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Prevention is better than cure

I’ve been spending quite a lot of time on trains travelling to meetings and speaking at conferences on behalf of ADCS recently. This has given me some valuable time to do some reading (as well as the obligatory emails!), but it also leaves time for reflection.

During the Northampton to Taunton leg of my journey I read some highlights from the debate on serious violence in the House of Commons earlier this week. The discussion was rich and wide ranging. Cuts to policing in both monetary and workforce terms featured regularly but so too did the impact of youth services being scaled right back; school exclusions; the closure of children’s centres; the use of unsustainable grant funding to tackle complex issues; the loss of family support services and disinvestment in youth offending teams. As a director of children’s services and a local systems leader, these matters are never far from my mind but they don’t often seem to feature on Westminster’s agenda despite the Home Secretary describing the levels of violence on our streets as “a national emergency.”

The government’s plan to place a new duty on organisations, including local authorities, schools and the police, to work together to protect children, young people (and adults) from serious violence was frequently raised in the debate. Thankfully the proposed duty is not aimed at individual social workers, teachers, nurses and police officers, who are already working hard every day in increasingly difficult circumstances. Instead, it has been pitched as a public health approach but it is difficult to see what impact this will have. We all already have “due regard” to children and young people’s safety and wellbeing, this collective endeavour sits at the heart of our safeguarding system.

The only way to make headway with the complex and interrelated issues of knife crime, trafficking, modern slavery and criminal and sexual exploitation is for all parts of the public sector, including government, to genuinely work together in a coordinated way with voluntary and community groups under the auspices of a holistic public health strategy. A huge amount of activity has been initiated in response to increased political and media focus on serious violence with national summits being held, research commissioned, new units and programmes developed, campaigns rolled out and different pots of funding launched by the myriad government departments who lead on different aspects of adolescent policy. However, it’s not easy to see how all of these things fit together and what the goal is that we’re all working towards.

As a system, we need to focus relentlessly on vulnerability, be able to identify vulnerable children early and respond effectively, however, this relies on there being enough funding to resource it. We know there are various risk factors that can increase the likelihood of children and young people being drawn into criminality or exploited including being out of school, poor employment opportunities, a lack of positive activities in the local area as well as inequality, deprivation, trauma and poor mental health. Research shows there is a link between higher levels of inequality and higher levels of violence. Yes, we need to understand and address individual risk factors but without turning our attention to the societal determinants, such as rising levels of child poverty, it’s unlikely that meaningful progress will be made.

We need to stop reacting to violence in our communities and focus on preventing it. There are no quick fixes but if we all work together, united behind a shared goal, pooling our collective resources and experiences, I believe we can make a difference to communities and to children’s lives.

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