5 The work of the safeguarder
This Chapter explores how the current system of safeguarding operates from all agency perspectives through an examination of the work, which safeguarders actually undertake, and views of stakeholders on aspects of this. It also looks at how the role impacts on decision-making, the way in which they conduct their investigations and the reports they produce. In addition, it compares the role with that of the social worker. The Chapter specifically discusses issues around contact and residence, timescales for safeguarder reports and the extent to which safeguarder recommendations tend to be followed. It concludes by considering the role in appeals.
5.2 The activities undertaken by safeguarders
Free text questionnaire responses from safeguarders indicated which activities they spend time doing. These were coded under the headings of child/family-related activity, information gathering, information processing, court/hearing attendance and report preparation ( Appendix 2 Table 501). The most common activity reported was that related to child/family activities (n = 66, 67%) such as interviewing and explaining the process to the child ( Appendix 2 Table 502).
5.3 Safeguarder Investigations
Information on the way in which safeguarders carry out their work was obtained from the documentary analysis of 17 ‘paired’ social worker and safeguarder reports pertaining to the same child(ren) in the same case where a safeguarder was appointed (see Chapter 2 for further information). While this offers a rare overview of the work of safeguarders in investigating and reporting it is a small sample and caution must be exercised in drawing conclusions. It is worth noting that the cases in the sample were complex and involved extremely vulnerable children. In 15 cases (88%), children were ‘looked after and accommodated’; in 11 (65%), social workers recommended reduction or termination of contact.
All 17 safeguarder reports were based on some form of interaction with the child. This meeting generally took place either at their residential placement or at school. The safeguarder met with the child on one occasion in 13 sampled reports (76%). There were two face-to-face meetings in 3 sampled reports (18%) and three such meetings in 1 report (6%). In 11 reports (65%), the safeguarder also obtained the views of the child. In all but one of the 6 remaining cases, safeguarder reports explained why the child’s views were not included, for example the child’s ill health, the child’s young age (under 3) and the child’s emotional condition. Sixteen reports (94%) also included the views of parents. Of these, 3 reports (18%), were found to afford prominence to the parent’s views, wishes and interests over those of the child.
In 14 (82%) of the sampled reports, the safeguarder had consulted with other professionals involved with the child, predominantly the child’s allocated social worker (11 reports, 65%) and those working in the child’s education (10 reports, 59%) such as the nursery or school head. Professionals were more commonly interviewed by telephone (n = 12, 71%).
5.3.1 Comparison with social work input
When comparing safeguarders’ work with that of social workers some overlap was identified. The paired reports indicated that safeguarders and social workers tended to elicit the views of similar individuals, including the child, parents/carers, wider family members and professionals, though to different degrees. In four cases (24%), for example, safeguarders had consulted family members not included in the social work report, including siblings. While (as noted above) safeguarders consulted with professionals, social work reports reflected their agency’s often long-standing involvement with the child and family and were underpinned by multi-agency reviews and assessments such as in relation to the child’s mental health ( CAMHS - Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service). By contrast, the sampled safeguarder reports were a ‘snapshot in time’, based entirely on the safeguarder’s current interactions with the child, family and relevant professionals.
In 6 cases (35%), the safeguarder’s report was more up-to-date than the corresponding social worker’s demonstrating more recent interactions with the child, family, carers and relevant professionals, including for example new information unavailable to the corresponding social work assessment on recent changes in foster care, school attendance, parental substance misuse or the child’s views.
At interview, stakeholders (including safeguarders) stressed the importance of direct interaction with the child during the investigation. Sheriffs also stressed the importance of meeting with the child, although 2 cited instances where they felt the child had not been engaged with by the safeguarder:
I’m often quite disappointed if a few procedural Hearings into the proceedings, the safeguarder still hasn’t met the child, and of course not just the child but the parents as well (Sheriff 6).
Just occasionally you get a sense that the safeguarder really hasn’t actually spent a lot of time with the child, which is unfortunate… But by and large, mostly they are pretty clear that that’s the number one priority (Sheriff 5).
All stakeholders were unanimous in confirming the importance of eliciting the child’s views, where possible, and many respondents praised the skills of safeguarders in doing that.
Most of them are very, very good at getting views and information from children and it’s amazing how quickly they can get the children onside, which is really a great credit to them (Panel member 10).
