A matter of life and death: The importance of joined-up practice

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We’re often told how important it is, and common sense supports the concept of services working closely together, yet it can be difficult for professionals to lower their barriers and really speak to one another. But in some cases, not to do so is to put lives at risk...

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Whether you are a SENCo or designated person or perhaps both, working with other services can be a challenge. They take their holidays at different times, they have different protocols and finding the opportunity to contact them in a busy school week can be a nightmare.

When you do manage to get together, you can find that vastly different briefs get in the way. Both representatives know how tight their budget is and can find it difficult to negotiate who should be responsible for what. This continues to be an issue with SEN funding. The recent report ‘Research on funding for young people with special educational needs’, outlined in the recent issue of Every Child Update (and available to download for free), shows there are still tensions in relation to identifying who should pay for what. The £6,000 threshold for schools’ contribution might have helped clarify expectations, but differences in practice across LAs are still too great.

It’s not just in relation to funding that departments find it difficult to work together. The SEN final Pathfinder report notes that different agencies are still asking parents to produce the same information rather than sharing it. Although there are glimmers of light, there is still a long way to go, something that Tania Tirraoro reflects on in her recent article, 'What happened to SEN reform?'. The parents she works so closely with, being one herself of course, continue to find themselves fighting against a system that was supposed to embrace them and their views.

These failures in terms of sharing information to construct an EHC plan or provide special needs services are frustrating and waste time and effort. Ultimately, they can disadvantage the very children they are designed to help. However, when it comes to safeguarding, lack of communication doesn’t only lead to poor provision; it can be fatal too.

Recently, this was reinforced on a personal level in relation to domestic violence. I live in Spain and my son goes to a Spanish school. Their systems for sharing information between departments are not ideal, and some of the procedures we have in place in the UK do not appear to be as well developed there.

Take for example, Operation Encompass, which we describe in the article ‘Children as victims of domestic violence’. This is a method of alerting schools in parts of the UK when a domestic violence incident has taken place the night before. The police make it their business to inform school staff before 9.00am the following morning. This enables staff to keep an eye on any children who have been involved.

Unfortunately, this excellent practice is not present everywhere in the UK and is definitely missing from much of Europe. What comes across clearly in the summary of the UNARS project research report, ‘Children’s Experiences of Domestic Violence’, is that too often children are simply seen as witnesses rather than being victims themselves. Insufficient account is taken of their feelings and their response.

If our region in Spain had Operation Encompass, then the tragedy that occurred to my son’s nine-year-old friend in May this year might have been averted. Patrick, unknown to the school, had been living in a violent household. Domestic violence had always been part of his life. His mother had been involved in two previously violent relationships, and his step-father had already been imprisoned for domestic violence towards another partner.

Later, the school discovered that Patrick had suffered different forms of abuse himself. Mostly as a result, it seems, of his step-dad’s desire to control his mother. It was this that led to Patrick’s death after one night of violence when his mum left the house to seek help. The step-father took his anger out on the boy and stabbed him. He died shortly after in hospital.

The incident placed the whole community in shock. But, as with most cases of this nature, as people began to share their notes and look back, the signs were there. Patrick preferred to be in school and showed an unusual eagerness to stay as long as possible and arrive as soon as he could to extra-curricular classes. There was evidence of neglect in his belongings and perhaps, worst of all, he had told his friends that his step-father hit him.

Unfortunately, none of Patrick’s friends told anyone about this. He told them it was a secret and, as such, they were loyal to their friend and told no one. Of course, when the news broke, they were distraught that they had not alerted someone to what was going on. This reinforces just how important the discussion about keeping secrets is. Some secrets have to be told. It is a very difficult balance to maintain.

The UNARS project report cited earlier refers to the reluctance that children experiencing domestic violence have to confide in anyone, because they recognise that what they say might be disclosed. However, practitioners still have that duty.

We can see now that there were many ways that the tragedy of Patrick might have been prevented. In Spain, drawing awareness to domestic violence is a priority and demonstrations against it are frequent. There are moves to change the legislation here too and remove the category of ‘indirect victim’ that children are usually assigned to in favour of all being classed as a ‘direct victim’.

As in Patrick’s case, one way or another, children are drawn into the violence that takes place. The outcome for Patrick was at the extreme end of worst outcomes. However, each case of violence experienced is one too many, and as such it’s the responsibility of services, in every country, to draw their knowledge together and prevent these tragedies occurring in the first place.

Image: Maine Department of Education