Tell the story

March 30, 2010

There’s nothing like a shocking death in the community to focus attention on the supposed inadequacies of our public services

Filed under: Featured — andrewchilvers @ 10:45 am

There’s nothing like a shocking death in the community to focus attention on the supposed inadequacies of our public services.

And Birmingham Children’s Services have been under intense national scrutiny following the death by starvation of 7-year-old Khyra Ishaq. Rightly, questions were asked: How could such a terrible tragedy happen in a modern British city? Where were the safeguards to protect the child?

Last Friday I spent an hour or so with Owen Pearson, assistant director of Children’s Services in Birmingham. Owen is a dedicated champion of children’s safeguarding, he’s on call most of the time, often working round the clock. He has no time for holidays, but is urged to take them far away from Birmingham and England so he’s out of contact, “which makes my holidays rather expensive,” he jokes. Above all, he loves his work: “I believe I can make a difference for children. If I’m making a difference for one, then I’m making a difference.”

Some 2,000 looked after children are currently in the care system in Birmingham, and 4 times as many children are on the child protection register living at home.

“Our priority is to safeguard children in their own homes,” Owen says. “Most children don’t’ want to leave their parents. That’s home, that’s love for them. It’s only when they get older they realise they can get out.”

He manages 19 teams; each team has 6 social workers, 2 assistants and a manager. And each social worker has 15 cases or more at any one time. As Americans say, “do the math”. It’s a huge workload.

The teams’ records of helping vulnerable children go largely unrecorded, mainly because of the successful outcomes. Now and again tragedies happen and the teams collectively are vilified across the nation. Such is the lot of Children’s Services throughout the UK.

The reason for my visit was to plan a mini-conference where Owen and Colin Tucker, the Children’s Services Director, will talk to other heads of services to explain the type of work they do and how they’re going to develop this in the wake of little Khyra’s death.

The idea for the conference is to record the “journey” through video engagement of a vulnerable child who is referred to social services. So as Owen and Colin speak, behind them will be a portal containing half a dozen video blogs of everyone connected with the “journey”; that’s the 10-year-old child, social worker, case recorder, legal representatives and child/adult who has been through the care system.

The idea is to give an accurate picture – not a whitewash. Owen was clear about that. He wants to tell the truth and he wants each person in the chain of events to show clearly how the “journey starts and finishes”.

No system is perfect, but if we can show through directors’ speeches and video narratives how everyone is trying to improve the lives of children, then maybe next time tragedies occur, there’ll be less finger pointing and witch hunts and more empathy, understanding and analysis. That way real improvements will be made.

As part of this engagement process, it’s important to keep the portal growing post-event. That way everyone connected with the service can start to talk, engage and share best practice and anecdotal evidence. Using facebook-style profiling, microblogging and video blogs, a community can be formed and managed, and hopefully can act to help avoid tragedies in the future.

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