New directions in multi-agency safeguarding practice

Louise Bazalgette shares key messages from a project aiming to develop a vision for safeguarding in a time of austerity

Child playing with play dohLast year I had the fascinating task of working with colleagues across the NSPCC to develop a vision for safeguarding in the challenging current context of austerity and high demand on children’s services. This led to many interesting conversations with NSPCC colleagues and our counterparts in local authority children’s services, health, education and police, to explore how limited resources can be used effectively in local areas to keep children safe and promote their healthy development.

Some of the findings from this work were hardly new – key messages about the importance of leadership, multi-agency collaboration, evidence-based practice and a focus on child outcomes will not be a surprise to anyone. However, there are also interesting themes emerging about how we use expertise within our local area-based systems (e.g. local authority services, health, education, police, voluntary and community sector), which should prompt thought for the NSPCC and our partners.


Review

As part of this work I reviewed learning emerging from the Department for Education’s Innovation Programme, which has provided seed funding for a range of organisations “to test innovative ways of supporting vulnerable children and young people”. I highly recommend a series of thematic summary reports produced by the University of Oxford’s Rees Centre, which have made the learning from the Innovation Programme’s myriad evaluation reports far more accessible.

An interesting theme emerging from these projects, as well as some of the NSPCC’s own innovative work on service design, has been the importance of challenging assumptions about who is best placed to do specific work with children and families. Some good examples of innovative and cost-effective use of resources (including people) in helping children and families include:

  • The NSPCC’s Letting the Future In (LTFI) service trained social workers to carry out therapeutic work with children who have been sexually abused, to enable their recovery. We carried out a randomised control trial to evaluate LTFI, and found “good evidence of the intervention’s effectiveness with children over 8 and young people” (Carpenter et al, 2016). LTFI was also estimated to cost less than half as much as a comparable clinical intervention.
  • Rather than employing mental health practitioners to spend all their relatively costly time working directly with looked after children, North Yorkshire’s No Wrong Door programme asked them to help skill-up foster carers and residential workers, who spend far more time with children in care and are able to provide more sustained support (Lushey et al, 2017).
  • Project Crewe created teams of Family Practitioners who were not social work qualified but were managed by a qualified social worker, so that families could receive more hours of support. According to McNeish et al (2017), these teams “closed more cases and successfully reduced risk factors for children in need”, when compared with teams doing business as usual.
  • The Children’s Society’s Pause project in Birmingham provides a drop-in mental health service to all children and young people aged up to 25, staffed by therapists, youth workers, nurses and volunteers (Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE), 2017).

As these examples suggest, volunteers can do some work that might previously have been done by paid staff; family support workers can do some work that would usually be done by a social worker; social workers can do work that might traditionally be done by a clinical psychologist; and clinical psychologists might be better employed advising professionals and carers on how to be more psychologically minded in their relationships with young people, rather than trying to act as a sticking plaster when these relationships fail.

Research confirms again and again that multidisciplinary teams are more effective than single disciplinary teams (McNeish et al, 2017). Family Safeguarding Hertfordshire is a good example of this (Forrester et al, 2017). Of course, this is all dependent on staff and volunteers having appropriate training and supervision to undertake this work, as the various evaluations describe.

Crayon illustrationThese messages should challenge us all to be more creative and reflective in designing our services, to decide not only what mix of skills and professional expertise is needed but also to consider who is best placed to carry out individual tasks.

There might be a more cost-effective approach than ‘business as usual’, which doesn’t compromise the quality of services.

Recommendations

While there are many recommendations that could be made about how to structure and deliver services to better safeguard children, I would single out the following key aims to focus on:

  • encourage and enable everyone to take responsibility for safeguarding
  • intervene early to address children’s safeguarding needs before they worsen
  • provide adequate funding for children in need and child protection work, so that thresholds for a social work intervention are not set too high
  • place value on children and their families having a positive experience of receiving support, as well as a positive outcome
  • design services based on the best available evidence, in combination with local insight from the community
  • deploy resources, including professional expertise and volunteers, effectively in the design of services, to maximise their impact
  • break down silos between services to create coherent systems of support and promote multi-disciplinary models of working
  • enable innovation and improvement at all levels of the system.

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