Memorandum by Mrs Hilary Searing
1. I am a retired social worker
and I write in a personal capacity. I have 28 years experience
in local authority social work and my last position was as a Senior
Practitioner in Children's Services.
2. I welcome the Committee's scrutiny
of the draft Regulations for the establishment and operation of
ContactPoint. The government has pushed ahead with this proposed
database using arguments which are misleading and often fail to
consider the wider problems in Children's Services. Ever since
the passing of the Children Act 2004 I have been arguing for a
more balanced examination of the objectives of the proposed database
and have raised concerns about the way it could weaken the child
protection system through a loss of focus on those children at
3. I am limiting myself in this
submission to the question under the heading 'Objective' - do
you think that ContactPoint, as now proposed, will adequately
achieve its declared aim of "supporting more effective prevention
and early intervention, to ensure that children get the additional
services they need as early as possible"? In my view the
proposed database is an unnecessary tool for social workers and
will do nothing to improve support services to children.
4. ContactPoint has been presented
as a useful resource for social workers and other professionals
who provide services for children. It seems that its main purpose
is to enable practitioners to find out who else is working with
a child or young person so that they can, where appropriate, work
together to deliver better coordinated support. In addition, it
is intended that the database will eventually be able to identify
those children who are the subject of 'child protection plans'
when information from child protection registers is transferred
onto the database. However, this information is highly confidential
and would require much more secure arrangements than those now
5. The proposed database needs
to be considered within the context of changes in children's services,
arising out of the Government's Every Child Matters programme,
affecting the way that referrals are now dealt with. Significantly,
there has been a reduction in the number of child protection investigations
and an increase in the use of the Common Assessment Framework
(CAF) which is a new, more standardised approach to assessing
children's needs for services.
6. ContactPoint will contain records
for every child under 18 and include contact details of parents
or carers and education and health services involved with the
child. My main concern is that ContactPoint would make it easier
for professionals to share information about children with each
other without the knowledge of their parents or carers. The government
justifies the erosion of the important principle of consent by
arguing that the needs of children are central.
7. The principle of informed consent
requires professionals to obtain consent from clients before disclosing
confidential information, including information on whether the
client is known to the agency. Information sharing between different
professionals often leads to better assessments but in the past
this was only done without the consent of the child or parents
where there were serious child protection concerns. It now seems
that other concerns, such as risk of offending or living in an
impoverished family/community, are also being considered serious
enough to justify dispensing with consent. This represents a significant
shift in thinking and the erosion of an important principle of
good professional practice.
8. Social workers are being told
that ContactPoint would help them identify children at risk of
abuse or neglect. In my experience this may be true in some of
the most serious cases, which are very few in number, but in the
vast majority of cases coming to the attention of social workers
there is no need for a new database.
9. We already have a well established
inter-agency system for dealing with child protection concerns
and it generally works well when all agencies adhere to the agreed
procedures. Social workers have a legal duty to investigate where
there are suspicions or allegations of abuse or neglect. As lead
professionals they may need to contact other agencies involved
with the child for information to determine whether the risks
to the child are serious or immediate. In my experience, tracking
down the child's school and details of the GP and other significant
professionals is a fairly simple process, usually requiring several
phone calls at most.
10. The current system for identifying
and monitoring children at risk of significant harm has been developed
and improved over many years and now provides an excellent framework
for practice. In some cases the child's name is placed on the
child protection register and a child protection plan drawn up.
The child protection register is not just a means of recording
information; it is also a social work tool for working with children
who have been identified as at risk. In my view it is wrong to
assume that the stigma that some families experience can simply
be removed by abolishing the register and replacing it with the
term 'child protection plan'. This is already happening in anticipation
of ContactPoint when it is expected that data will to be transferred
from one electronic system to another. The experience of those
who are the subjects of child protection plans are unlikely to
be affected by this change in terminology.
11. After registration of a child
on the child protection register an inter-agency plan is drawn
up and core group meetings are held, involving the family and
professionals, to share information, plan and review progress.
In post-registration work social workers are the lead professionals
and they work closely with other professionals in contact with
the child and family. Therefore, ContactPoint would be seen as
totally irrelevant as current arrangements ensure that the core
group of professionals work closely together.
12. Social workers are also being
told it will be easier for them to deliver better coordinated
support to vulnerable children. However, in these situations the
database is unnecessary. Social workers providing support services
already have access to their own records system if they wish to
obtain details of children already known to their department and
names of other professionals involved.
13. Finally, social work does
not want a national database of every child in this country as
the problems created by such a database would far outweigh the
benefits. It would effectively be the end of client confidentiality.
In child protection work the principle of aiming to work with
families on a voluntary basis is a good one and social workers
aim to build trusting relationships with their clients. However,
the danger is that once social work has become more closely aligned
with an inter-agency system of surveillance and monitoring of
families most people will be less open and trusting towards social
workers and this will make their job more difficult.