Government , Big Data and Child Protection.

The news this week that councils are set to use people’s data to create predictive models to detect child abuse has caused a stir, but councils in London have been piloting predictive analysis models across their child protection services for the last three years. And it’s not just councils – the NHS and the Department for Work and Pensions have been using them for some time.

September 2017 article in Apolitical, describes how councils in London have been using data analytics to try to identify children at risk of harm since 2015, something The Guardian missed this week when it covered the issue. It also suggests that the predictive model used in one council had an 80% success rate, though it’s not clear from the article exactly how success rates were measured. What’s interesting about this article is that it highlights the financial advantages to councils, of using data in this way. The article tells us:

“Councils are expected to save over $910,000 for early targeted interventions, $160,000 by replacing human-conducted screenings with an automated system, and $193,000 for improving access to multi-agency data.”

The article says that the company responsible for creating this predictive model is called Xantura, and their pilot inside the child protection sector has been running since 2015. The cost of the software is an eye watering $1.25 million, and was launched in January 2015.

According to the article, councils using Xantura’s software have been slow to trust the model, which is not completely effective, or accurate, though social work teams may be more concerned about the threat the software poses to jobs inside the sector. The fact that councils will have to pay for the software out of their own budgets, has made uptake on the model slow, too.

Xantura is adamant that their software will save councils money in the long run, and some local authorities are getting on board as a result. Our favourite quote from the article comes from Steve Liddicott, Interim Assistant Director of Children and Young People’s Services at the London Borough of Hackney, who says:

“You actually don’t have to prevent that many children from going into care to make quite a significant saving.”

According to Apolitical, Xantura’s “Early Help Profiling System” (EHPS) uses stats from multiple agencies, including information about school attendance and attainment, families’ housing situations, as well as economic indicators. The model then takes those stats and turns them into ‘risk profiles’ for each family.

But here’s the thing. We know that doesn’t work. Remember the Troubled Families Programme? The one where a whistleblower blew the lid on the project, exposing it’s fraudulent activity, which included using stale data to assess families, and massaging the figures to engineer outcomes so that the team involved could cover up the programme’s failure and make it look like a success? They used big data, too.

The software the team used was Clear Core, and it was developed by a company called Infoshare. And that was as long ago as 2013.

While we are not against the use of technology when it is accurate and effective, the government’s drive to use predictive analytics inside the child protection sector, knowing these models do not deliver robust results, makes the software’s predictions highly dangerous, and the government vulnerable to costly litigation.

Is the answer better technology, or can big data never capture the human condition fully enough to make accurate predictions? We don’t know, but for those of you interested in this area, we’ve added some more information below:

Children At Risk: How different are children on Child Abuse Registers?

This is a piece of research from 1991, produced by Mark Campbell. It looks at whether a checklist with 118 items on it was able to identify children at risk of abuse and neglect. The checklist was applied to 25 different families, who were attending local authority centres at the time. Of those families, nine had children on the local child abuse register. The checklist scores of the families on the register were compared with those that were not, in the control group.

The research discovered something fascinating. There was little difference in the factors studied between the two groups. Mark concluded that this could have been down to one of two reasons:

  1. Either there was little real difference between the characteristics of abusing and non-abusing families, or;
  2. The process of registration was controlled by a series of events which were not solely related to the characteristics of the families in the control group.

This research deserves to be included in the discussion, as it represents the beginnings of data collection for predictive purposes in this area.

We have written before, about the risks involved in using big data and technology as it stands today. In April 2015, we shared our concerns over New Zealand’s plans to use data to try to create predictive models for child abuse. The lack of sophistication in these processes at the moment means that families could be exposed to predictive models that stereotype individuals and create unhelpful biases which could lead to large scale errors. We also mentioned another article, which was published by WIRED in January, 2018, called “A Child Abuse Prediction Model Fails Poor Families”, and is noteworthy for the way in which it talks about how this kind of software can automate inequality.

As always, these fights are never fair, or clean. In an ideal world, debate around the rights and wrongs of predictive machinery inside the child protection sector would be done only by those who are truly independent, but it’s easy to spot the conflicts of interest if you look hard enough. We’ll let you decide about this lot.


THREE QUARTERS Of Children In Care Ping Ponged Around The System

Three quarters of children inside the care system experience being moved from placements and schools, as well as changes in social worker. These are the latest findings from the Children’s Commissioner’s Stability Index, an annual report which looks at the extent to which children are moved around the care system.

