The initial stages of responding to an allegation/concern
When a concern is raised about a carer, staff receiving the information should respond in accordance with local procedures. The child's social worker and/or lead professional and their line manager will usually be the first to respond to an allegation or concern and will start gathering information to enable the agency to consider whether an urgent response in terms of a child protection investigation appears to be needed. The Child's Plan will be integral to the collation and examination of information to reach an initial assessment of the immediate risk to the child and any other child living in the household as well as the specific needs of the child involved.
As soon as possible after a concern is raised, the designated manager should be informed. Within the same working day, the designated manager should discuss with the fostering manager, the senior/team leader for the child's social worker and the child's lead professional, the nature of the concern, the likelihood of significant harm to the child, the context for the child's care, the carers' suitability to continue to care for the child during any investigation and the circumstances in which the concern was raised.
If the child or any other child is considered to be at immediate risk of significant harm, decisions need to be taken urgently under local child protection procedures to ensure the threat of harm is removed or the child is moved to a place of safety. Such considerations must involve notification to the police as set out in National Guidance and an immediate inter-agency discussion and an action plan agreed to protect the child. (Scottish Government, 2010, para 299).
Unless there are indications that a child is at immediate risk of significant harm, decisions about removing children should be delayed at least until a discussion on this issue has taken place between designated manager, the child's social worker or senior social worker/team leader, the supervising social worker or fostering manager and the lead professional. The designated manager will be responsible for overseeing the decisions about whether children should be moved from the placement.
Where an allegation relates to a carer who is supervised by a registered fostering service, their designated manager must be fully involved by the local authority responsible for the child and by the agreed Child Protection contact in the area where the carer is resident. If the concern is first brought to the attention of the Registered Fostering provider then their designated manager must make immediate contact with the appropriate local authority for the child and for the Child Protection staff from the geographical area where the carer is living.In both settings the suitability of the carers continuing to provide care while investigations are carried out must be part of the consideration of the designated manager and colleagues. These initial discussions will provide the basis for subsequent inter-agency discussions about the safety and well being of the child and whether a Child Protection investigation is needed. In parallel, discussions about whether there is a need to move the child from the placement should take place based on the information gathered and the information in the Child's Plan.
The designated manager must also decide at what point the concern requires to be shared with the Care Inspectorate.
Although information at this early stage may be incomplete, the areas outlined below are seen as relevant to the discussion. This will ensure that as much information on the child, carers and the nature of the concern can be collated as the basis for future decisions.
Nature of the Concern
Consideration should be given to: the actual or potential impact on the child, taking into account the child's age, developmental stage and previous experience; the level of alleged harm to the child and or the likelihood of risk; the circumstances in which the alleged incident or lack of care took place; the intent behind the carer's action i.e. was it unintentional, did the carer intend to hurt the child or was the motivation to keep the child safe?
Child or young person
Background: reasons for being accommodated; how the child or young person has experienced parental care; previous abuse of the child or young person; previous placements and how these have ended in the past.
Current issues: any pressures on the child or young person, for example a hearing or review coming up; contact issues; school issues; recent sanctions; any situations where carers have had to limit the child or young person's activities.
Past and present behaviour: how the child or young person behaves when under pressure; his/her responses to stress; any previous allegations or complaints made by the child or members of his/her family; how the child or young person has responded to the alleged behaviour on the part of the carer.
History of their fostering/kinship care to date, the experience of and response to different kinds of challenges; any previous allegations or complaints against them or issues identified as part of their ongoing supervision. Current issues affecting performance, the demands of current children placed.
Consideration also needed about whether children can safely remain with the carers or whether the carer should be required to stop caring for a temporary period.
Person making the allegation
Consideration should be given to: the relationship between the child, the carer and the person making the allegation (if these are different people); current tensions or circumstances which may have contributed to the allegation being made; any previous allegations, how these were investigated and the outcome; taking the allegation seriously, while also acknowledging any factors which suggest that the allegation may be not be true.
After considering the areas outlined, it will often be clear to the relevant managers whether the allegation involves abuse, but in others they may decide that additional information is needed to help them come to a decision about the best way to proceed. It will be important that managers involved in these decisions consult fully with the child's social worker/ lead professional and any other managers who may have a fuller understanding of the child and the foster/kinship care placement, including consideration of any previous allegations made against the carer.
