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Former Brighton and Hove police commander Graham Bartlett takes on responsibility for child protection

- December 3, 2013

Former police chief Graham Bartlett is preparing to publish his first report since taking responsibility for child protection. Frank le Duc finds out more

Brighton and Hove appears to be free of the gang-related sexual violence and exploitation that formed the subject of a shocking report last week. The Office of the Children’s Commissioner painted a disturbing picture while warning that the problems were not confined to deprived inner cities. And Local Safeguarding Children Boards were urged not to assume that their patch was exempt.

Even so, the picture locally appears less troubling than in some parts of London and the south east. Gangs have sprung up in Brighton and Hove from time to time. But a concerted effort by Sussex Police and youth workers appears to have tackled the problem fairly effectively.

Graham Bartlett, the former police commander in Brighton and Hove, is conscious of the need to avoid being complacent. Mr Bartlett retired after 30 years’ service earlier this year and took up another role where he continues to protect and serve. He became the independent chairman of the Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB).

Although safeguarding boards have a low profile outside professional circles, they are under growing pressure to use their limited powers more effectively. They have been told: “Every LSCB should assume that sexual exploitation occurs within its area unless there is clear evidence to the contrary… Local activity should include measures to prevent children and young people becoming exploited as well as measures to help young people who are exploited and to take action against perpetrators.”

In the next few weeks Mr Bartlett is due to publish his first annual report although it covers a period overseen by his predecessor Alan Bedford. Mr Bedford was a probation officer and social worker before running NHS organisations including South Downs Health and East Sussex, Brighton and Hove Health Authority. He chaired the safeguarding board for four years during which time he was called on to investigate failings in other areas.

Blame Game

It may sometimes seem that safeguarding children is just the job of social workers. Whenever a child dies after being abused or neglected, social workers often attract the loudest criticism. Inquiries follow and the old mantra is repeated that lessons will be learnt. The pattern has been repeated time and again since the death of seven-year-old Maria Colwell in Brighton in 1973.

Careful reading of inquiry reports though shows that other professionals are often the subject of criticism even if they are better at ducking the blows in the blame game. The safeguarding board brings together representatives of all the professionals who ought to be alert to the signs of child abuse, neglect and exploitation. It encourages best practice, training and audits – or checks.

Brighton and Hove City Council is represented and three head teachers represent schools in the area. Official guidance points out that other council staff should be alive to children’s welfare such as those dealing with housing and the homeless. As should youth and community workers – and social workers who deal primarily with adults. Past reviews have suggested that some are so wrapped in the problems of an adult that they overlook the effect on that adult’s children.

Members also include Sussex Police, Surrey and Sussex Probation Trust and East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service. The Community and Voluntary Sector Forum, renamed Community Works last week, the Domestic Violence Forum and CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service).

Family doctors (GPs) and paediatricians are two strands of the medical profession expected to be able to spot problems. But so are dentists, ambulance staff, mental health specialists, midwives, health visitors and school nurses, among others. All the local health trusts are represented at a senior level on the safeguarding board.

“Local activity should include measures to prevent children and young people becoming exploited”

Mr Bedford’s final report highlighted how concerns can be tackled. It touched on child protection medicals, saying: “Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust (BSUH) and members had shared concerns about the capacity at the hospital to provide prompt enough medicals by senior enough staff.

“This was monitored closely… As a result of measures introduced by the trust, there is expanded consultant capacity for child protection medicals (including a new consultant post), improved supervision of registrars, weekly peer reviews of child protection medicals and improved quality of medical reports.”

Key Learning

When things go badly wrong, the safeguarding board commissions a serious case review. Mr Bedford’s final report said that none were required in 2011-12 but the board did commission an independent and confidential “local management review”. It looked into a case of neglect by parents who were also drug addicts.

The safeguarding board report said: “There was considerable learning for agencies across the LSCB. All agencies were asked by the LSCB chair to report to the board on how the findings had been disseminated and what action had been taken.

“The key learning was about the need for adult services, whilst meeting the needs of their clients, have a more rigorous focus on the needs of children in the family. In addition there were actions relating to a range of issues…improvement in antenatal assessment processes, support (for a) GP practice on capacity related to safeguarding, the need for more face-to-face meetings between health visitors, midwives and GPs (and) improved assessment of parental capacity by agencies with adult clients.”

The report due to be published this month may cover a review of adoption services in Brighton and Hove after a whistleblower raised concerns. Whatever lessons have been learnt will have to be implemented at a time of change for children’s services in Brighton and Hove. Part of that change is results from the financial pressures being felt across public services. In Brighton and Hove the council is looking to save about £2 million from children’s services by using fostering and adoption agencies less often.

Hidden Abuse

As someone who has worked at a senior level in Brighton and Hove for many years Mr Bartlett is already familiar with many of the key players as he establishes his priorities. He said: “The LSCB has recently adopted a three-year business plan. We are determined to ensure all agencies work collaboratively to safeguard all children from all forms of abuse but, with that in mind, we have decided to prioritise the areas of child neglect, child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation.

“The board selected these due to either their prevalence in the cases agencies see or because we believe them to be unseen or hidden forms of abuse which we need to work together to tackle. Alongside those we have decided that we will ensure that the help given to children, before they suffer abuse, is a key area to develop. Early help ensures that all children, and their families, who are experiencing problems get the support they need from a range of agencies before it’s too late.

“I inherited a strong board from my predecessor Alan Bedford who had been its independent chair for the last four years. However, the speed and depth of change within the safeguarding agencies including the NHS, children’s social care and the police, has meant that the board has had to adapt to meet its objectives of ensuring children are safe.

“We have restructured and strengthened the sub-groups which means that the work of practitioners is more aligned to the board. We have developed a new performance framework so that everyone understands the part they play in protecting. We are enhancing our ability to audit the work going on across the agencies to ensure it’s focused on children not on bureaucracies. And we are developing our ability to hear from children and carers their experience of the safeguarding system so we can develop services accordingly.

“I am independent of all of the agencies who make up the board. Clearly people will remember that I was recently the commander of Brighton and Hove Police but no longer! My independence, which is a legal requirement, means that I am free to challenge organisations on the quality of their services to children and to hold them to account. I have to be the voice of the LSCB not any one part of it.

“However, that means that I do not and cannot direct resources or activity and, contrary to popular belief, LSCBs do not commission any services. So, it could be said that I have no power. That would be true but I am expected to exert influence and to persuade and negotiate agencies to improve if that is what’s required.

“My recent career has provided me with the skills and the contacts to do that and it is a pleasure to be able to say that all agencies in the city understand the critical nature of safeguarding children. I will ensure that remains the case and help them work together effectively in the interests of children.”

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