Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Welfare Thing (Northern Ireland)

Following on from the guest post at Sometimes it's Peaceful, which explained the background and much of the current situation regarding the draft policy proposals on home education in NI, Sarah Dickinson of HedNI provides further information about the welfare issues and the reasons why the proposed approach is so inappropriate.
========================= The Welfare Thing Sarah Dickinson
The draft Policy on Elective Home Education in Northern Ireland is riddled with references to ‘safeguarding’ and ‘welfare’. We know from informal phone conversations that the Boards consider this a crucial element of the policy.
This is problematic on many levels.
  • The law governing the Education and Libraries Boards (Education and Libraries Order 1986) contains no duties or powers relating to welfare.
  • The welfare rationale for the draft is entirely unstated, and no evidence is referred to in the document.  It is very poor policy making to work on unstated and unsupported assumptions.
  • It is offensive to assume that a minority group is more likely to pose a danger to their children rather than investigating concerns on a case-by-case basis.
  • Most importantly the conflation of education and welfare is liable to cause confusion, unnecessary referrals and increased overheads – putting children who are genuinely in need at greater risk of being overlooked.
The Boards shouldn’t be allowed to cry “won’t somebody think of the children?!” and do whatever they please.
No legal power to act
Whatever your views on the desirability of home education, I think most people can agree that government bodies should obey the law.  Whatever the issue to be addressed they should use only the legal powers available to them, no matter the importance of the issue they cannot invent their own duties and powers. The Education Order does not give the Education and Library Boards (ELBs or Boards) any form of safeguarding duty or power. In fact the Education and Library Boards, like all of us, have a legal duty to refer any concerns to Social Services - the agency which does have the legal power and duty to protect children in need.
The policy states that it rests on the Education and Libraries Order and refers also to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. In subsequent email exchanges they have appealed also to The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. The Education Order does not refer to welfare.  The UNCRC is quoted selectively and could just as easily be used to argue against the proposed scheme. In any case this Convention has not been incorporated into Law and cannot create such draconian powers.  The Children Order, on the other hand, relates to matters to be taken into consideration by the Courts; to apply court procedures to families about whom there are no concerns is to turn the presumption of innocence on its head.
The DHSSPS NI's Safeguarding Document gives definitions of abuse, electing to home educate is not one.  In section 3.47 it states
"the education service itself does not have an investigative responsibility in child protection work. However, schools and Education Welfare staff have a role in assisting social services by referring concerns and providing information which will contribute to child protection investigations. Social services may on occasions ask staff working in education for information about a child where there are concerns about abuse or neglect".
Co-operating To Safeguard Children, DHSSPS, May 2003
Emphasis in bold Mine
Bad Policy making
Good policy making is within the law, evidence based and clearly states the reasoning behind any changes:
“Policy-making as outlined in this guide is about establishing what needs to be done - examining the underlying rationale for and effectiveness of policies - then working out how to do it and reviewing on an ongoing basis how well the desired outcomes are being delivered... In summary, policy-making needs to be forward looking; outward looking; innovative, flexible and creative; evidence-based; inclusive; joined up; to learn lessons from experience; to be communicated effectively; and to incorporate ongoing evaluation and review.”
Nowhere does the policy state its aims, nor does it offer any evidence to support the need for additional welfare protection for home educated children.
Home education is a legally sanctioned choice, and cannot in itself be a cause for a welfare concern any more than nationality, religion, skin colour or diet.  It is offensive in the extreme to presume that home educating parents are more likely to be a danger to their children.  In order to introduce a welfare assessment scheme for home educated children it would be necessary to show a greater instance of abuse in home educated children, a causal link and evidence that these children would not be discovered by normal means.
Lack of evidence
During the Badman Review into Elective Home Education home educators were able to show that, despite alarmist claims, home educating children were four times LESS likely to be abused than the national average.
"Alarmed by media statements which sought to smear the home educating community without any supporting evidence, AHEd members had painstakingly collected comparative child abuse statistics from every Local Authority in England via the Freedom of information Act. Analysis of the data not only demonstrated that there is no link between elective home education and child abuse, but also established that the incidence of child abuse is far lower among home educating families."
Is there any reason to think that Northern Irish parents are less trustworthy than their English counterparts?
The implication is that there is some element in registered schooling that is protective of children.  During the Badman Review home educated children were described as ‘hidden’, but in fact the review was unable to demonstrate that schools played a significant role in protecting children.  Nor has any case been produced in which a child would have been safe, if only they had been in school.  Many referrals to social services originate from friends, neighbours and family GPs.  In fact, according to the DHSSPSNI statistics for 2013 -  of 4167 referrals, just 257 or 6.2% were from schools Education Welfare Officers.
It is doubtful that the government would be able to argue that schools are statistically safer than homes, nor can they argue that schools are effective monitors of children’s overall safety.
It is offensive, not only to home educators but to the children who have been failed by the system, to treat home education as a factor in abuse.  Attempts were made, for example, to implicate home education in the tragic case of Victoria ClimbiĆ©.
The Victoria Climbie Foundation said in February 2009 that they were
"...genuinely concerned about the link being made between Victoria ClimbiĆ© and home education, and Victoria as a hidden child. Victoria was neither home-educated nor hidden”. 

