Abuse and neglect are not the norm

The main problems faced by social workers today are caused by society’s suspicion of the adult-child relationship.

Dave Clements

Topics UK

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When the UK secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, announced that he would be asking Eileen Munro to conduct an independent review of child protection, there was cause for optimism. For Munro is not only a professor at the London School of Economics, she has also been one of the rare critics of the hysteria around child abuse. Maybe this was the person who would challenge those campaigners and policymakers who, in seeing child abuse everywhere, have undermined the fundamental relationship between adults and children.

And, thankfully, there is much to cheer in her initial report. For instance, she wants to redress the imbalance between social work and ‘technical solutions’ where rules, procedures and databases seem to take precedence over the very face-to-face business of good social work. Munro is also critical of the overemphasis on searching for cases of child abuse. Or as she puts it, this is a ‘skewed system that is paying so much attention to identifying cases of abuse and neglect that it is draining time and resources away from families’. And she is keen to see social workers spend more time intervening in the few cases where children are genuinely at risk of harm, rather than being preoccupied by endless investigations into often inappropriate referrals.

The scale of the problem caused by the sheer number of referrals is striking. OFSTED reported an increase in referrals to children’s social services of 11 per cent in 2009/10. That there was only a five per cent increase in child protection plans – and of these the ‘overwhelming majority’ were not even at risk of significant harm, according to Munro – only underlines the point that much of the activity that is overwhelming the social care system is driven by heightened anxieties rather than sound judgments. A parliamentary committee put the increase in cases at 34 per cent following the notorious case of Baby P in 2008. Heavy caseloads and a shortage of social workers cause delays for children caught up in the system, and in the clogged-up family court system, too. In the past year the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) has reported a ‘30 per cent rise in applications for care proceedings’. The National Audit Office (NAO) says that by mid-2010 for every case closed, another five were opened.

‘Protecting children from abuse and neglect has been high on the political agenda for many decades’, Munro says. While there has been a steady rise in referrals, particularly following notorious cases in the 1970s and 1980s, there has been a steeper rise more recently. Munro describes a ‘culture of fear and blame… [that is] undermining… quality of practice and public confidence in the child protection system’. And she criticises the target culture within the social services that has distracted social workers from actually doing social work. Whatever you think of social workers, it is hard to dispute that their time is better spent working with families than sat behind a computer screen.

Munro is good on where social workers get it wrong and why. She explains that where thresholds for child protection interventions are too high, so are the false negatives, which means that abuse is not always spotted. Alternately, where the thresholds are too low – typically in response to a high-profile investigation into the death of a child – there are invariably lots of false positives, that is parents wrongly accused of abusing their children. The point is that this sharp-end of social work is incredibly difficult. There are bound to be mistakes because it is all about ‘working with uncertainty’. But while all of this is undoubtedly true, the ‘damned if they do and damned if they don’t’ stance doesn’t necessarily get us anywhere. It tends to forget that social workers have considerable powers invested in them, which may result (rightly or wrongly) in their removing children from families. It is therefore right that these interventions – or the lack thereof – are subject to the greatest scrutiny.

Moreover, the focus on social work is too narrow to deal with the problem of child protection and the way society as a whole is obsessed with it. Social work doesn’t take place in a vacuum, and child protection has long since burst the banks of children’s social work teams to become a concern of society at large. This is why improving child protection isn’t just about reclaiming social work from the technocrats. Much more important a task is to challenge the preconceptions that make child protection such a defining issue of our age in the first place.

Unfortunately Munro stops short of criticising the mainstreaming of child protection. Instead, the review suggests ‘developing the expertise of universal services to support vulnerable families’ as a solution to the problem of an already overstretched system. The problem, as the review poses it, is simply that the media and public opinion are to blame for overhyping the issue. Yet while there is indeed ‘an all-pervading sense in society that social workers and the system in which they operate can prevent child abuse’, this is hardly a solely media-created phenomenon. In fact, the notion that children are at unprecedented risk, that adults should be on their guard against each others’ malevolent intents, and that the government should ‘do something’ about it, was at the heart of New Labour’s Every Child Matters reforms introduced in 2003 following the death of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié.

The Every Child Matters policy framework has been adopted wholesale by the Lib-Con coalition from their New Labour predecessors. The central problem is that ECM reorients thinking on everything from schools to youth work around the notion that children need protecting like never before from innumerable risks to their wellbeing. The suggestion of some kind of moral equivalence between cases of brutal abuse like those of Victoria Climbié and, more recently, Baby P, and the normal experience of most children and families, is breathtakingly cynical. Not only is such a formulation lacking in any perspective, it also shows the contempt in which parents and adults in general are held by the authorities. It also has very little, if anything, to do with how we might go about dealing with, never mind preventing, such rare occurences.

The answer to the child protection problem is not just better social work (though we’ll need that, too). It must also address the wider pessimism about the alleged prevalence of abuse and parental neglect in society at large. The notion of targeted child protection has given way to an all-encompassing notion of safeguarding all children. This not only generates wrongful accusations of parental child abuse, it also ends up endorsing some peculiar responses when things do go wrong.

The serious case review into the abuse of children at Little Ted’s Nursery, for instance, told us little about how to deal with the likes of the revolting Vanessa George. It did, however, tell us what’s wrong with the response to rare cases such as these. The Local Children’s Safeguarding Board concluded that regulations, training and staff supervision were poor. They questioned whether it was right that anybody should have access on their own to a room in which to change children’s nappies, or whether workers should be allowed to use mobile phones (presumably because, like George, they might use them to share child porn images). That the extreme case of a woman committing unthinkable acts on babies and toddlers has been normalised, as if to suggest that we are all capable of similar acts, is testament to the degraded view of adults held by the authories. It is this kind of mindset, not any failings on the part of the regulators or those running the nursery, that made Little Ted’s into an ‘ideal environment’ for abuse. After all, it had children in it.

One can only hope for a different response to a similar case at the start of the New Year. A former worker at the Little Stars Nursery in Birmingham has been charged with the serious sexual assault of a child in 2009 and 2010. The nursery’s temporary closure in the wake of the suspect’s arrest, and the setting up of a helpline for worried parents, doesn’t bode well.

Child protection is not confined to the world of social work. In a way, of course, it should be: the problem of abuse and neglect is a marginal one that needs targeted intervention by well-trained professionals allowed to use their judgement to respond in the appropriate way. But the bigger problem involves our political culture, a culture in which adults are routinely suspected of being potentially harmful to children. So instead of dealing with rare but often tragic child deaths in their own terms, the authorities tend to treat them as if they are the norm, not the exception. This does nothing for children genuinely at risk of abuse. Instead it diverts resources that could be better spent on supporting families struggling to bring up their children and ends up undermining everybody’s trust in each other when it comes to bringing up and caring for children.

Despite the exceptional horrors encountered by those working in child protection, most of the anxieties about children’s wellbeing are largely misplaced and the risks to their welfare invariably overstated. Ironically, and rather depressingly, it is society’s pessimistic outlook that threatens the very adult-child relationship that does protect children from the potential for harm. Social workers need to make the case for social work, but the rest of us need to make the case for the wider society of adults as the best place for safeguarding children.

Dave Clements works in social care, writes on social policy issues, and is co-editor of The Future of Community: Reports of a Death Greatly Exagerrated. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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Topics UK


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