7 Understanding and Supporting the Role
As a panel member, we do really greatly appreciate [safeguarder] input and in certain cases they are utterly invaluable. There are some extremely good and dedicated people out there who do it for the right reasons and that can be absolutely vital to what we do in order to get the decisions right for the benefit of the individual children (Panel member 1).
Safeguarders work in complex cases involving children, some of whom may be very young or vulnerable. The possibility of appointing a safeguarder, as an independent actor who safeguards and protects a child’s interests in such proceedings, is therefore important to the effectiveness of the system and to keeping the child at the centre of it. This research aimed to explore the perceptions of key professional stakeholder groups - sheriffs, panel members, social workers, solicitors, reporters and safeguarders - of the safeguarder role and the added value that it brings to proceedings. It generated particularly rich data however, it should be borne in mind in interpreting findings that some sample sizes were small and none were representative of the composition of the groups in relation to which they were drawn. This concluding chapter discusses certain issues arising from the key findings, organised by reference to the content of the preceding chapters: safeguarder role; reasons for appointing safeguarders; safeguarders’ work; and centralisation, administration and training.
7.2 The role of the safeguarder
Our findings indicated that stakeholder groups were of the view that their counterparts in other professions did not understand the role of the safeguarder. Nonetheless, similar accounts of the role were obtained across all groups and indeed 95% of safeguarders felt that they were very clear about what was expected of them (ranked 8-10 in Table 301). We also found that there may be overlaps with other roles within the system. In most cases, however, the safeguarder role is distinguishable, in that it goes beyond presenting the child’s views (as child advocacy workers may do) and does not represent the child by acting on his/her instructions (as a solicitor does) but rather analyses all information (including views), to make a recommendation in the child’s best interests. There is greater overlap with the work of social workers but, even here, the safeguarder role generally complements rather than duplicates this work by bringing new information or, at least, independently verifying the social worker’s recommendation. Nonetheless, in making the determination as to whether a safeguarder is needed at all, sheriffs and panel members may be advised to consider first whether the purpose is already fulfilled satisfactorily by another agency. They may benefit from further written guidance on reasons for appointing to assist them in this respect. Safeguarders will be most effective where there is a consistent understanding across stakeholder groups of the content of their role so that, for example, decision makers only appoint where the role can have an impact.
One way to promote such a more consistent understanding of the role might be the adoption of a core definition for use across all stakeholder groups. A possible example, using the data collected on the content of the role, and discussed with all three focus groups (safeguarder, panel member and social worker), is:
The paramount role is to safeguard the best interests of the child, to keep him/her at the centre of proceedings, and to inform decision making through independent information gathering (including, as appropriate, the child’s and others’ views), and objective and analytical reporting.
A child-friendly version might also be developed.
The safeguarder’s role in the court setting can be different to that in the children’s hearing in that, for example, a written report is not necessarily required for court. At interview, sheriffs suggested that the results of the safeguarder’s investigation might be presented by leading evidence (including calling witnesses) – skills which are otherwise only commonly required in legal practice. Overall, some safeguarders were, on occasion, perceived to be less effective in the court setting given the legal skillset indicated. (Safeguarders have a variety of main occupations including, but not limited to legal practice). Safeguarders who lack these skills might benefit from further written guidance on what is required and specific training in court practice and skills.
7.3 Reasons for appointing safeguarders
Respondents were generally in agreement that the main reasons for appointing a safeguarder were to act independently, to unravel conflictual issues, to gather information and to ascertain views (primarily those of the child but also of others such as parents and professionals already involved). However, practice in terms of identifying and recording reasons for appointment varied considerably between children’s hearings and court: panel members could be quite effusive in their reasons whilst sheriffs often left the ‘reason’ for the safeguarder to determine. At interview, mixed views were expressed as to the desirability of panel members providing such detailed reasons for appointment as to amount to a remit. While some safeguarders were resistant to this, fearing that it might compromise their independence, or their ability to determine the nature of the work required in an individual case, in general they indicated that they are not hampered by the sometimes prescriptive nature of panel members’ reasons for appointment. Some panel members felt that it was important to make their reasons for appointment clear to the (different) panel members who would receive the report. The paired report analysis found that those safeguarder reports which presented and addressed a stated remit were considerably more focussed and targeted towards subsequent decision-making in respect of the child. This suggests, at least, that the provision of written reasons is of some value to the safeguarder. The interview data also suggested that, on rare occasions, panel members may appoint to pass the substantive decision to another hearing or to defuse tension within a hearing. Overall, it would be conducive to effective work by the safeguarder if sheriffs were encouraged to provide reasons and panel members ensure that there is a clear purpose notwithstanding tension in making an appointment.