The report includes the following statistics:

  • There are over 70,000 children currently in care
  • Only 1 in 4 children in care experienced no placement move, no school move and no social worker change within a year.
  • Only 1 in 10 children experienced none of these changes over two years.
  • Nearly 2,400 children (6% of children in care attending school) experienced a placement move, a school move and a change in social worker all in 2016/17.
  • Over 350 children (1% of those in care attending school) experienced multiple placement moves, a mid-year school move and multiple social worker changes all within the same year.
  • Over 3,000 children (6% of those in care in both 2015/16 and 2016/17) experienced four or more placement moves over two years.
  • 1,300 children (3% of those in care in both 2015/16 and 2016/17) experienced multiple placement moves in both years.
  • Nearly 4,400 children (6% of all children in care) experienced multiple social worker changes two years in a row.
  • Over the longer term, most children in care experience a placement move. Over a period of three years, nearly 2,500 children experienced five or more changes.
  • Over a period of four years, 2,700 children experienced five or more changes.

While the report tells us that rates of instability have not increased, and that there may be good reasons for placement changes, the number of children involved is staggering, as is the idea that we should accept instability when it comes to children who are in need. Children inside the care system need stability as much as, if not more, than children living in functional households.

The report also highlights another important area, which is data collection. In her executive summary, the Children’s Commissioner explains that the findings are limited because the quality of national data is inadequate. This is something we have written about often, and remains one of Researching Reform’s bug bears.

If you have a chance to look at the report, do tell us what you think.






Nearly Two Thirds Of Children’s Social Workers Think Their Practice Is Not Always Based On Credible Evidence.

A Twitter poll carried out by the What Works Centre, has revealed that 64% of social workers do not believe their practice is always based on credible data or evidence. The survey also confirmed that over a third of social workers who took the survey believe that none of their practice is based on sound information. The poll was posted on August 27th, and was taken by 518 social workers.

The Twitter poll, which allowed social workers to respond anonymously, asked the following question:

As a Children’s Social Worker, are the processes and practices being used in your local area based on credible and robust data, evidence or research?

A selection of answers were offered inside the poll by the WWC:

  1. Yes, all are.
  2. Yes, but only some.
  3. No, none are.
  4. Not sure.

Only 9% of those that took the poll selected the first option, with 33% selecting ‘yes, but only some’. 31% answered, ‘no, none are’, with the remaining 27% of pollers saying they were not sure. The combined total of answers 2 and 3, indicates that the majority of social workers who took the poll (64%) do not believe their practice is always based on sound information.

The What Works Centre is part of Nesta, which has been chosen to help set up Social Work England, the body replacing the HCPC. The WWC is currently looking at innovative ways to improve the social work sector. The WWC’s founding members include Isabelle Trowler, Chief Social Worker for England (Children & Families), who is at the Department for Education.

The survey’s results suggest that social workers around the country are acutely aware of the problems inside the child protection sector, but may be too afraid to speak out in case their positions are compromised at work. The anonymous nature of surveys like Twitter polls may be allowing concerned practitioners to voice their observations without being targeted.

You can follow the WWC on Twitter at @whatworksCSC.




Insights: The Good Social Worker

A directory launched on Sunday, housing the names of social workers who have been recommended by service users has received over 300 messages, which offer interesting insights into service users’ experiences, and the child protection sector.

The Good Social Worker was created by Michele Simmons and Natasha Phillips, who wanted to launch a site for parents and children which could offer them reassurance about their social worker, and give passionate social care professionals the chance to highlight their commitment to the families and children they assist.

While the directory has been met with cynicism by a few service users, most families who contacted the founders of the directory have welcomed the initiative, feeling it has offered them a place to seek out competent social workers.

The initial findings from the directory are thought provoking. Several service users said that they had engaged with good social workers, but within a short period of time those social workers had then left the sector. Some families implied that this was because the social workers felt pressure to conform to unethical practices or processes that were not in the best interests of the families they were helping. The departure of these social workers significantly affected families, who felt that they had lost a vital advocate who made them feel safe and understood.

Other families had experienced multiple social workers during the lives of their cases, a feature of the current system which many parents and children find deeply unsettling, but there were also positive stories of social workers going above and beyond their current duties.

One service user told us:

“The social workers attended a private court hearing for me to get contact with my older kids on a Special Guardianship Order. They didn’t have to come and weren’t involved with my children but they both came to support me and speak up for me to the judge.” 

This kind of feedback is significant for the way it highlights the gaps in current social work services, and how families respond when they are properly looked after.