5.4 Contact / residence
The analysis of the SCRA sample and the paired reports ( Chapter 2) as well as interview responses, indicated that a specific issue in relation to which safeguarders may be appointed is the quality and proposed frequency of contact and/or on residence. In the SCRA sample, 30 (60%) records requested information or a recommendation on contact and 17 (34%) asked for this on residence. Safeguarders’ recommendations related to contact in 13 (76%) and to residence in 16 (94%) of the 17 paired reports.
At interview stakeholders discussed the role of safeguarders in relation to contact and residence. Four safeguarders indicated that they were appointed as a result of contact issues, although not necessarily to observe contact per se. However, there were mixed views across all stakeholder groups about the value of safeguarders observing – or more explicitly assessing – contact between parent and child. Social workers were sceptical that safeguarders had the time and expertise to observe contact, as were some reporters and solicitors; a one-off observation by an untrained eye would not necessarily inform the decision making process.
The observations of contact that [social workers] would be doing would be built up over a period of time, so that we could get an assessment from it. [Safeguarders] coming along to one or two contacts is not going to give you an assessment around about the quality of contact, it’s not gonna give you an assessment around about attachments the children have, it’s really not gonna give you any of those things. So I’m not sure about what the value of it is (Social Worker 4).
In terms of observation of contact, sometimes that’s when it doesn’t always really sit well with me because a lot of the time parents say contact is really good. The Safeguarder comes along, observes maybe one contact session for half an hour. Is that a fair and balanced view of contact if this client for example is having those kids removed on one contact session and say the child kicks off in this one particular contact session. Is it a fair and balanced view? (Solicitor 4).
Nevertheless, certain stakeholders – the decision makers themselves: panel members and sheriffs – were of the view that safeguarders could perform a useful function in observing contact in certain circumstances.
[For the safeguarder to be] an independent observer. I think great weight would be attached to that… if the safeguarder was to view a few contact sessions and was able to give some kind of decent detailed observation’ (Sheriff 6).
Body language [when observing contact] tells you everything. At the end of the day, [safeguarders have] got life experience and quite a lot of them have kids or have like family and people don’t realise they’re reading body language but they’re reading it all the time’ (Panel member 7).
5.5 Safeguarders’ written reports
The paired report analysis also offers a particular insight into the form, quality and usefulness of safeguarder reports, as explained below.
5.5.1 Form and structure
Eleven (65%) of the 17 sampled safeguarder reports were structured along the following lines:
- introduction contextualising the issues;
- presentation of the sources of information relied upon by the safeguarder,
- (usually) a description of interviews undertaken with the child, family and relevant professionals;
- discussion and/or analysis of the issues arising from the safeguarder’s investigations; and
- conclusions and recommendation(s) to the children’s hearing.
Eleven (65%) of the 17 reports also contained an outline of the safeguarder’s remit. In 9 of these, the remit related to contact arrangements; in 4 it concerned residence arrangements. In only one instance was the safeguarder unable to fulfil the terms of the remit since they were unable to contact the relevant family members. The 10 reports which addressed a stated remit were deemed by the researcher to be more focused and targeted towards subsequent decision making.
Reference was made by the safeguarder to theories such as child attachment in 4 (24%) reports, compared with 13 (77%) of the 17 social worker reports. Of these 4 safeguarder reports, two underpinned the theory by reference to relevant literature
Poorer reports were characterised by the lack of a clear structure (n = 6, 35%) and/or a lack of analysis (n = 8, 47%), merely presenting a variety of views and issues from interviews or restating what those consulted had said with little scrutiny, challenge or evaluation. Seven safeguarder reports (41%) repeated or replicated information found in the social work reports without analysis, and were regarded as adding little.
Comparing safeguarder reports with social worker reports, the main similarity was, as in relation to the investigation stage above, that the sources of information relied upon were very broadly similar. There was found to be a duplication of effort between the safeguarder and social worker in 11 of the 17 paired reports (65%). The most obvious difference was in the respective lengths. The sampled social work reports were comparatively much longer than the sampled safeguarder reports. The shortest social work report was 17 pages and the longest was 78 pages, whereas the shortest safeguarder report was 5 pages and the longest was 15 pages. The mean length of the sampled safeguarder reports was 7 pages, compared with 35 pages for the social work reports. The style of the sampled social work reports was more consistent than the safeguarder reports, not least since all sampled social work reports took the form of a standardised GIRFEC assessment involving multi-agency input from social work, education and health.
