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SEED Sponsored Research: Protecting Children in Scotland: An investigation of Risk Assessment and Inter-Agency Collaboration in the Use of Child Protection Orders



1.1 The Scottish Executive Education Department sponsored the authors to examine a number of key practice issues in the operation of the Child Protection Order (CPO). These orders (section 57-62 Children (Scotland) Act 1995) allow for the detention of a child in a place of safety where there are urgent concerns about a child's wellbeing and protection. The order, based on stringent criteria with specific time limits, arose as a response to criticism of prior legislation that allowed for undue discretion in the grounds for removal (Scottish Office 1992). The introduction of the CPO aimed to ensure there was clear legal authority and professional justification for the removal of a child from home (Scottish Office, 1993). It was anticipated that obtaining evidence about the operation of CPOs would provide an indication of how 'risk assessment', 'thresholds of intervention' and 'inter-agency co-operation' are being addressed in practice. These matters form the focus of this report.

Background to the study

1.2 Good child protection practice requires effective inter-agency co-operation and information sharing as vital pre-requisites for undertaking sound risk assessment (Hallett and Birchall, 1992; Department of Health 1995). Moreover, section 21 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 places a legal duty on local authorities and other agencies to cooperate in the discharge of their child care duties. However, a number of recent inquiries into the deaths or abuse of young children (e.g. Hammond, 2001; Laming, 2003; O'Brien, 2003; Scottish Executive, 2005a) have indicated that there are ongoing concerns about limited inter-agency communication, information-sharing and collaboration and poor standards in risk assessment. The Scottish Executive audit and review of child protection (Scottish Executive, 2002) also found, inter alia, communication difficulties in referral processes, poor recording and narrow focus in child protection investigations. Assessments of requirements for immediate action were generally sound but longer-term risk assessments were often poor.

1.3 Following the audit and review, the Scottish Executive developed a programme to enhance policy and practice and to address barriers and challenges in the effective protection of children in Scotland. This reform programme included the Framework for Standards, which provides a clear basis for agencies to develop effective measures to safeguard children (Scottish Executive, 2004a). It is based on the Children's Charter developed by Save the Children in consultation with children who have experienced harm and been in need of help and protection (Scottish Executive, 2004b). New guidance, reforming and strengthening the role of child protection committees, has been issued placing responsibility on chief officers in police, health and local authorities to ensure their agencies work alone and together to effectively protect children and young people (Scottish Executive, 2005b). The child protection reform programme is set in the context of broader aims to improve policy co-ordination and promote integration in the delivery of children's services. One of the key priorities identified by the Scottish Executive's Children and Young People Delivery Group is to develop more coherent assessment and information sharing systems to ensure the needs of service users are met.

1.4 The initial uptake of the child protection order was previously examined in a national survey in Scotland (Francis and McGhee, 2000, 2003). A gradual downward trend in the use of emergency protection measures had been observed prior to the introduction of the 1995 Act and the survey found a further substantial decrease in the number of child protection orders obtained in the first two years following implementation (McGhee and Francis, 2003). Social work statistics in Scotland indicate that over the past five years the number of child protection referrals has increased by 14 per cent (Scottish Executive, 2004c). In England and Wales the number of emergency protection orders ( 1) has remained generally at around 2,500 per year since 1993, although there were peaks of just over 3,000 in 1993 and 1994 and a fall to 1,516 in 1999 (Department of Health 2001, pp. 104-05). In 2003, 2061 emergency protection orders were made (Department for Education and Skills 2004). Masson et al (2004), drawing on unpublished data for 1998-2002 made available for their by the Court Service, indicates that the use of emergency measures is not declining substantially.

1.5 Application for a child protection order is an area of practice that relies upon effective inter-agency collaboration and good quality risk assessment. In the early stages of the implementation of the 1995 Act, the authors found that practitioners and managers were re-examining thresholds for compulsory intervention in urgent child protection cases. In addition, definitions of 'significant harm' had led to substantial debate and discussion in practice (Francis and McGhee, 2000). The Scottish Executive audit and review of child protection (Scottish Executive, 2002) found that social workers were reluctant to apply for child protection orders unless there was an immediate risk to a child and some practitioners also expressed concern about court appearance and cross-examination regarding their work.

1.6 The study reported here sought to provide further information on recent trends in the use of child protection orders and explore the findings in relation to several central issues in child protection practice, including: risk assessment and the models of assessment used in social work practice; thresholds of intervention and definitions of 'significant harm'; and the effectiveness of inter-agency collaboration and information sharing.


