On 3rd June 2016, the Transparency Project hosted the second Child Protection conference aimed at examining and discussing how the child protection system operates in England and Wales. Having concluded last year that the system wasn’t fit for purpose, the emphasis this year was firmly on identifying practical and sustainable changes to allow social workers to carry out their necessary work to help and support families – and to allow families to accept that help and support without feeling frightened or brutalised by a process they often do not understand.

The Transparency Project intends to publish further discussion and commentary about what emerged from the speakers’ presentations, the workshops and questions from the floor. The discussions between delegates and the expert panel were recorded and the aim is to publish a podcast.

So I don’t intend to go into detail here about what was said. The purpose of this post is to provide an overview of the day itself and the next steps. It is also to encourage anyone who couldn’t make it in person to sign up to join us in continuing this necessary debate.

Conference – nuts and bolts

Money matters

We sold 60 tickets and raised approximately £2,600 via Event Brite. 35 of those tickets were bought by ‘professionals’ and 25 by others. I also offered 10 free tickets to those in genuine financial need and ended up giving 13 free places. We were very fortunate to be joined by speakers and panel members who were experts in their fields. Therefore 88 people attended and required feeding.

The basic costs of this event were approximately £3,500 – venue hire, catering and printing. The true costs were considerably higher. Our speakers did not charge for their time and did not ask for their travel expenses to be paid, save for Annie who would not have been able to attend if asked to pay her own train fare.

It would therefore have been impossible to run this event without the generosity of both our speakers and our sponsors – St Johns Chambers, Jordans Family Law and Bath Publishing. It has also been of enormous value to be able to run this event under the ‘umbrella’ of the Transparency Project and to benefit from the help and advice of its members. Special thanks to Alice Twaite as co-organiser whose organisational and networking skills are prodigious and were freely given.

I am immensely grateful to them all.


Our main speakers were:

  • District Judge Gailey, Diversity and Community Relations Judge who emphasised that judges were public servants and that justice should be seen to be done;
  • Dr Lauren Devine of UWE, who discussed the limits of state power to investigate our private lives;
  • Maggie Siviter, social worker, who discussed the current culture of blame which prevents open discussion about poor practices;
  • ‘Annie’ of Surviving Safeguarding, talking about her wish to train parent advocates;
  • Louise Tickle and Lucy Reed talking about just how difficult transparency is in practice and how guidance on publishing judgements does not appear to be followed;
  • Andy Bilson (University of Central Lancashire) presented his recent research about the high numbers of children now assessed as ‘at risk’;
  • I gave an overview of Dr Claire Fenton Glynn’s updated 2016 report ‘Adoption without consent’ with particular reference to her recommendations for reform addressed to the  UK government.

We then had two separate workshops – one examining issues of adoption, trauma and support with Amanda Boorman of the Open Nest charity and the POTATOs (Parenting Traumatised Adopted Teens) and another looking at what help and support was out there for parents, including discussion from Jerry Lonsdale about McKenzie friends, barrister Victoria Teggin about mediation in child protection, Jane Auld from the National Parenting Initiative, Cat Osbourne from Safe Families for Children, Daljit Gill from After Adoption and Cathy Ashley from the Family Rights Group, discussing the work of Your Family Your Voice.

The conference concluded with discussions between delegates, speakers and our expert panel, which included Professor Brid Featherstone, Dr Anna Gupta, psychologist Lisa Wolfe, and Debbie Singleton from the Association of Lawyers for Children.

Judging from my twitter analytics, issues raised in this discussion which sparked interest were:

Dr Devine spoke of moving away from rationed services and providing access without assessment, given how costly assessments were and how blunt a tool they were for actually identifying risky families. Anna Gupta urged us not to forget the impact of austerity and cuts on creating an environment where things can go very wrong indeed. There appears to be money in the system, but it is spent at the wrong end of the process. There were also concerns raised about the perceived lack of independence of IROs.

The discussions were wide ranging, passionate and very useful in attempting to identify how we can move this forward into action, rather than just talking.

What went well?

Those attending said they found the event both interesting and energising and some were inspired to set up their own events to keep the momentum going. I was deilghted to find out at one point we were ‘trending’ on Twitter which I think highlights the importance of and interest in these discussions. 21 people have signed up to become part of the proposed ‘Hub’ organised by Dr Devine at UWE, which will gather together those interested in taking forward our proposals for direct change.

What would we like to go better for #CPConf2017?

There were some complaints about the name badges (see above for discussion about the financial realities of this event. If you want slick organisation and fancy name badges this is not the event for you!). A few people found the incredible life Twitter feed (thanks Jerry) a bit distracting but feedback from those who couldn’t make the conference was that they loved it, as did we.

Some social workers attending asked to be involved in plans to make CPConf2017 more relevant and accessible to social workers themselves, which of course we would welcome. We have consistently asked for feedback and suggestions throughout the year in the run up to the conference so it is a shame if some feel their voice has not been heard. I hope anyone who wishes to contribute to CPCon2017 will therefore sign up to the ‘Hub’ (and help us think of a better name!).

Also apparent was just how much hard work it is to get from articulating the problem, to achieving practical change through real collaboration alongside individual projects.

It was particularly disappointing to discover that several individuals had apparently purposely breached the ground rules regarding photography and recording, potentially compromising the anonymity of ‘Annie’. This unsurprisingly caused distress to Annie and significant annoyance to the organisers. Further, some of those attending thought it appropriate to distribute leaflets alleging that Satanists were rife in the child protection system.

A few dodgy leaflets aren’t a problem, but what appeared to be deliberate breach of our ground rules is. These rules were set out on the website, included in the delegate packs and referred to by me in my opening address. What seems clear is that for future events we must make acceptance of these ground rules part of the ‘terms and conditions’ of entry. We will take firm action against anyone who deliberately breaches them.

What next?

We tried to pack a lot into the day – with hindsight, probably too much. But there are so many important issues and dedicated people out there, the challenge now becomes trying to focus on what will bring about the most tangible benefits.

The following clear goals have been identified

  • To join Dr Devine in setting up her umbrella organisation at UWE to bring together all those individuals and groups with an interest in this discussion.
  • To support Annie in developing her training for parent advocates and her pilot scheme she will be launching in the North East.
  • Contact BASW if you want to contribute to the enquiry into the role of social work in adoption
  • Contact Cathy Ashley if you want to become a member of Your Family Your Voice Alliance or if you want to contribute to a response to the Children and Social Work Bill – concerns are raised about the implications of this, particularly clauses 15-18 which proposes that LAs in England can be exempt from primary legislation and regulations.

Anyone who hasn’t signed up and would like to do so – please contact me at sarah.phillimore@stjohnschambers.co.uk

Anyone with any comments about how the day went or what you would like to see next, please contact me or the Transparency Project.

I hope to see you next year on June 9th at #CPConf2017 which will be held at the University of the West of England.