5.5.2 The added value of safeguarder reports
Non-safeguarders and sheriffs were asked in the questionnaire about the usefulness of safeguarder reports. A total of 288 (276 non-safeguarders, 12 sheriffs) responded and the most common response (non-safeguarders: n = 107, 39%; sheriffs: 7/12) was that they were extremely useful (Appendix 2 Tables 503 and 504).
At interview, two reporters commented on the lack of analysis in safeguarder reports, and stakeholders regarded them as variable in quality: some were ‘brilliant’ (Reporter 4) and some were ‘shocking’ (Panel Member 6). Good safeguarder reports were noteworthy.
She’d done sort of similar roles [before] and I got the sense that she really knew what she was talking about, she really knew what child welfare and child protection was about… it was almost I felt that she was working alongside me investigating this complicated situation (Social worker 5).
Some of them are absolutely top notch, absolutely fabulous. Lots of them are really fabulous I think. Thorough and perceptive and just know about child development and know about human behaviour… the vast majority of them are actually good or very good and some are just lip service basically (Solicitor 3).
Sheriffs felt the quality of safeguarder reports were variable, with one deriding the fact that they could be ‘rambling’ (Sheriff 3). Some stakeholders acknowledged that safeguarder reports – verbal or written - needed to be analytical and coherent.
There’s no point in having the keenest emotional intelligence on the planet if you can’t tell the [sheriff] what it amounts to… you have to understand how to communicate with children and if you can do that then I would have thought you’d find it quite easy to communicate with the court (Sheriff 1).
Stakeholders indicated that a ‘good’ report generally was comprehensive, independent, analysed the various stakeholders’ views and offered some reassurance to decision makers. In comparison to social worker reports, three aspects of a ‘good’ safeguarder report stood out: conciseness, lack of history (or ‘baggage’) and accessibility. Safeguarders gave more weight to the views of the child and family and discussed options.
I think there’s often more focus on the now and the future in the safeguarder’s report… in the social work report, [it’s] the sort of: ‘we can never trust this person to be a proper parent because… she [used to be] a drug addict’. And the safeguarder will say: ‘actually she’s done a hell of a lot to turn her life around and I’m not convinced that she should be denied the chance to have the children returned to her’ (Sheriff 3).
I think social workers are probably torn by their workload, by financial restrictions and by sort of policy coming down from above them. Whereas a safeguarder is an individual making… recommendations for the right reasons. They don’t have that kind of [baggage] (Panel member 8).
I wouldn’t necessarily regard the social work information as… independent and reliable… entrenched positions can emerge and then you need to be able to get through that somehow with an independent view (Sheriff 6).
The question of whether safeguarder reports should be based on a template received a negative response from safeguarders, panel members and reporters.
The reason for appointing varies so much that a template would, I think, restrict the nature of the report and the quality of the report (Reporter 3).
Safeguarders are required by legislation  to provide the reporter with a report within 35 days of being appointed. From the analysis of the SCRA sample, it was possible to identify the time that had elapsed between the appointment and submission of the report. A written report was submitted in 48 (96%) cases, but not necessarily within 35 days. The shortest time to provide a report was 5 days; the longest was 359 days. The safeguarder provided a report within the statutory timescale in over half (25, 52%) of the sampled records. In the remaining cases, timescales ranged from 37 to 359 days. Most of these reports were provided between 50 and 70 days following appointment. However, it took the safeguarder between 100 and 359 days to provide a report in 6 records (13%).
At interview, all reporters and the majority of social workers, panel members and solicitors acknowledged proceedings would be delayed by the appointment of a safeguarder. However, most felt that the 35 day timescale (where adhered to) was justifiable and could be accommodated through the issuing of an interim order in cases requiring immediate protection of a child pending a formal decision by the panel/sheriff. Sheriffs equally felt that the delay was not to the detriment of the child and indeed that the administrative procedures of going through Children 1 st or of parents applying for legal aid caused more of a delay than any actions by the safeguarder.
They’re there early on and they don’t hold things up. I’ve never had an experience where the safeguarder’s come along and said ‘I need more time because I’ve not got round to doing whatever’. I think they do a good job (Sheriff 7).
