Can councils do more to prevent child abuse?

  • Serious safeguarding incidents can be devastating to individuals, and lead to multi-million pound claims
  • We look at how and why local authorities can be held liable
  • We also discuss how record-keeping, information-sharing and claims analysis can play a crucial role in helping local authorities predict and prevent abuse

There have been calls from MPs for an inquiry into the family courts system, after it was revealed at least four children have been killed in the past five years by an abusive parent known to social services.

For every death of a child at the hands of a parent or carer, there are many more cases where a young person suffers an injury requiring expensive treatment and rehabilitation.

Whenever a local authority receives a referral that a child’s welfare is at risk, it has a duty to investigate. The authority then has a number of possible options, from taking no further action, to monitoring the situation, or intervening and removing the child into its care.

Safeguarding claims landscape

“Whatever decision is taken, if something goes wrong, the local authority could potentially face a claim – for example, if the council fails to remove the child and the child is then injured, or if it brings the child into local authority care and the child is subsequently abused or mistreated,” says Rod Penman, Head of Public Services, Zurich Municipal.

“The biggest claims generally occur when a child suffers an injury that does not significantly alter their life expectancy, but dramatically affects their quality of life. An example might be an infant who is shaken or beaten and sustains a serious brain injury, and then requires a lifetime of very expensive care.”

While these types of claim are rare, when they do occur, they can run into millions of pounds. “We are dealing with a small number of claims running to many millions of pounds each,” says Rod.

Case law has veered back and forth over the years about when local authorities can be held vicariously liable. A recent court judgement in the Supreme Court (CN and GN v Poole Borough Council) has significant implications for future failure to remove cases and in common with many in the sector, we are reviewing the judgement and its potential effects.

Can more be done to prevent abuse and neglect?

The way in which safeguarding information is recorded and shared is critical to help prevent abuse and neglect. Poor record-keeping can lead to missed opportunities to identify safeguarding concerns. Rod gives the hypothetical example of a social worker visiting a family home following reports of a domestic incident involving the parents.

He says: “Social workers have to have eyes in the back of their heads. They may visit a home for a particular reason but they need to watch for everything. For instance, a young child may be happily playing on a video game but if it’s an age-restricted game, that may well be a sign that the child is being exposed to inappropriate and harmful material – not logging that may be a missed opportunity as it may be an indicator that the child is at risk.”

Local authorities need to put training in place so that social workers are spotting and logging everything they see that could be a safeguarding risk.Training must be backed up with easy-to-use systems and procedures for recording information.

Taking a broader view of safeguarding claims

Zurich believes historical claims data can also be used to build a better understanding of why safeguarding incidents occur.

Through historical claims analysis, Zurich has identified a number of key factors that can influence the likelihood of safeguarding claims occurring within a local authority area. These include: the level of deprivation in the area; the stability of the workforce (e.g. rates of staff turnover and use of agency workers); and the size of social worker caseloads.

“Most claims can be brought back to one of these key factors,” says Rod. “By analysing data including the learnings from previous claims, looking forward we can ask more focused questions of local authorities. We can find out how they operate, discover if there are areas they need to work on, and if so, what their plan of action is.”

Zurich safeguarding expertise

Zurich’s Safeguarding Risk Consultant, Marie Williams, plays a crucial role in establishing what questions need to be asked in order to build a better understanding of the particular safeguarding risks faced by local authority customers. Zurich is the only UK insurer to employ a Safeguarding Risk Consultant.

With the demands on local authorities continually increasing, it is important to look at new ways to manage safeguarding risks, says Rod.

“There’s no silver bullet to preventing abuse and neglect,” he says, “but we need to look at the issue differently.

“With the pressures they are under, local authorities understand that too – and we want to continue to partner with them, and provide support and help”.

For more information, download our new whitepaper, The evolving safeguarding risk landscape.