A specific issue which was identified is that safeguarders may be appointed in cases involving contact and/or residence and some concerns were expressed that asking a safeguarder to provide an analysis of these complex, specialised matters might be pushing the boundaries both of their remit and their professional expertise. Equally, panel members and sheriffs welcomed their input. Overall, panel members need to be realistic about what a safeguarder can achieve; safeguarders may need specialist training (including skills) in these highly sensitive issues. Key questions include how the balance is achieved between reporting on the child in the moment as the safeguarder observes him/her and the effect of changing contact arrangements on his/her longer-term wellbeing. Further written guidance for decision-makers on contact/residence, as a reason for appointment may be beneficial.
7.4 The work of the safeguarder
Our research indicates that the work of the safeguarder generally involves an investigation of the child’s circumstances conducted by examination of existing professional reports and interviews with the child, family members and others closely involved in the case. Safeguarders are expected to analyse all information collated to identify, or to make a recommendation, which represents, the child’s best interests. For children’s hearings, they provide a written report. A key part of the safeguarder role is thus to support, assist and facilitate robust decision-making. Overall, the majority of research participants suggested that safeguarder effectiveness means thorough investigations and clear recommendations giving rise to a perception by all concerned that the safeguarder has, where appropriate, presented the child’s views and safeguarded the child’s interests, that their reporting was of a high quality, and that they were completely independent. The research also suggested however that occasionally within the investigation the safeguarder did not meet with the child (albeit sometimes for good reason) and that the quality of reports and/or recommendations can be variable. Meeting with the child, more than once, where appropriate, should be encouraged as it seems to increase the likelihood of effective communication and, therefore, more effective presentation of his/her interests and views. Children 1 st undertake report sampling which will assist in addressing this perceived deficit and the Scottish Government has published (June 2017) a comprehensive set of Practice Notes for Safeguarders on Reports which may assist in raising quality where necessary. Safeguarders might also benefit from further training on report writing.
The Practice Standards for Safeguarders (2015: 10) do 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 and consideration should be given to whether it would be beneficial to the process for social workers to see recommendations in the context of the whole report in advance. At interview, panel members, reporters and social workers indicated that they thought that sharing the full report would be appropriate, though safeguarders tended to think that sharing recommendations was both sufficient and more important.
7.5 Centralisation, administration and training
Children 1 st has undertaken a considerable amount of work, since the organisation was awarded the contract in 2013, to promote consistency and quality in the work of safeguarders and this was recognised by many respondents. Whatever advantages may be identified in the existence of the role, its value in individual cases is dependent on how it is performed. Many safeguarders clearly recognised the benefits and importance of, for example, monitoring and practice standards in this respect. Equally, our research found that the safeguarder role can be complex, difficult and isolating and some safeguarders indicated that they would value more support. In responses to the questionnaire, a system of one-to-one buddying was suggested and in focus group discussions, participants mentioned newer safeguarders shadowing more established ones, as a form of induction. Safeguarders also mentioned having the opportunity to meet informally as a group, for advice, networking and sociability, over and above the scheduled training events. The feasibility of each of these suggestions could be explored further, bearing in mind the need for those doing the buddying or shadowing to be at an appropriate professional standard to mentor their peers and the particular sensitivities of the role which militate against informal discussion of identifiable cases.
A majority (around four-fifths) of safeguarders felt that they had been provided with appropriate training and support to perform the role effectively. Questionnaire responses also provided strong support for the view that the professional/underlying skills and qualifications which safeguarders bring with them into the role are helpful in carrying it out. These skills will vary with the safeguarder’s main (or previous) occupation. At interview, safeguarders felt that these skills were not always taken into account in the provision of training. Clearly, all safeguarders require baseline competencies in carrying out the role; however, when asked about additional training needs in the questionnaire, both safeguarders and non-safeguarders identified some areas – for example court work and social work practice – in which safeguarders with a relevant professional background will already have capability. There may be a benefit to effectiveness in recognising this and seeking to upskill where possible. Safeguarders may also benefit from further training in court practice and skills and, particularly for work around contact and residence, in aspects of child attachment. With regard to enhancing consistency of understanding of the safeguarder role (see chapter 3), some respondents also suggested joint training between safeguarders and other stakeholder groups such as panel members, social workers and sheriffs with safeguarders potentially having a role in content and delivery where training relates specifically to what they do.
