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Child protection data: uncovering the stories behind the numbers

Monday 13 November 2017 Data Insight & Analytics

Marc Radley's picture
By Marc Radley

According to the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, millions of children in England are either vulnerable or at-risk.

It doesn’t make for comfortable reading: 670,000 children living in a high-risk family, 580,000 under state care, 27,000 living with adults being treated for drink or drugs, and 800,000 suffering some form of mental health difficulty. This doesn’t even take into account children in gangs, those acting as unpaid carers for family members, or victims of slavery.

These are big numbers. But perhaps more shocking is the realisation that behind each of these figures is a child trapped in a highly reactive system that generally fails to challenge low-level issues before they become high-level problems, despite the tireless efforts of social care professionals.

Faced with a problem of this scale, it can be easy to focus on statistics rather than the individuals they represent. But it is precisely these individuals and their stories which – with the right data analysis – can provide the insights authorities need to make smarter budget allocations, design innovative services and, ultimately, start to make a difference.


From reactive to proactive

As a former social worker, designer and systems thinker, it’s easy for me to understand why the numbers at risk and in care are so high. Without insight to manage demand and with resources stressed and stretched, there can seem to be little option but to focus on those in immediate, acute need.

Obviously professionals want to support families earlier, before small problems become more serious – but even if the learning time and permission for this were available, how would they identify the right relationships? How would they select  feasible approaches that might work for a specific local context?  And how would they support that work and the associated risks with insight and knowledge? The idea seems fanciful at best.

But looking to other services dealing with young people, there are examples where – sometimes – this is exactly what happens.

Around the country, the best Youth Offending Teams (YOTs) are finding ways to intervene early, taking a multi-agency partnership approach to divert children away from crime and re-offending. And they’re doing it using young people’s stories to build rich, meaningful and actionable information.


The data in the stories – and the stories in the data

Traditionally, a YOT would focus primarily on a young person’s offending behaviour: what they’ve done and, in the short term, why. But this transactional approach can often miss the root cause – the accumulation of things that have happened in a child’s life to lead them to where they are now.

There’s evidence that adverse experiences during childhood – such as the loss of a parent, physical and emotional abuse, and a parent or household member going to prison – all significantly impact a young person’s risk of offending and re-offending. Importantly, the effect is cumulative. So multiple experiences increase that risk to self and others exponentially over generations.

So when it comes to understanding and solving the problem, some YOTs are moving away from the conventional emphasis on “what have you done?” towards “what has happened to you?”

For example, Warwickshire Youth Justice employs “Enriched Case Management”: A process of integrating data, information and insight using CACI’s ChildView software that assists each worker in assembling the deepest possible picture of a young person’s experience, sources of trauma and resulting difficulties

By engaging in this way, potentially for the first time in an individual’s family life, the conversations are deeply informed and, over time, this creates real change and impact in other relationships and in the community.


The story behind the numbers

By itself, a database is simply a mass of data. In order for a YOT to take action, it needs to be organised in the following way:

1. To help the individual, build the whole story

Youth Justice workers are especially gifted at engaging with young people. If they can engage with and encourage them to tell their story – working with and beyond the confines of the AssetPlus assessment – ChildView can help to organise that information into a coherent whole which includes a unique timeline recording tool.

As the picture becomes clear, it becomes easier to understand how and where to focus help and support. You can identify patterns in events throughout the child's life and how this may have shaped behaviour. And you can use this to work together with stakeholders – for example, schools, housing associations and the young person’s family – to plot a solution.

In that one life, you can begin to make a difference.

2.To help the community, aggregate those stories and histories

But time and budgets are limited. To see improvements at scale, intervention needs to be across locations, issues, relationships and communities. And that’s where the power of information really begins to multiply and reach further.

By using ChildView to aggregate the representative categories from many individuals’ offending stories, YOTs can visualise patterns. Recurring system problems and root causes are discovered and become apparent – making it clearer to see interconnected behaviours and enlist multi-agency realignments, collaboration and support.

Creative, proactive responses begin to look more possible and realistic.

3. To build your knowledge, apply and learn

Practitioners interacting and interpreting the information gives YOTs one final, valuable resource: evidence.

Collating data over time enables teams to track the impact of their honed practice and professional judgements about proactive engagement. Where there’s an effect in regards to the onset of offending and re-offending rates, they can demonstrate the return in terms of investment in deep relational work – and the resulting cost savings across multiple agencies in their region.

By starting small and through testing, they can build an evidence base for what works – freeing up the all-important investment to move from reactive to proactive work. They can also build confidence that they can precisely and dynamically identify how things are working in each local area, refining the way they tackle issues on the fly and communicating intelligence across partnerships.

Quickly, the fanciful notion of proactive early intervention becomes sound, evidence-based practice.


Our children need joined-up, insight driven care - YOTs are a great blueprint.

People protecting vulnerable children is a courageous and risky job. And in most instances, reacting to the most acute need is the only way of providing that essential safety net. But now some YOTs show how early help and prevention is possible.

A multi-agency partnership environment powered by conversations about deep and representative views of individual’s experiences is needed. Smart data capture, information and visualisation are essential specialist tools to generate long term impacts and reliable cost savings.

It works, too.

In the ten years to March 2016, the number of young people in custody fell by more than two thirds. And re-offending is down by 84%.

Shockingly, nobody knows how many young people are currently at risk. But every one of them has a story to tell. And appreciating what those few stories tell us might just be the answer.

Let me know what your thoughts are on this blog by leaving a comment below.


Read Marc's follow up Blog - Transforming Youth Justice: Does data hold the answer? >>

Find out how the best Youth Offending Teams are finding ways to intervene early to stop young people turning to crime by using their stories to build rich, meaningful & actionable information.

Child protection data: uncovering the stories behind the numbers


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