Safeguarders suggested that 35 days was not always enough.
‘You have 35 days to prepare a report which is quite difficult because, by the time you get your papers from the Reporter, you then make contact with the family and I do that by phoning social work and phoning parents then. (Safeguarder 6).
In the questionnaire, non-safeguarders and sheriffs were asked whether it is better for safeguarders to attend proceedings to present their reports. Four hundred (388 non-safeguarders, 12 sheriffs) responded and the majority (safeguarders n = 264, 74%; sheriffs: 12/12) said that it was ( Appendix 2 Table 505).
5.5.5 Report dissemination
Safeguarders reports are submitted, in the first instance, to the reporter who provides them to the child/relevant persons as parties to the proceedings. Sheriffs do not require reports but would automatically receive these if requested. Panel members receive reports as part of their papers for a children’s hearing. While legal representatives have no right to sight of these reports, it is likely that their client will make them available. Social workers, then, are the stakeholder group covered by this research, which is least likely to have seen the safeguarder’s report prior to the hearing. The Practice Standards for Safeguarders (2015: 10) currently indicate that it would be best practice for safeguarders to share their recommendations with “relevant persons and representatives from services and agencies in advance of hearings, to allow appropriate preparation and minimise potential distress and delay, in particular for the child” and this is reiterated in the Practice Notes for Safeguarders on Reports (2017: 18-19). Currently it is not legally possible to share the actual report. This issue was addressed at interview. A small minority of professionals felt that the safeguarder report was for the eyes of panel members and other parties to the proceedings only. In general, panel members, reporters and social workers indicated that they thought that sharing the full report would be appropriate. Social workers themselves voiced the most concerns about not officially having sight of the safeguarder’s report prior to a Hearing:
You are going in blind… you’d be caught off guard, you wouldn’t be able to prepare yourself, it wouldn’t be fair (Social worker 2).
I wouldn’t know necessarily what they had recommended… and what they based it on… that is a significant issue because going to any legal or quasi-legal forum… how do I go along and respond to a safeguarder’s report without having seen it? (Social worker 4).
5.6 Safeguarder recommendations
The research also looked at safeguarder recommendations and particularly whether or not they tended to be accepted by decision makers and whether they aligned with the recommendation in the social work report.
In the SCRA sample a recommendation was provided in all 48 cases where a report was produced (96%). All 17 of the safeguarder reports in the paired report analysis contained a recommendation. At interview, however, only 4 sheriffs mentioned specifically that safeguarders provided a recommendation, with 3 suggesting they did not.
In the SCRA sample the recommendations were directed towards disposal: for example, whether a CSO was necessary in respect of the child and/or the possible measures that might be attached to any such order. Recommendations were coded and analysed by reference to the coded reasons ( Appendix 2 Figure 1) for which safeguarders had been appointed. By this method, the safeguarder’s recommendation was found to fully address those reasons in 30 records (63%) and partially in 9 records (19%).
In the paired report analysis, additional services or supports, beyond those already tried, were recommended by safeguarders in 5 reports (29%), for example a clinical psychologist assessment.
5.6.3 Whether followed
From the SCRA sample, it was additionally possible to ascertain whether the decision of the hearing followed the recommendation of the safeguarder. It did so in 38 records (76%) ( Appendix 2 Figure 3). The SCRA sample suggested that children’s hearings usually followed the recommendations of safeguarders. However interview data indicated that this may depend on the quality of the report.
Where it’s an excellent report, it convinces you… you would take that recommendation… But then you might have another period where either the report isn’t there, or the safeguarder isn’t there or it’s just wishy washy (Panel Member 9).
Overall, at interview, safeguarders and other stakeholders generally agreed that the majority of safeguarders’ recommendations were accepted by both panels and sheriffs, and, as discussed below, that these tended to be consistent with the social worker’s recommendation (or in the case of court work, with the reporter’s statement of facts). One solicitor remarked that the recommendations of safeguarders and social workers tended to be consistent and that this was the ‘preferred option’ (Solicitor 1) for any hearing. One reporter expanded on the weight given to safeguarder recommendations’.
