks about the ‘corrosive’ effects of family breakdown, but he’s entirely right to say that more lives are touched by the family justice system than by criminal justice. It’s a thought-provoking read – and far more meaty than the press reports suggest.

Audit trails

April 16, 2008

I’ve been meaning to flag up an interesting entry on Tony Collins’ blog a few weeks ago. He has been looking at papers FOI’d from Bolton Primary Care Trust about its trial of the NPfIT summary care records system and this bit about the amount of time needed for carrying out audit trails particularly caught my eye:

“[Name unknown] is having to put a lot of time into this task and, at the moment, we do not have all that many alerts coming in as the system is not being used to its full potential yet. [Name unknown] felt that the audit trail is ridiculous and asked how they hope to be able to manage it nationally…[Name unknown] informed the group that NHS Connecting for Health had envisaged that this task would take one day per week for each primary care trust which [name unknown] pointed out is still a great deal of time. At the moment it is taking [name unknown] around an hour to look at 10 alerts…”

The government places great emphasis on the power of the audit trail to deter corrupt access to NHS records, and also to Contactpoint. It would be useful to know just what resources and staff will be employed for the task. In the past we’ve mentioned several instances of data misuse, and this latest story from the Local Government Chronicle doesn’t inspire confidence:

A rapist who posed as a care worker to access council data to target vulnerable young girls has been jailed for eight years. Simeon Kellman (aged 42) worked for Greenwich LBC and used its computer system to identify teenagers who had just come out of foster care.

You can trust us…

April 14, 2008

The BBC has been doing some digging:

Personal data about members of the public has been lost or wrongly revealed by 13 London councils in the last year, a BBC survey has found… In one instance, sensitive information about children in care was stolen when a youth worker took files into a bar.

This response is frankly irritating:

Tim Allen of the Local Government Association emphasised that data security was very important to local government

It’s demonstrably not important enough. There seems to be a second story here, too:

Some 23 councils replied to the freedom of information request

But there are 33 councils in London, all of them public authorities bound by the Freedom of Information Act. What happened to the other 10?

More on that ICS report…

April 11, 2008

…in The Register;
and again here;
e-Health Insider
and What PC.

Inconvenient truths

April 6, 2008

Regular readers will probably remember the ongoing saga of the Integrated Children’s System (ICS) evaluation. ICS is the new electronic system intended to hold social work records. Each local authority is expected to introduce it, but the process has been fraught with delays and difficulties.

In 2004 the government commissioned an evaluation of ICS from academics at York University. Over the next two years the academic team studied four local authorities as they attempted to get ICS up and running. Their report was submitted in September 2006 – and promptly disappeared. In the following 18 months, shadow children’s minister Tim Loughton twice asked when it would be published.

Finally, two months ago, the government published its own document which they said was based on the evaluation report. We are told that they did not consult the report’s authors before producing this (though we’re happy to be corrected if we’re wrong).

The government’s version said that the report identified these problems:

The unanticipated scale of organisational change which the implementation of a complex system such as ICS brought about.

The need for improvements in social work training to ensure that qualified workers are knowledgeable about the research and conceptual base of the ICS, and are enabled to develop their analytical skills.

The need for greater support for social workers to use the system appropriately with disabled children

It also included the now-familiar response to reports that don’t say the right sort of thing:

There was coherence to the data from the different data sources… However, the research does not provide a sound basis on which to judge the potential value of the ICS

We FOI’d a copy of the original report, but had great difficulty in reconciling it with the government’s summary. While the report’s authors generally believe that a move to electronic records could be a positive one, they say:

However, our evaluation raises serious reservations about the design and use of ICS in its present form and we believe that the ICS has yet to demonstrate the degree to which and how it is fit for purpose.

While optimism about the system’s potential prevailed over time and some early sources of negativity were resolved, other negative attitudes crystallized and hardened. Social workers with longer experience of ICS were not more positive towards it than those who had relatively recent contact with it.