7.6 Further research
Reporters and panel members in particular were unsure about whether children and families fully appreciated the input of safeguarders, although safeguarders themselves were more positive about this:
I think they feel they’ve been listened to… They’ve had their side of the story out, so yeah, I do think you’re valued by families (Safeguarder 6).
There’s a number of cases where I’ve had children directly thank me at the end of the process and that’s about the most effective feedback you can get (Safeguarder 7).
Further research would enable the views of children and family members on the role of the safeguarder to come to the fore. This was recognised by interviewees when considering ‘outcome’ effectiveness:
A safeguarder’s report and role at the Hearing… will be the mechanism by which… the Panel will be able to make a substantive decision which is in the best interests of the child. That’s the point we’re all trying to get to… But also I’d hope that children and families would feel that there’s been some value for them in having that person involved and I’d like to see… some way of measuring that specifically (Reporter 2).
Further research focusing on the views and experiences of children and families who have been involved with safeguarders within the children’s hearings system may therefore advance the work undertaken in this project.
The research identified various issues relating to the development of safeguarder effectiveness:
- The nature of decision-makers’ reasons for appointment may have an impact on the effectiveness of the safeguarder in a particular case. There is a statutory requirement to provide reasons (2011 Act, ss 30(4) and 31(6)) though sheriffs (in the sheriff sample) tended to provide only a single, terse reason (if that). The paired report analysis found that those safeguarder reports which addressed a stated remit were more focussed and targeted than those which did not. The interview data suggested that, on rare occasions, panel members may appoint to pass the substantive decision to another hearing or to defuse tension within a hearing. Overall, it would be conducive to effective work by the safeguarder if sheriffs were encouraged to provide reasons and panel members to ensure that there is a clear purpose (beyond dissipating tension in the particular hearing) in making an appointment.
- 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. In all 17 cases constituting the paired report sample, the safeguarder had met with the child. In 13 (76%) this was on one occasion, in 3 (18%) on 2 occasions and in 1 (6%) there were 3 such meetings. While the 35-day timescale, and the ‘snapshot’ nature of the role tend to militate against this, meeting more than once, where appropriate, seems to increase the likelihood of effective communication with the child and, therefore, more effective presentation of his/her interests and views.
- At interview, some stakeholders indicated that allowing the social worker to have sight of the safeguarder report in advance of the hearing would be beneficial in focussing the discussion at the hearing. The social worker will also have to implement a substantive decision taken by the children’s hearing which may follow a safeguarder recommendation. Best practice guidance for safeguarders indicates that recommendations should, where appropriate, be shared in advance of the hearing but it is not currently legally possible to share the actual report. In terms of effective planning, then, consideration should be given to whether it would be beneficial to the process for social workers to see recommendations in the context of the whole report in advance.
- The paired report analysis identified that analysis by safeguarders of the information accumulated is key to high quality safeguarder reports that are capable of supporting decision-making. Such analysis was lacking in 8 reports (47%) in the sample. This relationship between strong, well-evidenced consideration of the issues and effectiveness was echoed, in other respects, in some interviewees’ views on effectiveness. Panel members mentioned the importance of either a clear recommendation or a strong report and safeguarders also recognised the importance of properly substantiated recommendations.
- At interview, safeguarders were regarded by some stakeholders as being less effective in the court setting. The issue of effectiveness related specifically to the actual skills required by safeguarders to present to the court the outcome of their investigations. Some sheriffs and some solicitors indicated that the skills required are those of solicitors who commonly practise in courts and may include, for example, calling and questioning witnesses. Safeguarders who lack these skills might benefit from further written guidance on what is required and specific training in court practice and skills.
- To perform the role effectively, safeguarders need to be properly trained and, in responding to the questionnaire, a clear majority (n = 64, 79%) felt that they had been provided with appropriate training and support. Questionnaire responses also provided strong support for the view that the professional/underlying skills and qualifications which safeguarders bring with them into the role are helpful in carrying it out. A majority of safeguarders (n = 81, 99%), non-safeguarders (n = 171, 62%) and sheriffs (11/12) scored this at between 7 and 10 (on a 0 - 10 scale) ( Appendix 2, Table 610). These skills will vary with the safeguarder’s main (or previous) occupation. At interview, safeguarders felt that these skills were not always taken into account in the provision of training. Clearly, all safeguarders require baseline competencies in carrying out the role; however, when asked about additional training needs in the questionnaire, both safeguarders and non-safeguarders identified some areas – for example court work and social work practice – in which safeguarders with a relevant professional background will already have capability. This suggests that there is a benefit to effectiveness in recognising this and seeking to upskill where possible.