Aims and objectives

2.1 The study builds on research previously undertaken by the authors exploring the use of emergency protection measures introduced in the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 (Francis and McGhee, 2000). The overall aim of the study was to explore the use of child protection orders in operational practice focusing primarily on key aspects relevant to effective child protection practice. Three main objectives were identified:

  • To establish the number of child protection orders obtained in Scotland in the last 5 years and consider any relevant trends
  • To explore the process of risk assessment in this context including:
  • identifying models of assessment frameworks used in practice
  • examining thresholds of intervention used in agencies
  • developing understanding of the definitions of 'significant harm' applied in practice
  • To examine the nature of inter-agency collaboration and information exchange in the application process for child protection orders

Design and methodology

2.2 The design of the study entailed a number of inter-related stages of data collection and encompassed both quantitative and qualitative research methods. In the first stage, data were gathered from the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration (SCRA) on the annual number of child protection orders obtained throughout Scotland over a five-year period, from 1999 to 2004. The Scottish Children's Reporter's Administration receives notification of the implementation of all child protection orders and maintains records on the resulting decisions, recall applications and any directions regarding each child. It was expected that this data would provide an opportunity to analyse national trends in applications. Aggregate national data was provided by SCRA for a six-year period (1999-2005) allowing observation of trends in numbers of applications and an overview of the age and gender of children involved for the 5 year period of the study plus an additional year. Information on recall and variation of orders, directions and the source of application was also provided. This data is presented in Chapter Three.

2.3 The second stage of the study comprised a survey of all local authorities in Scotland. Drawing on Newell (1993) the survey asked both open and closed questions related to key child protection concerns (see Appendix 1 for the list of questions). This stage was informed by previous research (Francis and McGhee, 2000) and by key issues identified in the child protection audit and review (Scottish Executive, 2002). The annual number of child protection orders obtained in each authority over the five-year period (1999-2004) was sought directly from local authorities. This was intended to allow for analysis of any apparent inter-authority variations. Additionally, authorities were asked to comment on any reasons for the relevant trends in their area. The survey also allowed exploration of changes or developments in policy and practice guidance in relation to child protection orders in each authority. In line with the study objectives, key issues considered included risk assessment, inter-agency collaboration and information sharing. Twenty-nine local authorities completed the survey giving a response rate of 90.6 per cent. However, not all 29 authorities were able to provide information on child protection orders obtained over the five-year period.

2.4 The third stage of the project comprised a total of 25 interviews in three local authorities with senior managers, first line managers (practice team leaders) and social work practitioners. One city, one rural and one medium sized authority were selected to provide a range of operational contexts. As with the local authority survey, the interviews were informed by a number of issues and concerns raised in previous research and in the audit and review of child protection (Scottish Executive, 2002). Senior managers in each of the three local authorities identified potential interviewees and direct contact was made to arrange interviews at convenient times. Interviews focused on staff's recent experiences of applying for child protection orders with particular emphasis on: the assessment of risk; how managers and practitioners defined 'significant harm'; thresholds for intervention; and experiences of inter-agency collaboration. Application for a child protection order can only be made if there is the existence or risk of 'significant harm'. However, there is no legal definition of this term and virtually no reported Scottish case law to provide an interpretation. A central aim of the study was to understand how these definitions were constructed and understood in practice. The interviews also explored the process of risk assessment and identified models of assessment currently used to inform practice, especially in different circumstances. The contribution of other professionals and agencies in the child protection order application process and the extent and nature of information sharing was also examined. All interviews were tape recorded and transcribed and data analysis utilised NVIVO (qualitative data analysis package) to assist in the interpretation of qualitative data. (Appendix 2 sets out the key areas explored at interview). Findings from the interviews are reported in Chapter Four.

2.5 Approval for the project was granted by the Association of Directors of Social Work. Direct negotiations with individual authorities was undertaken to gain access to allow interviews with practitioners and managers. A second rural authority was recruited to the study as the authority first approached, whilst supportive of the research, indicated they would not be in a position to contribute to this element of the work.

Interviewees' role and experience

2.6 A total of 25 interviews were conducted with social work practitioners and managers across the three authorities. As the research was concerned with recent experiences of child protection order applications interviewees were recruited with such experience in mind. Four senior managers with responsibility for child protection services were interviewed, one in each authority and two in the rural authority. In the latter authority there were few social workers with experience of child protection order applications (all available took part) and so, in this authority, a second manager with relevant experience was added to broaden the data further. Six first line managers (authorities had slightly differing terminology for this role including, practice team leaders, team leaders, team managers) were interviewed, two from each authority. A total of 15 social work practitioners/senior practitioners were interviewed - six each in the city and medium sized authorities and three in the rural authority. All staff were employed in children and family service teams.

2.7 Due to variations in the number of child protection order applications made in the local authorities, experience of the process varied. Of the operational managers, only one had direct experience of acting as the lead worker, having been a senior social worker when the orders were introduced. The other two, being senior managers at that time, had never appeared in the sheriff court as either a lead or co-worker. However, all three interviewees had experience of managing the system. The first line managers and the practitioners had a broad range of direct experience in the child protection order application process both as lead and co-workers. This ranged from those with experience of 1-5 applications to those with up to 20 or 30 and, in one case, "too many to remember".

2.8 All interviewees held a qualification in social work, the majority were graduates and most also held, or were completing, a specialised certificate or diploma in child protection. A number had pursued postgraduate studies in social work management and a small number were practice teachers. The overwhelming majority of interviewees were very experienced in working with children and families. The senior managers interviewed had worked in this area for a minimum of 15 years to more than 20 years. The first line managers' experience ranged from 13 years to 32 years and social workers' experience ranged from 3 years to more than 20 years.

The order is similar to the child protection order in that it allows for the detention of a child in a place of safety.