Expert child protection units –  will they provide much needed national consistency?

England and Wales

In July 2018, the independent national Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel (‘the Panel’), was set up as an independent body to identify, commission and oversee reviews of serious child safeguarding cases. On 26 May 2022, the Panel published a review in respect of Child Protection in England following the tragic murders of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes (6 years) and Star Hobson (16-months). The review identified that Arthur and Star’s deaths were not merely isolated incidents but reflect the wider problems in child safeguarding practice. As a result, the review has called for the child protection system at both national and local level to strengthen in a more joined-up response.

The review found that Star and Arthur’s cases demonstrate the impediments and limitations of investigating safeguarding concerns through a single agency approach, including information sharing barriers, weak decision-making, a lack of opportunity for professional scrutiny, and managerial organisational pressures regarding passing around cases. Therefore, the review proposes 8 recommendations, including introducing a new expert-led, Multi-Agency Child Protection Units (‘Unit’), planning, intervention, and review in every local authority. The cohesive recommendations largely focus on the development of the new multi-agency model and enhancing proper co-ordination and involvement of all agencies.

The Panel states that they expect fresh thinking in respect of the Unit’s multi-disciplinary make-up and expect as a minimum to see representatives from the police, health services, education, and children and adult mental health. The Unit’s professionals would be employed by their ‘home’ agency but seconded to the Unit, bringing along their particular function. However, the local authority may employ multi-disciplinary practitioners for the Unit directly through either joint or single agency funding.

The Unit’s functions include but are not limited to, providing specialist child protection advice and consultancy across the local multi-agency system, undertaking section 47 enquiries, and advising other multi-agency and local authority children’s social care teams (including MASH/front door, children in care services, disabled children’s teams etc.) on whether a child and their family should be on a Child Protection pathway.

The Panel calls for the implementation of the Unit’s to be in close partnership with multi-agency child protection practitioners and leaders, both locally and nationally. They also call for Central Government to sponsor a cross-departmental programme to design, develop and implement the new model, working in partnership with local areas. The review recognises that the government should provide start-up fundings to help areas transition to the new model whilst recognising that ongoing operations will need to be funded locally. The introduction of the new national Child Protection Board would oversee the implementation of the Units.

It is important to note that though the review’s key issues focus on abuse within the family context, the recommendations are not exclusive to that environment. Multi-agency information sharing, discussion, planning, and action are to apply to children in all settings whether that is within the family home, outside of the home or in another setting entirely. This will run alongside the Panel’s recommendation to establish national multi-agency practice standards for child protection, in order to set a standard or quality for working with children at risk and their family.

These recommendations are yet to develop physical change within children’s safeguarding practices and timescales remain unclear. However, the extensive in-depth review demonstrates promising plans and changing attitudes aiming to protect the most vulnerable in society. It remains to be seen whether the introduction of the new standards and Units will influence the inspection framework of Ofsted in respect of organisations such as children’s homes.

If you are a health, social care or education provider and require advice and assistance please contact us. We are monitoring the development regularly and our team are on-hand to assist with your regulatory queries.

Article co-authored by Heather Flaherty, Solicitor Apprentice at CMS.