MASH: Working Together to Capture the Voice of the Child

15th Feb 2016

For some years safeguarding has embraced two words that have embodied a strategic aspiration, a desired culture and a direction to us regarding how we should deliver our practice no matter which professional background we come from: ‘Working Together’.

The blunt reality dawning on many is that it hasn’t been and isn’t going to be enough and will not deliver the safeguarding service the most vulnerable in society deserve and require. Many safeguarding professionals provide stories of working in joint agency offices delivering child protection investigations together, sharing resources and basically getting on.

But on many occasions when one scratches the surface of this rhetoric one finds professions comfortable with delivering their single agency requirements alongside other services that are in the same manner happy doing what they have to do. They view the added value of ‘Working Together’ as being able to gain access to the other service when needed to deliver their own service outcomes. Uncomfortable truth? Social workers getting easy access to police sergeants and health staff for strategy meetings, police officers getting immediate support on the streets for mental health assessments.

All very good but maybe something rather fundamental is not in focus in this way of working?

The Multi Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH) vision and model was designed by us to ensure as many professionals as possible could provide the knowledge and professional dialogue to identify need, harm and risk as early as possible. It was designed to deliver integrated professional practice and not just a group of professionals in an office ‘working together’. It is the integration of knowledge, professional dialogue and experience which enhances the joint working ethos. Being together is not enough. Too many children and vulnerable adults have died while services would argue they were jointly working together.

I have always been taken in a very positive way with the use of the phrase ‘Voice of the Child’. I often re phrase it as ‘Voice of the Vulnerable’ to ensure adults who need support are also heard. I believe it is the fundamental building block in terms of Identifying need, harm and risk as early as possible and thereby enabling proportionate support, intervention and challenge to take place. The ‘Voice of The Child’ should shape everything we do from our daily practice to our commissioning of services.

So are we effectively hearing this voice at source? I passionately believe not.

I am currently evolving and investing in new ways in our fast changing digital age to better allow children and young people to have a voice using mainstream social media apps through the use of the latest personal technologies, which most of them seem to possess. I have a view, which has been well evidenced in some recent work we have done with gang members and socially isolated groups in communities, that we are missing their voice in a huge way because we are not tuned into the digital world they inhabit or the language they choose to operate with. If I’m honest many professionals and parents just like me struggle to form the listening strategies needed for their chatter.

A police commander recently remarked having seen a Periscope captured debate with young people in a London Borough that if she had understood their world and needs as she had just heard she would change the way she delivered her policing services for them.

‘Voice of the Child’ shaping service commissioning and delivery intentions! Powerful stuff, I say, and we need to move to this viewpoint.

The need to hear and understand the voice of the child is absolutely paramount and no more so than when engaging in the essential dialogue around radicalisation of the next generation.

Hearing and then acting

Integrated working can also help create seamless pathways to service. MASH was designed to assess all levels of need, harm and risk in a single location, not as some professionals believe in child protection. Its ethos is to ensure any concern about a child receives a service even if it is judged to be appropriate at the universal level. ‘No Further Action’ in a MASH should not exist. This bug bear of mine needs a big discussion, but suffice to say here it is all levels of need, harm and risk which should be considered and the appropriate response decided on in a partnership manner. Many MASH settings have recognised this potential and now coordinate the movement of non-threshold cases to their locality-based Early Offer as well as to statutory services. There is huge efficiency gain here for local authorities and their partners and I would recommend it for consideration. It is now well proven in various different MASH settings.

But seamless pathways to all services is not the whole answer. They need to be delivered in an environment where integrated working is embedded and accepted as the new way.

Too many front doors and referral and assessment services are still local authority only or partners have collocated just to consider the child protection and threshold-based assessment criteria cases. These in the main are the easy ones. The difficult voices to understand and interpret appropriately are those on the cusp of statutory intervention where an early intervention may be more appropriate.

This is why all concerns being articulated about children need to be considered and heard in one single partnership location, which is connected by seamless pathways to all services across and identified in the local levels of need document. From universal services through to child protection, the child’s voice needs to be heard and not lost in a fragmented partnership process.

There is one final stumbling block for me in ensuring this crystal clear voice cuts through the partnership and practice noise – and that relates to language. Each statutory partner uses their own cultural language and articulation of it. The police speak and record need, harm and risk in different ways to health colleagues and so on.

There is a need for a common approach to this issue so that need, harm and risk are identified and articulated in a manner that all partners especially social work decision makers, can understand and analyse without translation error.

We have recently done some work around need, harm and risk prompts linked to the ‘Signs of Safety’ approach with police officers at the front line. We have ensured that social workers receiving their contacts use the same evidence-based prompts and analysis tool when making intervention decisions. It is early days, but the results are very promising and practitioners seem to engage well with the concept, reporting much better understanding at all parts of the reporting and analysis process.

Integration and the voice

My view based on my professional interaction across the safeguarding sector during the past 10 years is we need to move on to a new understanding and acceptance that integration is not the same as working together.

Integration matters and should become the new baseline for partnership delivery.

I suggest it matters to the point where it is essential in ensuring the ‘Voice of the Child’ is heard with absolute clarity on every occasion.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) introduced new rights relating to children’s participation in addition to the existing rights concerning the protection of, and provision for, children. The new participation rights required all social institutions, including schools, to ensure that children are included in decisions about their lives. Under the Convention, it is expected that children will be consulted; be taken account of; have access to information; have freedom of speech, and be able to challenge decisions made on their behalf (Article 12).