I think sometimes too much weight is attached to a safeguarder recommendation… it tends to be the focus because we’ve asked for an independent view… But…it is just another view, albeit it’s independent. But I think there’s a general feeling that far too often the recommendation of the safeguarder is taken. Now that might totally align itself with what the local authority was saying in the first place anyway, so it’s not really that controversial a lot of the time. But… I very rarely see a hearing go against a safeguarder recommendation (Reporter 4).
Panel members tended to concur with this view, although one panel member (Panel Member 5) did stress that the safeguarder’s view was just ‘part of the jigsaw’.
Questionnaire responses from non-safeguarders showed increased confidence in a decision following safeguarder involvement. One hundred and fifty nine (58%) of the 276 respondents felt this. Sheriffs were asked if the involvement of a safeguarder made the decision in the case more robust and, again, the overwhelming majority (10/12) said that it did ( Appendix 2 Table 506).
5.6.4 Consistency with social work (and others)
In 26 (52%) of the 50 sampled records, it was possible to determine whether there was agreement between safeguarder and social work recommendations. Of those, the safeguarder agreed with social work in 19 records (73%). In the paired report analysis, agreement was also found in 12 of the 17 cases (71%); partial agreement was identified in 3 reports (18%); and disagreement was identified in the remaining 2 reports (11%). All disagreement (partial and complete) related to an aspect of contact or residence. In one case, the social worker had recommended that contact take place in the community rather than on social work premises (in accordance with the child’s express wish). The safeguarder’s view, based on potential risks and security issues, was that the contact should continue to be supervised within social work offices. In another case, the safeguarder opposed a social work recommendation for a reduction in, and ultimate termination of, contact with the parents and in a third, the safeguarder recommended re-establishment of contact against a social work view that improvements in the mother’s lifestyle had not been sustained for long enough to warrant this.
At interview, safeguarders noted a strong correlation between their own recommendations and those of social work (with only the detail being contested, as in the case of frequency of contact, for example).
However, some social workers expressed misgivings including about the consequences for the social worker who has to act on the eventual care plan.
An effective safeguarder… does not helicopter in, throw an incendiary device and then run away (Social worker 3).
If you’re passionate about what you do [as a social worker] and you make a recommendation and an assessment round about something and you think, this is absolutely the best that I can do for this child, and somebody comes along and… just kind of kicks that into touch and you get something completely different… [social workers] will tell you… they feel so frustrated and anxious that they didn’t get the best thing for that child (Social worker 4).
5.6.5 Relationship with action taken by children’s hearings
From the SCRA sample it was possible to identify the substantive decision taken by the children’s hearing. Compulsory measures of supervision were overwhelmingly imposed. A CSO was either made or continued in 47 records (94%) and was terminated in 3 (6%). The majority (94%) of the sampled records related to children already subject to some form of compulsory measures. Such orders were more commonly continued (n = 40, 80%) rather than made (n = 7, 14%). Nine (23%) of the continuations were without variation and 31 (77%) were with variation.
It was also possible to compare the measures attached to CSOs before and after safeguarder appointment. There was a change in measures in 38 records (76%) with changes related to contact in 28 records (74%) and residence in 9 records (24%).
By analysing the reasons given for the substantive decision of the children’s hearing, it was ascertained whether the final decision related to the reasons for which a safeguarder had been appointed in the first place. The substantive decision was found to relate to those reasons in 44 records (88%).
In addition to their work in children’s hearings and at court proofs, safeguarders can also have a role at appeal, and are empowered to bring appeal proceedings (2011 Act, s 154(2)(c)). In the questionnaire, most respondents indicated that they did not know whether the involvement of a safeguarder affected the number of appeals (see Appendix 2, Tables 507 and 508).
In 9 (18%) of the 50 cases in the SCRA sample, the substantive decision of the children’s hearing was appealed, primarily by a parent or relevant person. Only in one record was the decision appealed by the child and no appeals were lodged by safeguarders. It was found that the reason for the appeal related to the safeguarder in 4 cases, for example that: the hearing failed to give due weight to the safeguarder’s report (though this appeal was dismissed.)
