Travelling the country offering support to professionals tackling child exploitation has highlighted the challenges for services trying to respond to the needs of vulnerable adolescents. Unhelpful narratives driven by a sense of greater agency for older children, such as ‘making lifestyle choices’, has sometimes led to exploitation victims not being assessed as meeting thresholds for support.
The Children’s Society ‘Old enough to know better’ report, Research in Practice’s work on Transitional Safeguarding’, as well as our own work on transitions highlighted the issue of older children not always being identified as a child in need or requiring child protection as victims of exploitation. Often those assessed as not quite meeting the threshold for specialist services, have been left without appropriate support with many subsequently being abused.
Prior to the publication of Working Together 2018, I attended one of several events run by the Department for Education aimed at canvassing professional opinion on some of the critical content of the framework. It will come as no surprise to you that one of the tabletop discussions focussed on thresholds. I can’t think of an OFSTED report I have read in the past 3 years that hasn’t referenced the consistent application, or otherwise of thresholds.
Somewhat predictably the debate was drawn up between children’s social care on one side and a range of other agencies on the other. Children’s social care decrying the number of inappropriate referrals they received, often with limited information. Those representing the ‘referring agencies’ countered by contesting what they saw as artificially high thresholds based on resource rather than need.
It was a somewhat disheartening session which didn’t feel like it had advanced the conversation or would provide any useful feedback for the Department for Education. I personally left with a reinforced sense that thresholds represented arbitrary lines in sand for agencies rather than a meaningful way of identifying the appropriate support for children and families.
Fast forward 18 months and Steve Baguley, a colleague who has been travelling the length and breadth of the country engaging with children’s and adult services, sent me a threshold document from Norfolk – a Local Authority, which Steve and other NWG colleagues have engaged with significantly in recent years. Both Steve and myself were really impressed by the resource and were incredibly grateful to colleagues in Norfolk for allowing us to share it on our website.
What immediately struck me as I read the document was the child centred approach being advocated in Norfolk, promoting decisions that ensured children and young people received the right services, at the right time and for the right duration. The resource strikes a healthy balance between promoting the benefits of early intervention, whilst recognising the risks associated with over-intervention.
The layout of the document itself is in contrast to many historical threshold documents I have read, which were text-heavy and littered with professional jargon. In particular the use of imagery helps to break up text and make the document more accessible. The images don’t simply help the appearance of the document, they explain what professionals need to do – an image relating to levels of concern and who to talk to is particularly powerful.
The document encourages professionals in Norfolk to engage in early dialogue with both professionals and families when they have emerging concerns, and to do this in an honest, open and transparent way.
The document is broken down into easy to understand sections, with the principles of practice illustrated in a really clear way. I was particularly impressed by some of the issues picked up in the section on conversation opportunities, which included the recognition of the benefit of building on existing positive relationships and considering family strengths alongside concerns.
This section also stressed that professionals should never be discouraged from seeking specialist safeguarding advice from either within their own agency or from the Children’s Advice and Duty Service (CADS). The document provided clarity of the roles and responsibilities of the CADS team and the MASH, as well as the expectations of referrers.
These sorts of conversations can help prevent those children who don’t quite meet threshold requirements for specialist support from falling through the cracks. It’s great to know professionals in Norfolk have the benefit of access to CADS from 8am-8pm.
The explanation of the roles of the CADS and MASH teams was a great example of how the ‘Working Together-compliant’ document was given a local context, essential to creating professional ownership of the resource. This was supplemented by a great explanation of the Signs of Safety methodology, which has been adopted by Norfolk.
As well as providing a well-structured focus for conversations with families, Signs of Safety promotes shared responsibility and recognises the unique needs of individual children and families, whilst reducing the risk of bias from individual professionals and agency decisions. The document provides some great practical examples of questions you might want to ask professionals or families if you have concerns.
Norfolk’s threshold guidance also covers a critical area of practice which professionals have raised with us in the past – consent to share information. Several local authorities contacted us in light of an OFSTED inspection which had been highly critical of an authority’s children’s services for not routinely seeking consent from parents to share information.
The advice we were able to provide after conversations with OFSTED focussed on good protocols and well-designed systems supporting a skilled workforce. Seeking consent should be seen as good practice unless there is a reason not to (parent is potentially involved in abuse or seeking consent would elevate risk to child).
Norfolk’s guidance has a great section addressing these issues as well as echoing the advice we at the NWG shared about the importance of good record keeping practice and promotion of the Department for Education’s ‘7 golden rules of information sharing’.
Norfolk also made a very good point about refusal to share information not necessarily justifying escalating concerns if it occurred in isolation. In most exploitation cases parents are not involved in the abuse and more often than not they are doing all they can to safeguard their child.
A refusal may not represent an attempt to avoid scrutiny or prevent professionals from engaging with a child and family but might be as a result of lack of knowledge about services or a response impacted by the secondary trauma the parents are experiencing.
Norfolk have been involved in the NWG and Space’s work to raise the profile of parents as safeguarding partners through a series of Westminster events and a national conference in Birmingham last October. In the same way we encourage professionals to look beyond the presenting behaviours of children, the same approach needs to be applied to parents.
The threshold document concludes with a clear explanation of the four tiers of need, with examples of what these look like in a child’s life – moving them away from being arbitrary boundaries and making them something much more meaningful. The resource helpfully describes the experiences of a vulnerable child as a process, rather than a moment in time, even when initiated by a single event.
It was also great to see the inclusion of contextual issues such as the child’s community or neighbourhood, as well as sections on specific issues such as radicalisation. There is also a very useful section on handling professional disagreements – another concern the NWG is constantly contacted about.
To further help professionals in Norfolk a three-minute animation which was co-designed with children and young people. The video helpfully promotes the culture around thresholds that Norfolk want to embed in an accessible format. The link is at the end of this blog and is well worth a watch.
I hope you’ve found my thoughts on the document interesting enough to encourage you to go and have a look for yourselves. It’s not just myself and Steve who are impressed by the document, it was cited as a case study in ‘Stirring up Trouble: A postcode lottery of children’s social care’, a report for the APPG for Children, but have a read and judge for yourself.
Whilst the guidance is a great resource for professionals, I’ll leave you with a quote from it.
‘It is important to remember that guidance will never give all the answers.’
Here’s the link to the threshold document and the animation
Head of Operations
NWG Exploitation Response Unit
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