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Lessons not learned on child abuse

Significant weaknesses still exist in protecting vulnerable children. Emma Seith reports

As yet another area of Scotland takes a hammering for the quality of its child protection measures, the senior chief inspector of education has issued a stark warning that "satisfactory is not good enough".

Graham Donaldson, who was commenting in the wake of one of HMIE's most damning investigations into services for abused and at-risk youngsters in the Moray Council area, has admitted it is "very worrying" that significant weaknesses still exist in protecting the most vulnerable children.

The inspectorate was nearing the end of its first cycle of inspections of child protection services, yet lessons were not being learned, he felt. "Child protection has to be of a high quality," Mr Donaldson declared when he gave evidence to the Parliament's education committee on his recent Improving Scottish Education report.

Karen Whitefield, its Labour convener, described the variability in services across Scotland as "pretty terrible". The country's most vulnerable children were being "short-changed", she said.

Last week, Moray received a damning report into the area's child protection services, following hot on the heels of a poor report on Aberdeen City. In spite of being the fourth least deprived council area in Scotland, Moray was found to suffer "delays and deficiencies in the identification and investigation of suspected child abuse".

Positive relationships did exist between staff and many children and families, the report said, but children were unclear about their right to be safe or how to get help, and their views were not always sought.

Medical staff in particular were guilty of failing to share information about possible abuse, resulting in delayed investigations for a few children who had serious injuries.

Victims of sexual abuse were found by inspectors to be distressed by the arrangements for medical examinations, including the lack of choice of a male or female doctor.

It was often teachers who were identified as the trusted adult children could turn to in a crisis. However, children's awareness of how to keep themselves safe through personal and social education programmes varied and education staff did not always give sufficient consideration to children's home circumstances when making decisions about, for instance, exclusions and part-time timetables, which increased the risk in their lives.

Child protection in Moray was rated "weak" for 10 out of 18 indicators, including meeting children's needs and leadership and direction, while the remaining eight were "unsatisfactory" or "satisfactory".

"We think satisfactory is OK, but in reality the strengths just outweigh the weaknesses," said Ms Whitefield. "I think that's a pretty terrible situation for child protection services."

Mr Donaldson agreed. "We are moving towards the end of the cycle," he said. "To still be identifying significant weaknesses is very worrying. Where we do, it is imperative quick action is taken and it almost invariably is. But it should not take an inspection to find that out."

Responding to the report, Adam Ingram, the Minister for Children and Early Years, promised to monitor Moray's progress and threatened government intervention if the authority failed to act. "There must be no excuses and no passing of the buck by those responsible," he said.

Mr Ingram announced last week that the next cycle of child protection inspections would be more focused and proportionate; from April, areas with shortcomings will receive more in-depth inspections.

Generally across Scotland, inspectors told the education committee, help and support to keep children safe was "quite good" in the initial stages, with staff taking action "quite quickly" when a worrying case came to light.

But problems tended to arise when it came to long-term planning, they said. A child's circumstances could change and concerns accumulate, but the focus remained on the initial concern.

Annette Bruton, chief inspector, said: "There is a need to take more account of changing circumstances, different things that happen in the family and in their background, and children's changing needs as they get older. We have seen some very good practice, so we know it can be done."

Mr Ingram has flagged up Inverclyde, West Lothian, Renfrewshire and East Renfrewshire as areas which have demonstrated what can be achieved.

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