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‘What we need in child protection is for workers to take a ‘lighter touch’ approach, more supportive and less intrusive.’ Discuss and evaluate this proposition.
Where it has been estimated that a child may be at risk then a social worker has a duty of care under the 1989 Children’s Act. Furthermore, he or she is also bound by a requirement to act within a framework that is informed by the Human Rights Act of 1998. This means that the social worker, and any other agencies who may be involved, while having a duty to protect that child, should, nevertheless, also bear in mind the rights of the family. History tends to suggest that these rights are often ignored. How can workers be expected to take a less intrusive approach to child protection issues when the history of Government policy making actually places the onus on them to take more of an interventionist approach? Arguably, the question is almost impossible to answer when social workers are hidebound by the increasingly intrusive policy making that has been the legacy of successive political parties.
This paper will look at what is needed in child protection, is for workers to approach cases with a lighter touch. It will begin by looking at the changing concept of childhood and then at successive Governments’ policies since the beginning of the Welfare State. The paper will also look at some research studies which argue that there is a need for intervention and support and how the concept of needs has been substituted for a concept of risk, particularly since the introduction of market principles into social care. Finally the study will argue that while workers should apply a lighter, less intrusive approach to child protection issues, social workers are prevented from doing so as a result of changing market forces and Government policy making.
Changing Views of Childhood
In pre-industrial societies there was little distinction between youth and adulthood and children were not subjected to codes of behaviour that were different to those of adults. With the rise of the factories and the shift from rural to urban life this began to change and by the 18th century parents were deemed to have responsibility for their offspring and to see that they had a safe and disciplined upbringing. The idea of childhood was a novel one, particularly among the poor where everyone was expected to be economically active, how childhood was understood, therefore depended largely upon class. While ideas were changing children were generally regarded as their parents’ legal property and child cruelty did not become an offence until 1889.
Increasingly childhood and adolescence have become problematic concepts and young people are perceived as different and more difficult, than their forbears, thus the perceived need for a different approach to policy making. Young people are often in situations where they are deemed to be ‘at risk.’ Giddens (1998) has argued that the modern world is characterised by manufactured risks, .practices, and policies that are meant to reduce risk or minimise harm but often have unintended consequences. As Giddens maintains with regard to warnings about risk:
We just cannot know beforehand when we are actually ‘scaremongering’ and when we are not (Giddens, 1998:30).
Need and Risk
More recently Kemshall (2002) has raised the question of whether government and social services’ focus have changed from a concept of need to a concept of risk. Recent, further extensions to the concept of childhood have meant that children are viewed as a vulnerable group in need of care and protection. Corby (1993) maintains that historical evidence suggests that while notions of what proper parenting might be said to be, has varied over time there has always been a concern over child abuse. However, Corby argues that despite this concern, childcare and child protection policies over the hundred years leading up to the 1989 Children’s Act were largely ambivalent. Hemshall (2002) argues that rather than late twentieth century policy making remaining ambivalent, an interventionist approach to child protection began to appear from the time of the inception of the welfare state.
The interventionist approach, it might be argued, was also a class based system whereby certain types of families (most often the very poor) were identified as problem families. This resulted in new categories pertaining to child abuse and what was meant by the term ‘at risk’. With the emergence of these discourses state powers with regard to family life were increased. This resulted in the Children and Young Person’s Act of 1952. This Act gave greater powers to children’s departments to identify families who were deemed to be ‘in need’ and to oversee their protection.
Problem families were associated with ‘cycles of deprivation’, and child abuse was medicalised as the ‘battered baby syndrome’ (Kempe et al, 1962 and Okell and Butcher, 1969, in Kemshall, 2002:71).
Over the next fifteen to twenty years both the concept of abuse and the areas where children were considered to be at risk, were extended to include such things as a failure to thrive. The case of Maria Colwell in the late 1960s was given extensive media coverage. This was a new aspect to the debates about children at risk and had the effect of raising public awareness and concern over what was seen as a failure to protect on the part of social service agencies. Subsequently the profession was increasingly held to account for its failure to identify risk and to intervene. Cochrane (1993) maintains that the continuing number of enquiries that took place between the early 1970s and the 1980s resulted in social work being practised in what he describes as a beleagured context for the profession (Cochrane, 1993:82).
