The purpose of strategy discussions is to decide whether to start an enquiry into suspicions about significant harm (Section 47) and, if yes, to plan the enquiry and monitor its progress. Strategy discussions should be thought of as a process rather than a one-off event. They are the means for keeping relevant professionals involved in a child protection enquiry. Some situations require further reading as follows:
There is further guidance in these procedures which may help you in the following circumstances:
Where there are concerns that there is a significant risk of harm to the child, strategy discussions should take place as soon as possible. Only in exceptional circumstances, where delay might place a child or young person at additional risk, should an enquiry into suspicions about significant harm (Section 47) be begun without a strategy discussion first being held. In such cases, a strategy discussion must take place within 24 hours of starting the Section 47 enquiry. In all other situations, a strategy discussion must be held before the enquiry begins. In the event that the alleged abuser is under the age of eighteen a separate strategy discussion must take place to consider their needs.
Strategy discussions may be face-to-face, but they usually take place by telephone. In more complex cases a strategy meeting should be held. The time and venue of the meeting should be decided in advance to allow as many relevant people as possible to attend. [WTSC 2010 5.59]
Where there are allegations of recent sexual abuse, the first strategy discussion should be held on the same day as the referral is made, as it may be important to get forensic evidence.
All parties to strategy discussions should be notified in writing of the results of the enquiries as soon as they are completed.
A strategy discussion should be reconvened if the Section 47 enquiry concludes that a different plan is needed from that agreed in the original strategy discussion, for example if it is thought a child protection conference is no longer necessary.
It is important to keep all parties involved in the progress of the child protection enquiry.
Strategy discussions should involve the following:
- a first line manager from local authority children and young people’s services
- a police supervisor
- other agencies as appropriate, for example, health, schools, adult mental health services, substance misuse services
- the referrer, if they are a professional (but not if they are a member of the public) [WTSC 2010 5.56]
The discussion should have information available from the referring agency and all other relevant agencies.
The following health professionals should also be involved in the strategy meeting where appropriate:
- a senior doctor from the service that would examine the child (where it is thought a medical examination may be needed)
- the medical consultant for the child’s health care (where the child is an in or out hospital patient or is receiving services from a child development team)
- the senior ward nurse (where the child is an in-patient).
- A legal adviser should attend the strategy meeting if it is considered appropriate.
How to do it
Outcomes of strategy discussions should be recorded by the chair of the meeting. They should include any information shared, all decisions reached, and the basis for these decisions. Outcomes should be circulated within one working day to all parties to the discussion.
A Section 47 enquiry is different from an assessment, in that the consent of parents to interview the child and share information with other agencies is not necessary. But this does not mean that parents should not be asked for permission, or should not be told what is going on. Only when social workers or police officers fear that giving parents information might lead to the child (or another person) being put at risk of significant harm, or where the police believe it might seriously damage a criminal investigation, should information be withheld from family members.
It is vital that strategy discussions takes place in a way which ensures that all key people are available and able to be fully involved. The venue may be a school or hospital, police station or social services office wherever the most relevant people can attend and contribute.
Although it is the chair’s responsibility to make sure that everyone has contributed, everyone in the discussion should try to make sure that others feel able to say what they really think, as the people who know the child best may well feel nervous in a formal meeting.
To summarise, strategy discussions will:
- share available information
- agree the conduct and timing of any criminal investigation
- decide whether a core assessment under Section 47 should be started, or continued if it has already begun
- plan how the Section 47 enquiries should be undertaken, including
- whether medical assessment and/or treatment is needed
- who will carry out which actions, by when and for what purpose
- when the child soon be seen.
- agree what action is required immediately to protect the child, and/or provide interim services and support. If the child is in hospital, decisions should also be made about how to secure the safe discharge of the child
- determine what information will be shared with the family
- determine if legal action is required.
Relevant matters will include:
- agreeing a plan for how the core assessment under Section 47 will be carried out, what further information is required about the child and family, and how it should be obtained and recorded
- agreeing who should be interviewed, who by, for what purpose, and when
- agreeing how the child’s views will be sought, agreeing, in particular, when the child will be seen alone by the lead social worker during the course of these enquiries (unless to do so would be inappropriate for the child) and the methods by which the child’s wishes and feelings will be ascertained.
- considering any arrangements necessary taking into account the race and ethnicity of the child and family
- considering the needs of other children who may be affected, for example siblings, other children living in the same premises, or children and young persons in contact with alleged abusers.
Lessons from research
From a study of 45 serious case reviews in 1996, Munro identifies a reluctance to alter or shift early judgments, even as the evidence of risk accumulates.
Reder and Duncan in their work on serious case reviews and child death inquiries identify what they call closed professional systems where workers develop fixed views of a case, or where polarisation takes place between two different groups of workers with different views. Sometimes one person’s views are given too much weight, or there may be confusion about who is doing what. It helps to take an objective view of the professional dynamics and check if everyone is clear about their role. See Reder P and Duncan S: Lost Innocents: a follow up study of fatal child abuse (1999).
Newly gathered information is sometimes seen in isolation rather than considered alongside previously known facts. Certain facts are then selected as important, to fit the worker’s view of the family, rather than asking if there could be missing information or other explanations. All the information should be checked and evaluated.
See Cleaver H, Wattam C and Cawson P: Assessing Risk in Child Protection, London, NSPCC (1998)
A number of strategy meetings were held in Victoria Climbié’s case. At one held in July 1999, although social services and the police were present, there was no one who had actually met Victoria or who could give her view of the situation. Key medical staff were not present because the meeting was held at a time when they were needed in hospital. Despite this, the meeting came up with 18 sensible questions that were to form the basis of a Section 47 enquiry, but the meeting was unclear about who should deal with these issues and no timescales were set. Victoria’s case was then allocated to a social worker who had not been present at the strategy meeting, and who failed to complete a Section 47 enquiry.
It is therefore vital that key people are present (including at least one person who knows the child), that actions decided are allocated to people, and a date set for a review of the discussion.
Pressure from high-status referrers or the press, expressing fears that a child may die, may lead to over zealous action. Ask yourself: Would I see this referral as a serious protection matter if it came from another source? [WTSC 2010 5.49]