Other interesting information emerging from the directory relates to the concentration of good social workers in specific areas, with Hastings and Sefton in the lead this week. Three social workers in each area have been nominated by families for their help and support.

Kids In A Row




Can I Choose My Social Worker?

Welcome to another week.

Following the launch of The Good Social Worker, a directory featuring the names of social work professionals recommended by families and children, we thought it would be useful to take a look at whether or not service users can actually ask for a specific social worker.

Local authorities have to allocate a social worker to every child protection case they handle, and as such the initial selection is usually always made by them. However, you have the right to ask for a specific social worker, if she or he is working at the council and assists on similar kinds of cases to yours.

While families and children don’t have a right to demand that they are given a specific or different social worker, there are several grounds you can raise, which the council must consider before turning down your request:

  1. The communication between you and your current social worker has broken down
  2. Your social worker is behaving unprofessionally
  3. Your child does not feel he or she can be open with the social worker
  4. There is a social worker at the council that has been recommended to you and you would like to work with him or her
  5. You have made a complaint about your current social worker

In all of these situations, if you are actively engaged with a current social worker, setting out your intention in writing (so that the request is recorded), is a good idea. The letter should be written to the social worker’s manager. In the letter or email, you can set out your reasons for wanting a change (which we would suggest is done diplomatically and as civilly as possible to ensure the most positive response), who you would like to work with, and why you feel this would be better for you and your child.

Where communication has broken down, you should explain why the lack of engagement is problematic. It sounds like an obvious point, but explaining that the breakdown is due to a lack of trust or personal connection and that it is preventing you from working with the council, is an important way of signalling that you are willing to engage with the services on offer, but not with someone who makes you feel uncomfortable.

If your social worker is behaving unprofessionally, gathering evidence of poor conduct is advisable, so that you can show a lack of response to emails, or missed appointments, for example. More serious issues like falsifying records or writing negative assessments without proof of any alleged neglect or abuse should wherever possible, be backed up with evidence and attached to your letter or email. And always keep a record of everything you write, and share.

The most important people here are the kids, so if your child is not connecting with the social worker, or with their own social worker, that should also be mentioned in your letter. Depending on the age of the child involved in the proceedings, we would also recommend finding a child advocate whom you feel confident will amplify your child’s concerns, if you can. Attaching a letter or report from a child advocate where the advocate agrees a change of social worker is needed, will also help to show the social work manager that your request is in your child’s best interests.

If you know that you’re going to engage with your council over a child protection matter, getting your request in right at the start could help to increase the chances of the request being successful. As always, a polite ask combined with a reason (i.e. X social worker has been recommended by Y and I would love to work with him or her), is a good approach.

Making a complaint about your social worker signals clearly that something isn’t right. While we don’t recommend making a complaint for the sake of it, as this can lead to more tensions and the chance of families being penalised in the process, where a social worker is clearly part of the problem and not the solution, a complaint is a compelling way to make the point that a new social worker is needed. It is at that point, (i.e. while the complaint is being made), that you could ask for your preferred social worker.

If your request is not granted, do ask for a written explanation on why your request has been turned down.

The bottom line is, families can’t insist on a social worker and requests don’t have to be granted, but they must be considered, and backing them up with logical, clear and child welfare focused reasons will give your request weight and maximise your chances of success. It also makes the family court aware of issues that can get swept under the carpet.

You have the right to ask, so don’t be shy.

We would like to say a very big thank you to the brilliant Jane Doe, who inspired us to write this post.






Introducing…. The Good Social Worker.

A directory featuring reviews of social workers by service users around the country has just been published.  The Good Social Worker is designed to help families and children going through child protection proceedings find caring and committed social workers in their area. The guide is the first of its kind in the UK.

Child rights campaigner Michele Simmons collaborated with Researching Reform to create the new directory, which includes a section for families to search for recommended social workers by location, and a Reviews section for parents and children who want to leave positive feedback about a social worker. The Tributes section allows service users to celebrate retired or deceased social workers, and was added after past service users got in touch with Michele to offer feedback about social workers who had helped them during childhood.

Michele invited families across social media to share positive experiences they had had with social workers, in order to develop a list of professionals that other families could be signposted to, within their areas. Michele received over 200 replies. The Good Social Worker was then created to house that list and encourage other service users to share their feedback. The directory currently features around 30 social workers who have been recommended, sometimes by more than one family. Several social workers who were nominated could not be added to the list, as they had either left social work or were no longer registered with the HCPC.