There may also be a case for having further discussion with the child or person making the allegation, other family members or other professionals who know the child or carer well, for example a teacher, psychologist or worker from a voluntary organisation. In many instances it may be helpful at this early stage to consult with the designated contact person within the police. Any enquiries of this kind should be authorised by appropriate managers so that a future formal investigation is not compromised.
There may be occasions where a serious allegation is made which would usually lead to an early Joint Child Protection Investigation but there may be reasonable grounds to believe that the allegation is not likely to be substantiated. This could be because the child has made unsubstantiated allegations in the past or they have recently indicated that they are going to make an allegation to achieve another purpose; for example, in order to end the placement. It is important that there is an early discussion of these aspects of the allegation to ensure that what the child is saying has been listened to and carefully assessed.
The social worker should help the young person to be confident that the worker will take appropriate action to protect him or her and that they want to understand what has happened and what the circumstances are.
Local authority procedures should specify a reasonable timescale for carrying out any additional enquiries and reporting back to the designated manager responsible for managing the allegation. Written and verbal reports should be provided. Having considered these, the designated manager should consult with others who took part in the initial discussions and reach a decision on how to proceed.
At each stage of the initial decision making process, a record should be made of all key information considered, decisions taken and the reasons for them.A suggested pro-forma for recording relevant information is available at Appendix 4.
Decisions about the nature of the allegation
Having considered all of the information available, most allegations will fall into one of the categories listed below (though some may straddle one or more categories):
- An allegation which includes information that there may have been significant harm or risk of significant harm to the child, as a result of physical, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect;
- An allegation that appears to indicate a carer is acting inappropriately or in ways which are considered unsuitable for the child, but not causing or likely to cause significant harm. Examples might include the carer regularly criticising the child for minor issues.
- An allegation which indicates no aspect of the carer's behaviour or practice has been observed to be problematic, but some concerns have been raised about the child's behaviour, lifestyle or frame of mind. For example a child may be reluctant to go home to the carer or have talked about feeling depressed in the placement.
- An allegation which is more accurately defined as a complaint from the child, the child's parent or someone else about some aspect of the carer's behaviour or practice, but which does not imply any risk of significant harm to the child. Examples might include complaints about choice or quality of food, clothing or use of sanctions.
- An allegation about perceived poor practice, e.g. the way that the carers are said to have restrained the child and about which the child has complained.
The designated manager will be responsible for making a decision about the actions that need to follow the initial discussions and where significant harm is suspected should always initiate discussions with the local police child protection personnel.
At any point in the processes described above if there are indications that the child has suffered significant harm or an offence may have been committed, social work managers must consult with the police as soon as possible, if the police are not already involved in the discussions.
Actions following initial discussions
There are a range of actions that may appropriately follow the initial internal discussions which will have clarified the nature of the allegation/concern.
The fostering agency and the child's worker progress further enquiries about care provided and the capabilities of the carers and the viability of the placement continuing.
The appropriate workers engage further with the child to try to understand more about their concerns.
An inter-agency meeting/Initial Referral Discussion is set up where the child is seen as at risk of significant harm in the light of emerging information to plan what further enquiries/investigations are required.
There is enough information to indicate the need for the planning of a joint child protection investigation by social work, police and health.
Where the initial discussions and assessments indicate that no Joint Child Protection Investigation is required then the appropriate way of taking the matter forward is likely to be to refer the concerns back to the fostering agency and the child's social worker for further enquiries and review. On occasions decisions to undertake further work with the child to explore the concerns may be the appropriate outcome.
At any point during these further enquiries it may emerge that a child has been harmed or is at risk of significant harm. In which case the matter should be referred back to senior child protection staff/designated managers without delay and they should immediately contact the police to discuss the next steps.
Staff involved with the carers and the looked-after child should advise the carers and the child when there is no plan to carry out a child protection investigation. They should explain what other work is proposed and who will be undertaking the work and in what timescale.
The designated manager should also advise the regulatory body, the Care Inspectorate, that the concern has been explored and no child protection action is being planned.
Recording initial discussions
The pro-forma at Appendix 4 may be helpful to guide and record the initial decision making. Completed forms would also provide information on current practice in managing these complex situations which could be used for evaluating and developing practice. All recording and the retention of the records should comply with the Looked After Children (Scotland) Regulations 2009, [ss. 31, 32, 42, 43].
Email: Heather Brown
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