Can you put a price on protecting children? In a world of grim budget forecasts, unfortunately councils have to - and have just done so across the country.
Here in Oxfordshire, we have put an extra £1.4m into recruiting 21 new children’s social care workers to reduce workloads on our existing staff. That is a generous allocation as services are pared back across much of the rest of the council, but it is part of what we believe is needed to offer local people the reassurance they need - that their children are being looked after by their local authority.
That assurance is right now being tested in a court case involving Oxfordshire children allegedly abused which is taking place at the Old Bailey. Clearly I can’t talk about that, but the nation has been appalled for some time with headlines about children and safety.
Council budgets are only going to get smaller, so we cannot rely on generous settlements next time round. The future for child protection lies, I suggest, in doing it differently. Not in monolithic silos of the past, but in arrangements that span health, local authorities and the police to ensure we get the earliest insight possible into abuse.
The flagship for Oxfordshire in this respect is what we call the Kingfisher Team. Set up with a £600,000 investment from the council and similar resources from Thames Valley Police, it is designed to do a new job by co-locating police officers and social workers under one roof in a police station in east Oxford.
The team represents a real change in culture, with social workers and officers from partner agencies now thinking about child abuse less in isolation from each other and more in terms professionals clustering around each individual.
I have been in social work for 40 years and I suspect the caseload is more likely to increase than decrease. But we must continually try to find ways to make sure the considerable powers available to us are used in a way that ensures that improves the safety and wellbeing of each child.
An abused child can cross a number of portals in the course of their unhappy journey - from the police station to the health centre to a council care home. Children from this background don’t live in a multi-agency world, they inhabit a troubled and chaotic universe where they will go to whichever authority figure who seems likely to listen - and to help.
The Kingfisher centre represents a new collegiate approach to tackling child sexual exploitation, wherever and in whatever form it arises.
It is about collective listening and joining the dots that make up the disturbing matrix of child abuse so that we are best placed to make sure children do not slip through the net. Our safeguarding board recently published a handbook on tackling child sexual exploitation called ‘Never Give up on a Child’. This is exactly the challenge we are making to child protection professionals across the county - to never give up on a child.
Professionals don’t just meet each other - they work together, sharing information and incoming intelligence to build up an evolving picture.
We can’t claim to be perfect and we can’t claim to be the only council in the UK to have changed to operating along these lines. However we can claim to have learned from our own experiences and those of professionals elsewhere in the UK and we hope we are getting better. We want Oxfordshire to be difficult territory for child sex offenders to operate and we do not want reduced financial circumstances to get in the way of that aim.
Jim Leivers is Oxfordshire CC’s director for children, education and famillies