Scaremongering about perceived risk raises public disquiet and leads to unforeseen outcomes. Nowhere was this more evident than the mistakes made in Cleveland in the late 1980s when widespread child abuse was believed to have taken place and numbers of children were removed from family homes on flimsy evidence. Serious mistakes were made in an attempt to prevent harm. The accusations were later proved unfounded, but some parents had to go to the European Courts in order to get their children returned. Kemshall et al (1997) are of the opinion that while this was the case, rather than recommending a lighter touch, Government policies tended towards even greater intervention. This altered the whole concept of what social services had originally been about, that of helping people in need.
The Market Economy, Needs and Risks
In the market based economy that Britain had become under Thatcher, needs were to be met by the community in an effort at cutting welfare costs. These developments meant that by 1989 the context had changed from families in need to children at risk.
…the notion of the ‘child in need’ and the ‘child at risk’ is constructed through the dominant discourse of modernity’s welfarist normalisation of families. This locates children in a bounded space within which certain behaviours, activities and attitudes are seen as normal or deviant (Kemshall, 2002:73 citing Moss et al, 2000).
As Kemshall (2002) maintains we have become defensive about risk and see it in terms of harm to be avoided this negative view of risk can lead, as Douglas, (1992) contends to a culture of blame.
The (system we are in now is almost ready to treat every death as chargeable to someone’s account, every accident as cuased by someone’s criminal negligence, every sickness a threatened prosecution. Whose fault? Is the first question (Douglas, 1992:15-16).
Agencies, both statutory and non-statutory, have a duty with respect to safeguarding children. This was highlighted in research evidence and further documented in the Department of Health 1999 Report Working together to safeguard children. While it might be argued that this view can lead to mistakes such as those made in Cleveland, and there are still many cases where perfectly innocent parents have had their children removed from the family home, social workers try to do their best in very difficult circumstances. This means that there are times when they are over zealous and intervene in cases where a child was never at risk, and at other times they miss the warning signs and make mistakes. The public tends to remember the mistakes rather than applauding the good work that is done. This is because when mistakes are made they can lead to horrifying consequences as the case of Victoria Climbie demonstrates.
Since that time guidance on when and how to act has tended to be clearer and more precise. Most of this has been in response to the recommendations of Lord Laming after his work on the Victoria Climbie enquiry (Laming, 2003). A whole series of measures have since been put in place aimed at those families and situations where a child could legitimately be deemed to be at risk.. The Joint Chief Inspector’s Report, Safeguarding children (2002) defines safeguarding children and their families in the following way:
- All agencies working with children, young people and their families take all reasonable measures to ensure that the risks of harm to children’s welfare are minimized, and
- where there are concerns about children and young people’s welfare, all agencies take all appropriate action to address those concerns, working to agreed local policies and procedures in full partnership with other local agencies.
Class still appears to be a problem when it comes to identifying children who are at risk and the authorities are more likely to suspect abuse when dealing with children from poorer homes than they are with those from middle-class homes. This raises the question of whether Becker’s (1967) labeling theory was correct in the assumption that when you treat people in a certain way they tend to act out those assumptions. It is unfortunately the case that there have been a number of research studies which tend to suggest that factors such as poverty and unemployment do sometimes lead to child safety issues.
One study of parents who had children on the At Risk Register, found that children in homes where there was unemployment and financial problems ran a greater risk of being abused than children who did not live in that situation. The research argues that the findings suggest a clear link between social and economic deprivation and the risk of child neglect and/or abuse (Sidebotham et al, 2002). Some studies also suggest that in homes where the parents have alcohol or other substance abuse issues, children are more likely to be at risk. Harwin and Forester (2002) found that in cases where the parents misused drugs or alcohol, the children often came to the attention of Social Services as a result of concern for their safety and well being. In a study of more than 290 cases across four London Boroughs, a third of those children who needed long term intervention lived with one or more parents who had some form of substance abuse issues. Research such as this raises concern in a number of areas, particularly in homes where there are children under the age of six. This did not mean that these children were necessarily victims of their parent’s cruelty, rather it was the case that the family needed some support to help with these problems.
