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Delays left vulnerable children in danger.

Byline: By Peter young

Social services failed to act quickly enough to protect children following the murder of baby Aaron O'Neil.

An independent review of cases involving vulnerable children in Newcastle discovered that on a number of occasions there was a failure to properly link domestic violence with possible child abuse.

In several cases this led to delays in taking measures to protect children, a situation described as a matter of great concern.

In addition, social workers rarely spoke to young children without a parent present and the views of fathers were largely ignored.

Sometimes they fell into the trap of believing co-operation by parents was a success in itself, without any evidence of change in the family.

The failings are highlighted in a report from NCH-The Bridge, a national children's charity, which carried out an audit of 50 cases involving vulnerable children

The review of how children in the city are being safeguarded was commissioned by Newcastle Council's director of children's services, Catherine Fitt in October 2005, shortly after she took over the job.

Council chiefs say many areas of good practice were highlighted with the vast majority of cases handled to a high standard but they acknowledge the need for improvement was also identified and action has been taken in line with the report's recommendations.

The audit followed serious case reviews into the deaths of two children including three-month-old Aaron whose father, Paul O'Neil, 33, of Kenton, was jailed in February for 22 years for murder while his mother, Jodie Taylor, 21, was jailed for three and a half years for neglect.

In July, the council released an executive summary of the Bridge report and the recommendations but refused to provide the full report.

The Chronicle has now used powers under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain a copy of the full report.

The summary released in July referred briefly to the concerns but the full report expands on this and in the section headed 'child protection referrals and planning' says: "The greatest area of concern in this section of the file audit was an apparent failure to identify concerns arising from domestic violence reports as potential child protection matters.

"A number of cases contained multiple referrals, normally from the police, about domestic violence incidents where children were in the household.

"A smaller but similar pattern was observed with referrals around alcohol abuse by parents.

"In too many cases, children became subject to child protection procedures at a later stage when in fact the information was little different from that known in an earlier referral.

"As domestic violence and alcohol misuse are such well-established factors of concern in terms of risk to children in need, these areas would warrant some further attention in Newcastle.

"It is important that children in such situations receive early intervention designed to ensure that living arrangements in the family or elsewhere are ones which will last for the duration of childhood wherever possible and too many domestic violence cases in Newcastle appeared to lack this perspective."

The report says there is a need to improve the recognition of domestic violence and alcohol abuse by parents at an early stage as an issue in the safeguarding of children.

The report also raises concerns that most children under the age of five were not seen alone or away from a parent, and were rarely spoken to, and that the views of fathers and their families were largely ignored.

"It would be reasonable to expect child protection workers to speak to children from three years of age and upwards, assuming normal child development," it says.

"Mothers' views about concerns were generally recorded. The views of the extended maternal family were as likely to be taken into account by social workers as not.

"The views of fathers were largely ignored on files and there was little social work activity with fathers other than as part of a couple with a child's mother, whereas this was not true in respect of work with mothers on the whole. Extended paternal families were also largely ignored.

"These were serious omissions in that they meant that social workers frequently did not seek to assess a member of the household and obtained a parental perspective that was only that of one parent.

"Where fathers lived separately from mothers, it was common for fathers not even to be advised of social services interventions.

"Social workers frequently acknowledged this gap in their discussions with the Bridge. However, there was a tendency by some social workers to attribute this to a lack of resources to work specifically with men."

The report say fathers and their families should be included when assessments are undertaken. "The Bridge takes the view that all work of child care agencies should be as accessible to men as women and that a social workers's skills are not gender specific."

It also says that children aged three and above should be given the chance to talk directly to social workers without parents being present where there are concerns.

In the section headed 'quality of analysis and decision-making', the report says: "Social workers and child protection conferences sometimes fell into the trap of viewing co-operation by parents as a success in itself when in fact there was no evidence on file of any change in the concerns experienced by children.

"In this context, there appeared to be a rule of optimism at work in some cases whereby practitioners would stake a belief in an unfounded view of change in a family.

"There was strong evidence in the audit that social services' initial assessment teams were focused too heavily on incidents of abuse.

"This meant repeat referrals around domestic violence and parental substance misuse were frequently not acted upon with the vigour which the referrals warranted."

Children newly placed on the child protection register, who are among the most vulnerable, were often left without an allocated social worker at that stage mainly because of the heavy workload among staff.

The report says managers need to give priority to the most vulnerable children particularly when they are first registered.

Coun Nick Forbes, deputy leader of the council's opposition Labour group, said: "This is damning criticism of child protection services in the city.

"The apparent failure to link domestic violence and alcohol abuse with child protection is horrifying. Even those who are not child protection specialists would make that link. How on earth did they fail to spot what is glaringly obvious to most people?

"What is most important now is that confidence is restored among members of the public."

Coun Nick Cott, Liberal Democrat executive member for children and young people, said: "The Bridge report was commissioned to review working practices in safeguarding and child protection.

"The report highlighted numerous examples of good practice along with the need for improvement in several areas. We take very seriously the issues raised in light of the serious case review. The details have been made available for public scrutiny so the council is seen to be acting in an open and transparent manner.

"An action plan is being implemented and is already having an impact.

"We are improving training and improving awareness of domestic violence so people are approaching their work with greater knowledge, understanding and skill.

"We have also introduced measures to ensure a more efficient allocation of named social workers to children and we are ensuring fathers and young children are in cluded in assessments of risk.

"There will be a further inspection of children's services in Newcastle when the Joint Area Review takes place in November."
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Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:Aug 24, 2006
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