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VIEW FROM THE TOP - CHILDREN'S HOUR

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With a new minister for children, it is time to reassess our agenda for child protection, says Tim Byles ...
With a new minister for children, it is time to reassess our agenda for child protection, says Tim Byles

Victoria Climbie?s death and the Laming Inquiry projected child protection arrangements onto a high-priority level for the government and councils. And rightly so. Every child?s death is a tragedy, but when caused by abuse or neglect it seems doubly so and exerts far-reaching consequences.

An example of how severe this can be is a case close to my heart. Lauren Wright died in Norfolk in 2000 from the abuse and neglect of her father and stepmother, despite being known to the protective agencies.

So, with a new minister for children this seems a good time to reflect on that experience and on my work with the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers on its response to the Laming inquiry.

First, reasoned debate, supportive action and enlightened thinking fight to be seen or heard when conducted in the media spotlight. In the aftermath of any tragedy we must always recognise and respond to the impact it has on our services and the individuals who deliver them.

Second, discussions now centre on the need for people to be clear about accountability for the various elements of the child-protection process. Solace has worked hard with others on this ? and some contradictions have emerged as a result.

For example, every day professional staff make innumerable, finely balanced judgments that successfully protect thousands of children. We must be sure any change of structure continues to extend the safety net that bit further otherwise, how can we be sure we are not making the system unstable and children less safe?

Also, clarity about accountability is a tenet underpinning wider confidence in public services. But it means much more than having a person to take the blame when things go wrong.

?Who is to blame?? is the key tabloid question after any child protection tragedy. Being able to point the finger more easily may make the papers feel better, but wi ll it make children safer?

My council serves a large and intensely rural county. Any one-size-fits-all design to service delivery is unlikely to address local factors efficiently. Surely an agreed focus on outcomes rather than process will serve us all best?

The issues move on. We have welcome clarity of leadership for child protection in the Department for Education & Skills and the minister for children is working on these matters. But some more immediate steps are also necessary.

We need local inter-agency arrangements with the teeth to call local agencies to account for failures to respond adequately. Work to prevent abuse and neglect must link directly to work which helps protect those identified as vulnerable, otherwise children will fall through the cracks. There must be

real rigour in how agencies monitor

and develop communication between them.

Sadly, none of us can guarantee to save every child from people who want

to harm them. But for the sake of all the children who come within our care, I look forward to a speedy and constructive resolution to the continued debate.

Tim Byles

Chief executive, Norfolk CC

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