Why evidence matters in safeguarding practice

  • Protecting children and adults at risk from harm is one of the most important duties of a local authority
  • Should a safeguarding incident occur, a local authority could find itself subject to an independent safeguarding review
  • We discuss the importance of being able to draw on evidence to justify safeguarding decisions in the event of a review

Following serious safeguarding incidents, where an individual has died or suffered significant injury or abuse, local authorities may face an independent review (see boxout).

Should this occur, it is important for local authorities to be able to provide evidence to support their safeguarding decisions.

Here, Ann Stuart MBE, Safeguarding Associate, Zurich Risk Engineering, discusses the key components of evidence-based defensible decision-making.

1. Recording evidence of safeguarding decisions

While there are always lessons to be learned following an independent safeguarding review, a failure to record evidence of decision-making is an issue that crops up time and again.

Stuart says: “If you are not risk-assessing appropriately and recording your decisions and rationale correctly, you are putting your authority at risk of litigation and vulnerable individuals at risk of serious harm.

“Often, following a safeguarding incident, a social worker will say they decided to take a particular course of action for reasons X, Y and Z, without having any written evidence to refer back to in order to justify that decision.

“An independent review will want to know what information the social worker knew at the moment they made a particular decision, what additional information did they seek, if any, and what alternative courses of action they considered, including the reasons why they decided against these.”

2. Providing the right training for your staff

A failure to properly document the safeguarding decision-making process is often the result of a lack of training.

Stuart says: “Some social workers, and even some managers, may not fully understand how to evidence their decision-making, which is why it is important to find a way of training front line staff and managers in relation to record-keeping.

“Whatever system you use, it should include a mechanism that will signpost practitioners to record evidence of the actions and thought processes that led to their decisions.”

Furthermore, staff need to be more aware of the concept of ‘defensibility’ when recording their decisions.

3. Are your safeguarding policies and procedures achievable?

Appropriate and relevant training should go hand in hand with policies and procedures that match the needs of your organisation –and are achievable.

Stuart says: “Often, organisations will put in place very detailed written safeguarding policies and procedures that are designed to stand up to intense scrutiny.

“However, if your policies and procedures are too onerous, you will be in danger of overloading staff who are already managing challenging caseloads.

“The risk of harm to individuals can never be totally eliminated, so all you can do as a local authority is ensure you have effective policies and procedures that set reasonable expectations of your staff, which still comply with your statutory obligations.”

4. Monitoring the effectiveness of your safeguarding procedures

A monitoring system is essential, says Stuart.

“Without a monitoring system, you could have all the policies, procedures and training in the world, but how would you know they were working? How would you test compliance?

“In relation to your policies and procedures, it may simply be a case of dip (random) sampling once or twice a year to satisfy yourself that staff understand what is expected of them. And, if not, whether the problem is system-wide or simply an issue affecting one or two individuals.

“If you are relying on line managers to monitor the effectiveness of staff training, then you also need mechanisms in place to ensure your line managers are fulfilling this role effectively and conducting regular and effective supervision of staff.”

5. Learning lessons from safeguarding failings

There can sometimes be barriers that prevent organisations from learning important lessons following safeguarding failures.

Stuart says: “When there is a high-profile safeguarding incident elsewhere, there can be a perception that ‘this couldn’t happen to us’, when the reality is that safeguarding incidents can happen anywhere.

“Even local authorities that have been the subject of safeguarding reviews can sometimes struggle to embrace all the recommendations that follow, because key messages don’t always filter down from management to front line staff.

“If you have been the subject of an independent safeguarding review, it is good practice to set up a scrutiny panel to examine the review’s findings. It would also help to develop a risk register, to ensure you have identified the key risks you face and put plans in place to manage them.”