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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Professional Neglect - What are the safeguards for vulnerable children neglected by the system?

Today I read an article that disappointed me.  The headline read "Boy 8, who hanged himself, 'let down' by Social Services".

A young man, Rexford, hung himself in 2008, and the findings from the inquest are enough to break your heart.   He was only 8.

In his short time in our world, he had endured the following:

  • 9 different agencies - but despite this, he still had his case closed by social services months before he died (he died in October but was taken off the Social Services case load the Easter prior)
  • been regularly let down by social workers, with regular changes in staff
  • had emotional, behavioural and educational issues
  • had come to school on several occaisons with injuries 
  • moved from Ghana to the UK with his dad, brother and sisters, but his mother was denied access to the UK and subsequently died, which leaves me wondering, why would they not allow his mother to come to be with her children - that defies logic to me.

The poor little man.

Can you imagine his heartache at not having his mother there to support him, and then learning she had died?  It is not at all surprising that he suffered from behavioural issues.  Who knows what traumas he had faced in his birth country and the subsequent move to the UK.  I wonder how scared, lonely and lost he must have felt, to take his own life by hanging himself.

It breaks my heart.

It disappointed me because I know it is not an isolated case and I also know, that despite the fact its a story from the UK, it is not only the UK that can hang its head in shame over letting down those most vulnerable of children.  I know, first hand, that it happens here, and I have seen reports from the US, Australia and other, so called 1st world countries, that it happens there too.

These services are set up and designed to protect those children who are most vulnerable and neglected, but here is my wondering - where are the safe guards that ensures the system doesn't commit professional neglect?  The system that protects the children from professional incompetence and malpractice?

How does it happen, I hear you ask?  It is a good question and well worth having a public discourse on.  In all the years I have been working with at risk students - and that is quite a few now - there are 3 main areas that I think, in my experience, lay at the root of this 'professional neglect'.

Firstly, let me add the caveat that there are many wonderful, hardworking people who work within the various agencies that are designed to support vulnerable children.   For them, I would gladly pay them all the gold in the world, and there are not enough bouquets of flowers to thank them.   But it is not those that shine that I am referring to.

The 3 Areas I Believe Let Vulnerable Children Down - a NZ perspective and my observations that are applicable worldwide:


Policy: 


By this, I also mean the system.  In particular;

  • Suitable placements are hard to find, and when they are found, support from the related agency is ad hoc and inadequate to support foster families who take on children who have been removed from their families - particularly traumatised children.  
  • Counselling and psych services are inadequate and assessments can take far to long to happen - in the meantime the needs of students are further marginalised and the longer the system takes to put into place vital supports, the damage for a child deepens. 
  • The ability for Social Services to get custody (worse case senario) or supports for children seems (to me) to be convoluted and hamstrung by outdated rules and policies that cripple a social workers ability to actually support families and children practically.  
  • Welfare reforms that on the surface appease the public by 'getting those bludgers!!', but with consequences that result in children being further marginalised by poverty, with increases in family violence, ultimately sees them being punished further by the system. 
  • Ever tightening budgets, less resources, delays in implementing resources and poor pay.  

Personnel:


Finding the right people for the job is problematic. 

  • I appreciate that the work of a child protection worker is a tough job.  The hours are long and unpredictable, the abuse and trauma they see would be heartbreaking and highly distressing, and having to deal with passionate advocates (like me) on a daily basis must be very tiring.  
  • Recruitment issues like low pay, stress, safety on the job, high case loads, inadequate supervision and support, administration loads and lack of professional development and training (I will get to that soon) will all be contributing factors toward high staff turnover and staff retention.  
  • Add in a negative public image and limited resources to implement programmes, and this further compounds the issue.    
  • What is disappointing here is that all it takes is for a handful of overworked, stressed social workers and their supervisors to let down a child and the whole system comes into disrepute.  
  •  People make the difference in any organisation.  How they are looked after, for example by providing them with ongoing training, giving them adequate supervision, financially rewarding them, ensuring there are enough staff to ease the workload and making sure they have the resources they need - all comes back to policy!  
  • making sure there are adequate systems in place to deal with burn out, stress and trauma is also critical. 
  • Considering we are dealing with the life of a little person - then it is critical that we get it right. 

Training:


Providing good quality training and ongoing professional development is important.

  • It never fails to amaze me how little child protection social workers know about brain development and the effects of trauma on social and emotional competencies.  
  • If I had a magic wand, I would ensure they all understood the importance of brain development - particularly for children in their first few years of life, the impacts of trauma and what good practice is for assisting in helping these children heal.  
  • I would make sure they understood the importance of relationships, transitioning, the critical importance of the bond with the significant caregiver (usually the mum) and early intervention.  
  • Often the school is the only place that provides a safe, stable environment for vulnerable children.  They often have built up a strong relationship with key staff, and they feel secure there.  To remove them from their school after they have been removed from family, all because policy and the system can not accommodate their needs - is not good enough.  More solutions need to be created - and I hate to use that naughty word - money - needs to be invested to ensure they are supported to keep this vital resiliency factor in play.  
  • Providing training and ongoing opportunities to enhance knowledge and skill is a no brainer.  


I know there are other issues - but for me, those are the top 3.

Children only have a short period of time to be children.  As a society it is our job to make sure they have a safe and happy childhood, and a chance to build a firm foundation to base the rest of their lives on.  It is in all of our interests to make sure we get it right.  

I wish we lived in a world where we did not need a system for protecting vulnerable children, but what I am more sure of is, we most definitely should not need a system to protect these children from the inadequacies within the profession.  Professional neglect should not ever be something we need be concerned about!

Sources:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/7594787/Boy-8-who-hanged-himself-let-down-by-social-services.html

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