- At interview, safeguarders also indicated that while they supported the need for consistency and quality in their practice achieved by work by Children 1 st on monitoring of performance, they would also welcome more peer support opportunities. The role of the safeguarder can be complex, difficult and isolating, therefore safeguarders are likely to be more effective in it if they feel supported. It may be possible to identify opportunities for them to come together in a less formal setting than at training or perhaps to explore the feasibility of other forms of peer support such as buddying, mentoring or shadowing, all of which were mentioned in the questionnaire responses.
7.8 The added value of safeguarders
The research identified various ways in which safeguarders are perceived to add value within the decision-making process. Their separate perspective on the case, the format of their reports (where of high quality) and their ability to meet personally with the child away from the hearings room were valued and might be built upon in the future in promoting better decisions, and outcomes, for children. More specific points are identified below:
- While, there is some variability in the quality of safeguarders’ reports, interviewees generally welcomed these for being concise, readable and lacking in “baggage” from long previous involvement in the case. The paired report analysis indicated that safeguarder reports may be more up-to-date than those provided by social workers (6 records, 35%) and may propose alternative resources (5 records; 29%) to those already considered. At their best, these reports were found to summarise clearly the information on which they were based and to analyse all relevant data to make a reasoned recommendation in the child’s best interests.
- The questionnaire indicated that the majority of non-safeguarder respondents (n = 217, 79% and all 12 of the responding sheriffs regarded safeguarder reports and their recommendations as useful (though 22 (8%) non-safeguarders did find them relatively useless) ( Appendix 2 Tables 503 and 504). Similarly, a majority had more confidence in the decision taken following safeguarder involvement or felt that it was more robust (n = 159, 58%; 10/12 sheriffs) (but 81 (29%) non-safeguarders and 1/12 sheriffs did not think this) ( Appendix 2 Table 506). Analysis of the SCRA sample indicated that the substantive decision of the hearing followed the recommendation of the safeguarder in 38 records (76%) and partially followed it in a further 3 (6%) implying that hearings attach considerable weight to the reports, recommendations and contributions of safeguarders. At interview, the vast majority of non-safeguarder stakeholders (5/9 sheriffs; 9/10 panel members; 5/5 reporters; 2/5 social worker and 3/5 solicitors) said that they valued the input of the safeguarder in children’s hearings and court procedures. The remaining respondents suggested value depended on the quality of the safeguarder/report and their ability to work in a court setting.
- Safeguarders’ independence was recognised in the questionnaire responses as a key element of the role (safeguarders n = 27, 27%; non-safeguarders n= 133, 37%; and 4/12 sheriffs) ( Appendix 2 Table 305). It was also given as a reason for appointment (non-safeguarders n = 68, 19%; 1/16 sheriffs) ( Appendix 2 Table 402) and acting with independence and honesty constitutes one of the 7 practice standards for safeguarders. In terms of adding value, safeguarders’ independence means that they have no involvement in the child’s case beyond their appointment. They do not work for any professional body with long-term or contentious involvement in the child’s case. They provide an assessment which is entirely their own. This may be particularly valuable in cases of conflict between family members and other professionals.
- Safeguarders can be parties to court proceedings (Act of Sederunt (Child Care and Maintenance) Rules 1997, Rule 3.8(e)) and, uniquely (other than the child and any relevant person) they have the right to appeal (2011 Act, s 154(2)(c)). This gives them the opportunity to safeguard the child’s interests throughout the process to the final outcome of the court proceedings.
- In conducting their investigation, safeguarders see the child away from the formal, sometimes combative, settings of children’s hearings rooms and sheriff court buildings, giving safeguarders opportunities different from those presented in those formal settings to interact with the child, to explain the system and their role within it and to obtain views of both children and others to inform their investigation and recommendation. At interview, sheriffs mentioned that they valued this aspect of the role with some suggesting that, on occasion, it assisted in bringing an earlier resolution to the case.
For safeguarders to be as effective as possible, it is important that their role is fully understood, carried out to the highest standard and with the provision, primarily for children’s hearings, of good quality written reports offering reasoned recommendations based on the preceding investigation. The research indicates that the work of Children 1 st in relation to promoting consistency and quality is recognised as important. Safeguarders do not work in a vacuum.Understanding of the role on the part of other parties, particularly those who appoint them (sheriffs and panel members) is also important to avoid unhelpful duplication of work with others such as social workers and to ensure that the contribution sought from the safeguarder is achievable. Overall,while a wide variety of views was expressed over the course of this research, members of all stakeholder groups saw value in the input of the safeguarder.