Gary Pettengell 27 September 2017

Failing to provide the full picture

A recent report by the Children’s Commissioner includes an Assessment of the outcomes technical paper that explores the impact of being in a vulnerable group as a child. But despite the best efforts of the research team, the findings are unclear and disjointed.

It attempts to discover how different types of vulnerability in childhood affect an individual’s quality of life across four key areas: educational, economic, social and behavioural. Each of these contains a set of example outcomes, such as literacy, numeracy, average income, likelihood of being incarcerated, anti-social behaviour and victimisation.

For example, are children living in poverty more likely to engage in antisocial behaviour? What are the long-term job prospects for young carers? Will school exclusion increase the likelihood of a young person committing a crime? Data of this nature is important for anyone working in child protection as it sheds light on the longer-term effects of childhood vulnerability. Social workers need all the support they can get to inform the extremely difficult decisions they need to make every single day.

However, as it stands, most of this data isn’t available due to inconsistent recording methods and a lack of cohesion. As a result, the research team needed to trawl through Google Scholar in the hope of piecing together a fragmented picture. For something so vital, surely there’s a better way?

Incomplete and disorganised

For ‘children who are involved in gangs’, the paper references two studies. The first study was a paper analysing a longitudinal dataset and the only other study included in this review is in the form of a governmental report.

But these fail to provide the full story: ‘No evidence was found in relation to educational or economic outcomes. All outcomes reported were short-term and tended to be concurrent with gang involvement.

This seems to be the trend for many of the vulnerable groups and the Children’s Commissioner’s report itself acknowledges these shortcomings.: ‘There is very little evidence on the long-term outcomes in adulthood of children in many vulnerable groups as many of these groups are absent or poorly measured in national studies.’

Assessing multi-agency interventions

Aside from the gaps in data availability, there’s also an issue relating to children with multiple vulnerabilities. The report creates 32 different types of vulnerability, including missing children, care leavers and children in poverty.

It notes that double counting is inevitable: ‘The groups are not mutually exclusive. This poses a challenge in the estimation of total numbers of vulnerable children, as this cannot be obtained just by adding up the individual figures. A child-level dataset including indicators for all 32 groups would be necessary in order to avoid double counting and accurately gauge the total number of vulnerable children under this definition.’

But what about those who are care leavers and also living in poverty? Or excluded children that are also gang members? Many children face a complex array of vulnerabilities and can’t be pigeonholed into box x, y or z. With this in mind, any study that makes recommendations based on a one-dimensional approach is seriously flawed. Although, I should reiterate that the researchers could only work with the information available and the Commissioner’s report is an important step forward.

Predictive outcomes by linking data

At the moment, information about each child is spread across a number of different agencies. Recently, there have been some efforts to join up health and social care data, but this tends to be the exception to the rule.

To move forward, practitioners at every relevant agency need to manage information around a single shared record. So the police could add details about anti-social behaviour, while a social care worker updates the same record with details of a vulnerability.

The system could then report on the outcomes of every vulnerable child and present a fuller picture of the real multiple-dimensional issues facing families. Of course, not every type of vulnerability is easy to measure, but it’s certainly a good start.

Beyond this, with the help of machine learning, algorithms could predict future outcomes based on historical data.

A review by Kirman and Melrose in 2014 explained that front-line staff are desperately lacking in this area: ‘There is an almost total lack of robust evidence available or given to social workers on what works in particular contexts. This weakness in analytics compromises both current diagnostic practice and the development of better approaches.’

Privacy concerns

Previous attempts to create national systems around single records have failed and in 2010, the Contact Point database was shelved by the government following continual condemnation. It aimed to improve child protection by allowing agencies to share information, but critics were worried about privacy.

To allay these concerns, the solution is to create regional systems that are limited to children who are already known by a government department. Each system could then release anonymous data for centralised reporting. As a result, every region would have access to intelligent predictive analysis to support human decision-making.

The Children’s Commissioner’s report revealed some shocking figures on childhood vulnerability. With social workers under ever increasing pressure, isn’t it about time that technology starting improving the situation rather than getting in the way?

Gary Pettengell is the CEO of Empowering Communities

This feature first appeared in Local Government News - sign up to your free copy here.

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