Deadlines urged to speed child care inquiries

Campaigners have called for tighter deadlines to publish serious case reviews as the wait continues for full reports into the Edlington attacks and the abduction of Shannon Matthews.

Almost 100 investigations have begun in the past 18 months into cases across England where vulnerable children have either died or been seriously harmed after abuse or neglect.

But Government figures show that, of the 40 inquiries that have been completed, only seven have published their findings in full.

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In Yorkshire, four reviews have been completed but the reports are yet to be released. Another nine remain ongoing, according to statistics supplied by the Department for Education.

The figures relate to investigations which began on or after June 10, 2010 – when the Government announced that reports by safeguarding children boards should be published in full, but suitably “redacted and anonymised” to protect the identities of children.

Before that date, panels were required only to publish an executive summary of the report, which critics claimed could lead to important details being omitted.

The Edlington and Shannon Matthews cases are among four further reviews, which began before June 2010, that the Government wants reported in full.

The findings of the other two – into the deaths of Baby P in Haringey and seven-year-old girl Khyra Ishaq in Birmingham – have already been released, in reports each running to more than 100 pages.

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, expressed concerns about the delay of the Edlington and Shannon Matthews reports.

He said: “If we are getting on to 18 months from the time at which the reports were completed and so on, the question is, ‘Is the work being done at all or is it in fact being set aside because no deadline has been set?’

“What is the incentive for boards to get on with the work if there is no deadline? What is to stop this going on for five years?”

Mr Frankel warned there was a danger that opportunities to learn from a case could be lost.

“The longer you wait, the more circumstances will change – which may cause you to revise the judgments you made,” he said. “The staff who know the case may retire and then the task becomes even more difficult. Also, the circumstances are no longer fresh in people’s memories.”

The Government has advised boards to complete serious case reviews within six months but reports can be delayed if court cases or inquests are still to be heard.

One such case in Yorkshire is a Calderdale Safeguarding Children Board investigation into the death in 2009 of Child D, who is believed to have been shaken.

Child protection experts in Barnsley, Kirklees and Rotherham have also completed reviews which remain unpublished.

Barnsley, Bradford and Leeds each have two investigations currently ongoing. Other inquiries are in progress in North Yorkshire, Wakefield and York.

Most boards said they would work to publish reports in full, although there are fears the disclosures will put social workers under more pressure.

Jim Board, of the Unison public sector union, said: “People who are involved in the management and assessment of risk, particularly in child protection cases, do so under incredibly difficult circumstances and incredibly difficult pressures – not just in terms of the vulnerability of the families they are working with but also in terms of the organisational pressures around resources and the pressure to deliver more with less.

“To publish a serious case review in full, whether it is suitably redacted or not, has the potential to have a real impact on individual workers when a serious case review is not about apportioning blame or responsibility.

“The reports could be used in ways that they were not intended to be used.”

Mr Board also suggested the move to make reviews more transparent could backfire.

“Serious case reviews shine a very bright light into the work of local authorities on child protection and the call to publish overview reports has come at a time when they are cutting funding for essential services,” he said.

“There is real potential for serious case reviews to highlight very clearly that funding cuts are exacerbating problems.”

Comment: Page 14.