In May of this year, Researching Reform spoke with Social Work England Chair, Lord Patel, and invited him to consider the use of feedback sites to help inform and improve social work around the country. Historically, feedback sites have not been embraced by the child protection sector, despite a growing demand for such forums.

Service users who would like to submit a review can use the directory’s online form,  and will need to include the following information:

  • Your full name and email address
  • The name of the social worker/s;
  • Which area/s of the UK the social worker practices in, including the name of their council;
  • The time period you engaged with them, and;
  • Feedback about your experience.

All reviews and comments are checked before being published. Service users who want to remain anonymous can send in feedback and also request that their names are not published on the site.

Michele Simmons hopes the new guide will incentivise social care professionals and give families a better understanding of their case workers:

“The Guide offers significant benefits for social workers, parents, children and grandparents. For Social Workers who really try their best to help families, being featured in the directory will be like a badge of honour. For parents and relatives, it will be a place where they can find help and reassurance about whether they have a good social worker on their side. I’m already confident the list will grow.”

Researching Reform’s Natasha Phillips, says the directory acts as a gateway to good practice:

“Finding exceptional professionals in any sector can be difficult, but this becomes incredibly important in a child protection context, where the decisions being made can change a child’s life forever. The directory allows parents to find those people. It also celebrates great social workers, and gives the sector the opportunity to focus on what these professionals are doing right, and to adopt those practices.”

You can find the Good Social Worker at, and the site can also be accessed from Researching Reform’s Menu, under GSW.


GSWG Photo.png


Councils REQUIRED BY LAW To Prioritise Placing Children In Need With Family Or Friends.

A story published in Community Care today, highlights an important point of law which we often share with families we assist: councils must try to place children in need with family members or friends before they consider sending children to live with foster carers or in children’s homes. Placing children in need with relatives or friends is sometimes referred to as Kinship Care.

Section 22C of the Children Act 1989, requires that all local authorities must try to place children with either a parent of the child in question, or someone who has parental responsibility for that child. There is a very specific order which councils must follow when looking at placement options, and family members and friends of the child are at the top of that list.

The only exceptions which allow councils to deviate from that list and skip straight to the second cluster of options is where placing a child with family or friends would not be consistent with that child’s welfare, or would be impractical in some way. The difficulty here lies not only in whether the decision maker, here that’s the council, is impartial, but how, or whether, that decision has been recorded and made available.

Should the council feel that family members and friends are not suitable options, they are then required to consider the following placements, in this order:

  1. An individual who is a relative, friend or other person connected with the child and who is also a local authority foster parent
  2. A local authority foster parent, who is not related to the child
  3. A children’s home
  4. Other arrangements which fall under this section.

Equally important is Section 22(8), which says:

(8) The local authority must ensure that the placement is such that—
(a) it allows the child to live near their home;
(b) it does not disrupt the child’s education or training;
(c) if the child has a sibling for whom the local authority are also providing accommodation, it enables the child and the sibling to live together;
(d) if the child is disabled, the accommodation provided is suitable to that child’s particular needs.

However, the compulsory aspects of S.22(8) are seriously undermined by S.22(7)(b) which explains that:

In determining the most appropriate placement for the child, the local authority must, subject to [F5subsection (9B) and] the other provisions of this Part (in particular, to their duties under section 22)… comply, so far as is reasonably practicable in all the circumstances of the child’s case, with the requirements of subsection (8).

The piece in Community Care gives details about a Freedom Of Information request which asked councils across the country whether they were engaging in Kinship Care, and how many kinship placements they had made in the last year. The request found that less than 1 in 5 of the 124 councils that answered had used kinship arrangements, with as few as 11% of children taken into care initially placed with friends or family, in the 2016-17 financial year. The FOI request was made by law firm Ridley & Hall, who also discovered that only 4,758 out of 27,791 children were initially placed with relatives or close family friends.

Speculation over the reasons behind these figures include the view that initial assessments of family members and relatives are taking place but with little to no success, while others are suggesting the real issue is that kinship engagements are not being actively promoted in some councils. Other, more complicated factors may also be at work, like councils’ continued preference towards foster placements and the often drawn out and complicated assessments needed, to see if family and friends are suitable placement options, which councils are keen to avoid.

Running against the clock to fit child protection cases into a 26 week window also incentivises councils to choose faster solutions, like foster care, where agencies and individuals have been previously vetted and are ready to go. The fear of placing children in situations where they could be at risk of harm, regardless of whether a risk exists or not, is also likely to be a factor in councils’ reluctance to place children within family settings, with the threat of judicial reviews and massive fines often clouding child protection decisions.