At interview, stakeholders were asked about their experience of appeals involving safeguarders. The general consensus was that safeguarders have little or no influence on any increasing propensity to appeal, and indeed none of the 9 sheriffs had had experience of a safeguarder bringing an appeal, although 3 sheriffs had had experience of appeals involving safeguarders, 2 of whom highly commended the safeguarders in that process:
A safeguarder had been appointed by the Children’s Hearing, provided a report to the hearing and a supplementary report in the appeal, which I thought was a fantastic report because this is a very complex family situation. The safeguarder, although not qualified in psychology, had really worked very hard to put himself in the situation of the child… it was really helpful as a way of focusing on the core issue which is… [is] this decision on the appeal a good decision in the interests of the child? (Sheriff 5).
Three safeguarders at interview had instigated an appeal, two on more than one occasion. For example, in one of these cases, the safeguarder successfully appealed a decision not to return children to their mother’s care. Social workers also cited experience of appeals instigated by or involving safeguarders.
According to participants in the safeguarder focus group, the safeguarder’s role in appeals may offer continuity between the children’s hearing and court, being possibly the only individual who follows the process from one to the other and can inform the sheriff of the process at the children’s hearing that led to the appeal.
5.7 Discussion and conclusions
The research suggests that safeguarders’ meetings with the child are a key part of their work and much valued by decision-makers. Both the paired report analysis and the interviews point to the benefits, in terms of reporting, of this direct interaction. The paired report analysis indicated that safeguarders generally managed one face-to–face meeting. While the 35-day timescale, and the ‘snapshot’ nature of the role tend to militate against much direct contact with the child, where appropriate, safeguarders should be encouraged to do all they can to meet with the child in person. Meeting more than once, where appropriate, would also increase the likelihood of effective communication with him/her and, therefore, more effective presentation of his/her interests and views.
Issues relating to residence and / or contact are clearly contentious and the independence of the safeguarder’s perspective on these may be valuable especially where other attitudes are entrenched. It is equally clear, however, that there are limits to what the safeguarder can offer given the constraints of time and professional qualification. Safeguarders offer a ‘snapshot’ of the child’s circumstances; contact and residence issues are long term and often complex, possibly requiring, for example, psychological assessment of the child. To assist decision makers in recognising these limitations on what safeguarders can be asked to do, considerations specifically around contact and residence could be included in any further written information on reasons for appointment produced in accordance with the discussion in Chapter 3.
The research suggests that the quality of safeguarder reports is variable, an issue which Children 1 st is addressing through report sampling. Good quality safeguarder reports were identified, in the paired report analysis, as being well-written, clearly structured and offering analysis and discussion of the information collated during the investigation supporting a recommendation in the child’s best interests. Comparison with the work of social workers did suggest some overlap; however, safeguarders’ reports are appreciated by interviewee stakeholders for their conciseness, lack of history (or ‘baggage’) and accessibility by comparison with the social work counterparts. Where there is considerable overlap, in investigation and recommendation, between the two professionals, safeguarders can still add value in that their work is carried out independently and, even where they agree with the social work recommendation, can therefore be seen as a verification of it. Safeguarder reports complement social work reports where they provide new, more up-to-date or different information, such as the view of a sibling or the identification of an untried resource. While a report template was regarded as unhelpful, the Scottish Government has just published a comprehensive set of Practice Notes for Safeguarders on Reports (2017) which may enhance effectiveness in report writing.
The research indicates that safeguarder recommendations are followed in the majority of cases, suggesting that they are valued by decision makers. Furthermore, the majority of stakeholders indicated that they found safeguarder reports useful and they had more confidence in the decision following safeguarder involvement.
Where a safeguarder is appointed, time (usually 35 days) will have to be added into the process for him/her to report thereby inevitably causing some delay in reaching a substantive decision, something which, again, decision-makers should factor in to the decision to appoint. The research does not clearly indicate that delays beyond the statutory period can be attributed to safeguarders.
The research indicated that a number of stakeholders (across all groups) saw value in social workers automatically receiving a copy of the safeguarder’s report in advance of the proceedings so that discussion within the hearing could be more focused and effective. The Practice Standards for Safeguarders (2015: 10) do indicate that it would be best practice for safeguarders to share their recommendations with “relevant persons and representatives from services and agencies in advance of hearings, to allow appropriate preparation and minimise potential distress and delay, in particular for the child” and this is reiterated in the (new) Practice Notes for Safeguarders on Reports (2017: 18-19). Currently, however, it is not legally possible to share the actual report with social workers and consideration should be given to whether it would be beneficial to the process for them to see recommendations in the context of the whole report in advance.