“The reality is that there is no such thing as a 'hidden' child, only children who are allowed to fall through the gaps. The key issue here is how statutory services interact with children that are known within the child protection system." 
In a speech to the National Social Services Conference 2003 Lord Laming also commented that Victoria was “known to no fewer than four Social Services Departments, three Housing Departments and two specialist Police Child Protection Teams. Furthermore, she was admitted to two different hospitals because of suspicions she was being deliberately harmed and she was referred to a specialist Child and Family Centre managed by the NSPCC.”
Endangers children
This leads us onto the final and most crucial point.  This policy would not protect children; it would cause confusion and allow more children to “fall through the gaps”.
The Area Child Protection Committees’ “A Short Guide to Regional Policy and Procedures” (linked from page 5 of the draft policy), states on page 13:
Remember that an allegation of child abuse or neglect may lead to a criminal investigation therefore not to do anything that may jeopardise a police investigation, such as asking a child leading questions or attempting to investigate the allegations of abuse.”
Education Officials have no legal duty or power to assess the safety of the environment, or the child's physical, social or emotional health. They have the same duty as all of us, and particularly those in positions of responsibility, which is to report any concerns to the appropriate agency.  This is no area for the Boards to go vigilante. Two potential issues arise from the confusion of roles and responsibilities between the Education Authority and the Social Services.  First, one individual is being asked to carry out two distinct roles at once. Second, two agencies have responsibility for one task.  
One officer attempting to assess both education and welfare in the entwined way described in this policy is liable to find that their assessment of one colours the other.  Equally the responses to any concerns have the potential to become confused – for example a child with mixed welfare and educational issues may be assessed by someone with only the power to issue a School Attendance Order, and to refer them on for another round of expensive, time consuming and stressful assessments.  
Confusion between different agencies as to who holds responsibility for safeguarding has had serious and sometimes tragic outcomes in the past.  Social services should have complete control and all relevant data on welfare cases, other unrelated agencies should not carry out random parts of a delicate process. This is particularly true where the other agency is attempting to institute a policy with considerable administrative overhead and a limited budget.
These elements –
  • No legal powers
  • No legal duty
  • Limited access to necessary information and history
  • Confusion over the scope of responsibility
  • Confusion between areas of responsibility
  • Potential to undermine any future prosecution
Add up to a recipe for disaster.
Sufficient legal framework exists to protect children who need it, if there are failings they are not due to a lack of educational oversight.  An EWO who makes appropriate referrals is fully meeting their legal duties with regard to safeguarding.
If we are looking to improve child protection then child protection is the area we should be looking at – where are children being missed? What can we do to find and help them? The Board’s proposed scheme is a solution in search of a problem, which is poor policy, bad law and undermines child protection.
Please sign our petition, write to the Northern Irish Minister for Education and keep up with news at HEdNI, where you will also find template letters. Thank you for your interest and support."


Fiona Nicholson said...

Thank you for posting this. It seems that the law in Northern Ireland doesn't permit what is being proposed, and this bit jumped out at me as explaining so clearly WHY it is such a dangerous idea, as it echoes what we've seen in Serious Case Reviews:

"Two potential issues arise from the confusion of roles and responsibilities between the Education Authority and the Social Services.

First, one individual is being asked to carry out two distinct roles at once.

Second, two agencies have responsibility for one task"

Carlotta said...

Both of these have been serious problems, I think.

Years ago, when my mother was a practicing GP, I remember her saying that all this new-fangled multi-disciplinary approach would lead to exactly these sorts of problems. People trying to make assessments they are not qualified or have insufficient evidence to make, and if more than one person has responsibility for something, the duty will simply be shifted from pillar to post.

I have seen both these problems repeatedly in cases that never get to SCRs. It makes for a massive, cumbersome ineffectual, dangerously subjective bureaucracy that has little or no relation to the truth of the matter or the welfare of the child.

So many decisions are left to someone else to make. When erroneous decisions are made, agencies spend huge amounts of money in post-rationalisations and trying to substantiate false claims.

Danae said...

It's just one after another, and all because they don't understand home education and they don't understand the law, and, possibly, a bit because they are 'concerned' about children. If we were conscientious objectors, we would be respected. If we were members of a religion, we would have rights not to be hassled. They think we are weak, but we are not. They think they can accuse us of abusing our children but they can't. They never win but they will not give up. And NEITHER WILL WE.