Still, the law is clear. Families and friends must be considered FIRST, before a council can go ahead and start looking at foster placements and care homes, so don’t be shy to quote Section 22C, and to ask that proper process is followed.




Corporal Punishment – The Latest Developments.

At Researching Reform we are passionate about ending corporal punishment around the world, and humbled to be a member of The Global Partnership To End Violence Against Children.

The Partnership features a large network of countries, government officials, organisations and academics who share information with one another, and our Round Up this week comes from this collective, which is headed up by Professor Joan Durrant. 

Sperius Eradius, who was thirteen, died in Tanzania after being beaten at school by a teacher. His death has caused an outcry amongst the country’s child welfare campaigners, who are now urging the government to end the use of corporal punishment in schools. No call though, seems to have been made to end corporal punishment at home. Tanzania is one of a small number of African countries where corporal punishment is allowed in every setting. Tanzania’s President John Magufuli, has also publicly stated his support for caning children.

Equally worrying is the re-instatement of corporal punishment in Georgia, after a school in Hephzibah sent consent forms to parents to allow the use of paddling as a form of punishment for students.

Reports from CBS news suggest that about 100 parents sent back the forms, while one-third gave the school consent to paddle their children. Paddling is currently allowed in several states in America, including:

  1. Wyoming
  2. Colorado
  3. Arizona
  4. Kansas
  5. Ohio
  6. Idaho
  7. Indiana
  8. North Carolina
  9. South Carolina
  10. New Mexico
  11. Florida
  12. Kentucky
  13. Missouri
  14. Texas

Dr Tracie Afifi, who is a member of The Global Partnership To End Violence Against Children, recently spoke to the CTV news channel to explain how corporal punishment negatively affects children. The interview has been viewed over 2,000 times.

Both in America and the UK, an adult slapping or hitting another adult, is illegal. Notwithstanding the context of self defense, that act is still considered illegal if:

  • The adult being hit is related to the hitter
  • The adult doing the hitting feels somehow justified by their actions
  • The adult being hit can’t speak, or experiences partial awareness due to a disability

And that last point is incredibly important. If a person was being prosecuted for hitting a vulnerable adult, that would not be viewed as a mitigating factor, but an aggravating one. To take the view then, that hitting a child is somehow an exception, flies in the face of common sense, and all that we consider important and urgent about the law. 

There is absolutely no rational justification for hitting a child. 






Is It Legal For Social Workers To Use Social Media To Spy On Families?

A new survey published by Community Care is asking child welfare professionals to get in touch and offer information about how they are using social media to monitor families.

The survey features eight questions:

1. What is your role?

2. Do you use social media?

3. Have you ever used social media to look at a service user’s profile?

4. Have you ever used social media to look at a service user’s profile, with a view of gathering evidence?

5. Are you aware of the guidance from the Office of Surveillance Commissioners (now the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office) on the covert surveillance of social networking sites by public authorities?

6. If you are aware, are you confident with your understanding of the guidance?

7. Are you confident you know the rules around using social media as part of a case?

8. Do you know who in your organisation to ask to explain the rules around using social media as part of a case?

In September 2017, the HCPC published guidelines, along with a series of case studies to help social care professionals understand the do’s and don’ts around social media use. The guide came off the back of Researching Reform’s call to the President of the Family Division to issue legal guidance for family professionals in March of last year, after we published information about social work professionals using the internet to track down parents in care proceedings. 

In May 2017, we also published research which showed that social workers in America were unsure of how to use social media in a child welfare setting, with over half of social workers surveyed saying they thought it was permissible to search for a client online.

The researchers discovered that:

  • Over half of the workers (58%) reported that searching for a client on Facebook out of curiosity was acceptable in some situations and 43% reported that they had done this.
  • Over half of workers (53%) stated that it was acceptable in some situations to search for a client on Facebook that the agency would like to locate, such as a missing parent and about half (49%) had done this.
  • 61% of the child welfare workers stated that it was acceptable in some situations to search for a client on a site like Facebook when the information might give insight into client risk factors and close to half (46%) had done this.
  • About 65% of the child welfare workers reported that it was acceptable in some situations to search for a client on a site like Facebook when conducting a child welfare investigation or assessment and about a third had done this.

Community Care’s survey follows similar lines, though it is less robust than the US report above, which was published in December 2016.

If you’d like to take the survey, you can do so here. 






The Buzz

The news items that should be right on your radar:

Many thanks to Dana for the last news item.