The terms of Section 17 of the 1989 Children’s Act mean that families in crisis should be offered some service provision in order to ease problematic situations. The idea being that such support will result in better prospects for their children’s emotional, physical and social development. Gardner (2002) in a study undertaken for the NSPCC found that support services could be of significant help under these circumstances and that 58% of children who were considered to be at risk, and who had access to support services, showed significant improvement in their development after these measures were put in place.
In 2001 the Government commissioned the Children in Need Census which attempted to establish why children accessed children in need services, what type of provision they accessed and the costs associated with that provision. Moore (2002) maintains that guidelines, policies and procedures relating to child safety issues are constantly under review. Since the 1990 NHS Care and Community Act there has been an increasing stress on inter-agency co-operation and working together in all areas, not just child protection issues. However there is an increasing need for greater co-operation between agencies when it comes to suspicions that a child may be at risk. With regard to cases of outright physical or sexual abuse health workers and social workers are not always clear on who has the responsibility in this area. While the 1970 Act placed that responsibility solely in the hands of social services departments, the stress on inter-agency working has muddied the waters somewhat in this area.
Under the terms of the 1990 Act there is a stipulation that health and social workers should work and plan together to assess and meet service users needs. However, past history tends to reveal clear lines of professional delineation and a failure to agree on what is best and who should be responsible such an arrangement means that working together can often result in conflict. This makes agencies wary of taking a decision with regard to the responsibility of care (Parrott, 2002).
Clearly, where the NHS and social services fail to co-operate in assessing need and delivering care then service users suffer and are failed by the system. The more recent Health and Social Care Bill of 2001 gives Government powers to ensure that health agencies and local authorities, whose services are failing to pool their resources comply with this legislation. However, there is nothing in place to delineate how this might be done and without a clear working agreement on who is responsible for what services will continue to fail. This means that those members of society who are least able to help themselves will lose out, and will not have their needs met. Each area now has an Area Child Protection Committee which is comprised of health representatives, social workers, teachers, probation services and the police. Each of these committees is required to produce a set of guidelines for all of those people who work with children, either in schools, in hospitals or in residential accommodation. The guidelines do make suggestions as to courses of action when any kind of child abuse is suspected, but there is still no clear cut ruling as to how this might be carried out. Yet another of the Committee’s duties is to oversee the child protection register. This is a list of children whose circumstances may have raised concern among professionals and it is held by every social services department in the country. To protect their welfare such children have specific inter-agency plans set up for their protection. One aspect of this is that every child on the register must have a key worker and a child protection care plan. These are generally social workers who will work with the family and help to draw up and monitor the care plan. These child protection systems are continually monitored and reviewed (Moore, 2002). One problem with the child protection register is that once a child is on it they may remain on it for a very long time, long after the problems may have abated. It is also the case that in many departments children who come to the notice of social services for any reason may have their names put on the register – even if it is simply that the family have asked for help during a time of crisis, such as when the mother has to go into hospital. These children are not assigned a worker but there names are on a register that has negative associations for both the wider community and those working in social services departments.
This assignment has looked at the question of whether social workers should take a lighter approach when dealing with child protection issues. It has done this within the wider context of Government policy making and has found that successive Governments have taken an increasingly interventionist approach when dealing with child protection issues since the beginnings of the Welfare State. While it has to be said that there did need to be some guidelines and provisions in place for children in need or who were deemed to be at risk, it would also seem that policy making has made it almost impossible for social workers to apply a lighter touch in these matters. Social workers are there to help assess and satisfy needs that may arise in families and in the wider community, yet increasingly there has been a shift in emphasis from need to risk. It is arguably the case that this shift is due in part to the marketisation of social care because meeting needs implies a cost to local authorities and the whole idea is to shift that cost from off the shoulders of the government and onto the community. Child protection is a sensitive area and children have a right to be protected. However, interventionist policy making blur the lines for social workers so that it is almost impossible to decide when a light and non-invasive approach should be used, and when other measures are called for.
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