The concerns expressed included (a) the increased time demands which were “associated with ‘paperwork’ rather than any significant shift in orientation to social work“:

The time required for assessment, planning and review is very considerable and could easily come to absorb the great bulk of social work time. The demands of ‘data entry’ are also considerable and, in ordinary initial and core assessments, take up slightly more time than direct contact with the family or child.

(b) The prescriptive nature of the system:

The ICS was seen by the majority of members of the focus groups in the process and audit studies as being too prescriptive, too long, and repetitive and divided unhelpfully into chunks. There was concern that since the exemplars insisted on similarity, they failed to ask questions that were relevant to some children while asking of others questions that were irrelevant. Practitioners were also concerned that the records were not suitable for use with children and families, and that some, such as the core exemplar, were inappropriate for use with children with disabilities.

(c) The inflexible and standardised format which made it “difficult to grasp the key features of a case or to track its coherence“. While the authors say that the assessment framework encourages social workers to think systematically about a case,

The difficulty arises because problems do not come divided up in the way in which the exemplars are structured. Linked to this, the system cannot easily encompass the logic of analyzing a case. Essentially it adopts an actuarial approach by asking for information which, in a large sample of cases, predicts negative or positive outcomes. This is a sensible approach for management purposes, but an individual case requires a more individual and flexible approach

Far from the problem being one of social workers’ failure to understand the system, as the government’s version of events suggests, or their underdeveloped ‘analytical skills’, it is pretty clear that the fly in the ointment is the system itself. A shame, then, that the government didn’t find out more about the ‘conceptual base’ of social work to begin with, and a disgrace that they prefer to suppress criticism rather than deal with the problems.

There’s more in Community Care and a bit in the Sunday Times – the article also deals with eCAF.

Toilet Lock-Down

April 2, 2008

I was doing an interview yesterday on the use of CCTV in schools, and had a fascinating discussion with the programme researchers. Apparently one school they visited (a state-of the-art academy) is so awash with new technology that they can lock every door in the building at the touch of a button, instantly transforming classrooms into communal cells and preventing anyone escaping out of the front door. They routinely lock the toilets during lesson-times – visits to the toilet are only allowed during break times. It seems it’s not only the Freedom of Information Act that has passed schools by. Human Rights, anyone? Hands up if you’ve ever heard of them.

Still here…

April 2, 2008

…Though our prolonged silence might have made you think otherwise. It’s been one of those intensely busy periods with no spare blogging time at all.

I did notice recently that an opinion poll carried out for the Information Commissioner’s Office found:

three-quarters of us were more worried than ever over access to personal data. And 70% said they felt powerless over how organisations kept an eye on data.

The survey comes after the government lost computer discs containing the entire child benefit database.

From the look of the other news around, people’s worries are entirely justified. There was this:

Documents containing payroll information relating to 182 NHS staff members have been have been found dumped in a street…The documents had been in the care of company Capita when they were lost.

They contained information, including addresses, bank account and National Insurance details, from five trusts in Leicestershire and Northamptonshire.

And this from the Liverpool Daily Post:

an investigation by the Daily Post, using the Freedom of Information Act, has revealed the loss of 230 records by health staff in the region.

More than half of the trusts which replied to a request for information confirmed they had lost data. It is also revealed that the largest data loss – 100 records held on a “memory stick” by Liverpool Primary Care Trust, was not reported to the patients involved.

Even the prison service is doing its bit:

Prison Service and IT staff are trying to correct errors in the networked Local Inmate Database System [Lids] – which holds records on more than 80,000 prisoners – after the Service’s IT supplier EDS discovered that thousands of records contained incorrect information or data was incomplete or missing.

Yet more symptoms of what the Joint Committee on Human Rights describes as:

“The Government’s failure to take safeguards sufficiently seriously”


“insufficient respect in the public sector for the right to respect for personal data.”