Our very own Children’s Social Care expert, Heather Baron, discusses the importance of Early Help and its role in safeguarding Children as well as improving organisation efficiency.
Over the weekend I read with concern, the news release from the Children’s Commissioner for England warning of the risk ‘cash-strapped’ councils pose to vulnerable children. At a time when Councils are increasingly having to consider options to make efficiencies through reviewing the level and types of services offered, I can’t help but wonder if there’s another way.
One of the quotes from Anne Longfield that struck me was – “If you don’t help children when the problems aren’t at crisis point then the crisis is going to be developing and also it is going to be much more costly when it gets to that point.” – I couldn’t agree more.
I hear far too often of cases involving families which have escalated to the point of crisis where earlier identification and intervention would have prevented the need for acute services, or far worse. Only last week were we reminded of this again with the tragic findings of the Elsie Scully-Hicks case.
Such stories are disheartening as the answer is straight forward; effective Early Help services.
Early Help should act as an effective barrier to escalating need and risk, at the earliest possible opportunity. Recognising when debt, behaviour, addiction, home conditions, mental health, relationship breakdown and social isolation are starting to cause issues within a family. There is a need for everyone to recognise when someone needs help and crucially where to access it, whether that is a teacher, a health visitor a police officer a librarian or, themselves. Only by enabling this will we improve the chances of children and families receiving the right help, at the right time, by the right people, in a way they can access it best.
But what does Early Help mean in reality, and are we any nearer to getting it right?
For me there are a number of issues which still need to be addressed, these include:
- Learning and reflection
- Information sharing
- Better integration
When we assess a contact in our Early Help or Children’s Social Care teams and recognise they are in need of targeted and intensive family support or statutory intervention, I don’t think we often take enough time to reflect on why an earlier opportunity for intervention was missed or if provided, why it didn’t stop the situation escalating to the point of referral. We are too busy dealing with the here and now. But all too often there will have been a catalogue of missed opportunities for assessment, for signposting, for support.
This needs to be jointly reviewed across partner agencies without creating a ‘blame game’ which doesn’t often produce any effective change. I do feel that on occasion an extraordinary amount of pressure is put on partner agencies in particular education, health and police, in tackling early intervention and prevention. You can understand how hard it must be to deliver effective early intervention and prevention when competing demands and tight budgets are ever present. But sharing lessons learned and taking time to reflect on what could have been done differently to reduce pressures on more costly and acute interventions can be a soft enabler to supporting organisations to prioritise differently.
Invariably in local places, assessment tools and services that would support early intervention are often unknown by many partner agencies or at least poorly advertised. This limits not only professional referral to appropriate support services but also limits the extent to which a member of the public can self -help. Inappropriate referrals to acute services are often the consequence or sadly escalation of need and risk. Again, taking the time to understand the referral triggers and routes into services will help us to match ‘supply and demand’ more effectively. Consultation to establish how people could be supported to self- help more effectively is also important and I have seen Local Authorities investing in this area recently which is encouraging.
Information sharing or rather the lack of it remains an issue; those disparate jigsaw pieces that we never seem to be able to join up, each of us holding a couple of pieces and doing our best with what we’ve got. Is the sharing of information an actual issue or a perceived issue? Probably still a bit of both. Information sharing should be the key enabler to effective early intervention, partnership working and improving outcomes for our children and families, it makes sense, we all say how crucial it is but still, despite many high profile serious case reviews, we allow it to be a barrier. Leaders need to work together to agree consistent risk thresholds and pragmatic approaches to sharing information (within the constraints of GDPR obviously). We need to remember that not sharing information can often be riskier than sharing information and use this as our starting point when evaluating risk.
True integration and shared ownership I believe is the key to effective early help and this absolutely needs to be led from the top, the Children’s Trust, LSCB and Leader’s Boards. Practitioners working together from multiple disciplines to design process work flows that work for everyone, threshold documents, service mapping, information sharing agreements. Not allowing the Council to always take the lead (often not through choice). Multi- agency audit and training, delivered by multi-agency partners with real life experience and examples. Early Help champions in local places from all sectors of the workforce driving this forward.
This isn’t about more resource, it’s about doing things differently with what we’ve already got which is highly skilled, passionate practitioners. Early Help is everyone’s business but until we work more effectively together to join up the jigsaw pieces, it will continue to be easier to react than prevent.
To find out how our Early Help team can support your organisation contact me on Heather.Baron@WeAreC.co