By Heather McDaid, Safeguarding Consultant

Things I wish I knew before I took on my first DSL (Designated Safeguarding Lead) role

People have always asked me how I got into safeguarding, and the honest answer is, I very ungracefully fell into it.  I have always enjoyed working with young people; it has been the backbone of my career. As anyone who works with children knows, you need to do safeguarding training. So, from early on I knew what safeguarding was. When I began working for small grassroots organisations, I became aware that the role of a DSL was often combined with other roles. What feels like overnight I became the DSL.  I had completed safeguarding courses on and offline, I knew the highlights, but I’m not ashamed to say it was a long and steep learning curve when I took on the mantel of my first DSL role.

So, what do I wish someone had told me?  Below is a little bit of a memo to past me...

Be organised
As a front-line practitioner, my desk, brain and practice could be described as organised chaos. In safeguarding that doesn’t cut it. Have a folder in your inbox, desk top drawer or server. Have a spreadsheet to keep track of; training, when new guidance comes out, once you have read it. Highlight things which are important to you and record that. Random pieces of paper are not your friend. If you get them; scan, record, save and file. Your calendar needs to reflect dates, times and locations, especially if you are tracking or going on home visits. You need to role model good behaviour. If you pull someone else up on poor follow ups, inadequate write ups, etc. you can’t operate a 'do as I say, not as I do' culture. Be the standard you expect of others.

Learn the lingo, and learn it quick!
I remember talking to a social worker early on in my career and she was talking to me about a “sin” child and I remember being horrified that a child was being called that. I realised it was short for Child in Need (CIN); it took me a little while to understand that this was a Section 17 (Children Act 1989). If you ask a professional what is happening in the life of a child or children you are worried about, you could easily get this response.

The conversation with the same social worker went like this: “Well it was ‘MASH-ed’ and went to conference, the outcome was the eldest being kept on a CP and a date for a PLO confirmed. So now we have the youngest two children as LAC kids but the eldest is still at home on CP, and the second eldest is living with special guardians on a CIN. We will be holding an ETAC for the middle child as we are concerned from a contextual safeguarding point of view. Do you want to attend the core group?”

If the above sentence sends you into a nose dive and makes steam come from your ears, my advice is to be honest and ask; and if you can’t ask, google it. Look on your partnership website and keep a list beside your computer or phone with all the new jargon you learn as a quick guide. You will be using the jargon yourself in no time.

Knowing the paperwork comes hand in hand with knowing the jargon
Paperwork can feel overwhelming and ever changing. I would always advise you take your own minutes of meetings, even if they might be less detailed than the notes taken by the minute taker. You might be waiting a few weeks for a copy. You can always add these to your case note system as well. Know your meetings and what is required of you when you are expected to attend.  For example, my first case conference (a meeting independently chaired when a child reaches a Section 47 level), I arrived and was very embarrassingly dressed down by the chair for not having submitted a report prior to the meeting and then not even bringing a copy of said report to the actual meeting. I didn’t know, and wasn’t told I needed to do this.  I only made this mistake once; always ask!

Common sense – not that common
This isn’t meant to be damning or accusatory. However, assuming staff, parents, even young people know what is right or how to do something can be disastrous. Write to be understood not to be admired. Big words and complex prose are best left to the English departments and authors. Flow charts are your best friend; state the obvious, be clear.

Look after yourself and your staff
This isn’t an easy job and we often take on a lot of other people’s hardship. Being kind to yourself and to others doesn’t come easy. You need to work at it. Saying help is available isn’t enough, advising others to practice self-care isn’t enough. Being an active participant in your staff’s wellbeing is paramount, as well as your own.  Wellbeing is important, but being important should not make this a difficult thing to achieve.  It can be achieved by simply asking what a colleague will be doing the evening after a tough day, what they are having for dinner, and checking the next morning they did it, and how it was... Additional things to consider are the tone of your voice, holding sacred your 1:1 (supervision); don’t change the time, prioritise it. If you know a staff member worked late acknowledge it, and if possible help them get that time back. Saying thank you, emails to tell a team member they did really well. Feedback shouldn’t just be negative but constructive. If you have an Employee Assistance Programme, yes have the poster up, but also mystery shop them. If you are saying they are there 24/7 call and see what happens. Firstly so you know the process so you can support a staff member reach them. (Do you talk to an operator? What information do you need to have ready? Do you have to wait for a call back? Etc.) and secondly so you can feel confident that the support you are providing is what you want and expect.

The best bit of advice I was given
In my first DSL level training I was trained by someone who was ex-police, he headed up the CAIT (Child Abuse Investigation Team) in the Metropolitan police. He told us...

“Being popular can’t be your goal in safeguarding, because at times you shall be very unpopular. Being right has to be enough”.

This couldn’t be more true. I’ve had to make so many unpopular decisions for children, families, even staff. I however had to stick to my gut feeling and know it was the right thing to do. I had to have reasons recorded and be sure it was in line with guidance, legislation and my own policies.  I’d love to tell you that once the dust settles people come back and thank you for sticking to your guns and making the hard decision, but the reality is this rarely happens. Safeguarding is by definition often a thankless job, while equally being an incredibly important job.  

Value your voice – fight for your opinion
I have worked predominantly in third sector roles and time and time again I’ve been told my views, opinion, even at times my information isn’t valuable. I’ve been silenced or talked over. As scary as it might be, hold your ground. Know that what you have to say is imperative. We can’t keep reading serious case reviews with the lesson “didn’t work together” anymore. So, if you are a DSL in early years, education, third sector, statutory – anywhere… If you have information which your training and experience has told you is important – share it (even that small niggling doubt).

Know your locality
Do you work in a locality which has a ‘MASH’ team, or a ‘Front Door’ service? Perhaps you are just called social care or you might be using careline! Know who they are, their opening hours (often closing early on a Friday). Know their number, out of hours number, how you refer (online form, PDF, phone call). Know your threshold guidance. You wouldn’t fill in a job application form without the job spec. It is the same for a referral form. Have your ‘threshold of need’ with you. Granted, after your 11th referral you might know the threshold off by heart, but it's still good practice to have this threshold on your wall or desk to serve as a reminder. Localities differ, which if you work nationally or across localities can be a painful reality. If this is your reality, the best advice I can give is get to grips with what you are dealing with however you can. Be that through excel spreadsheets, maps, posters, etc.

Don’t ever forget you are no better or worse than anyone
Being a DSL can be incredibly rewarding, however, it can also be exhausting, frustrating and even heart wrenching. It can be easy to slip into bad habits. Making non child centred decisions, letting judgements seep in. You might find yourself rolling your eyes so violently about a staff member making a mistake on what you deemed as an “obvious” decision. We are all human, and deserve to be treated with kindness and dignity.  Things go wrong, people make errors, humans do things which sit in contrast to our own moral values. We are not judge and jury. We cannot control other people’s decisions but we can control our own. It is not your job as DSL to have an emotive reaction. If you feel you are becoming fatigued, talk to someone. Remember, you can’t pour from an empty cup.

Final bit of advice
Lastly, being a DSL can feel like a never-ending job. There will never be enough hours in your day, week, year. So, do what you can, to the best of your ability, in the time that you have. When you are not in work, don’t be working or thinking about work. You need time to create a healthy distance between work and home. Have a sense of humour. It can be a dark and at times a lonely job. When you can, enjoy a laugh, because I can promise you there will be times that crying is a distinct possibility. If you are ready and willing to constantly learn, reassess, be compassionate to yourself and others, you have the building blocks you need.

Good luck and take care,  



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