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Child abuse was formally recognised between the1940s-60s, it was acknowledged as being a social problem and viewed within a medical framework. ‘Casework’ by social workers developed as a means of ‘treating’ affected families (Parton, 1985 p.48; Scourfield, 2000).What we identify today as child protection social work evolved through the professionalism of the role in the 1970s and supporting legislation and local procedures established to safeguard children (Corby, 1993). Since its inception, child protection has been subject to controversy and continually placed under intense public and media scrutiny adding pressure to teams (Ferguson, 2004). As such systems appear to be in a continual crisis of confidence; when things go wrong teams are criticised for negligence, whilst conversely, social workers are criticised for being too intrusive or failing to manage demand (Mansell, 2011). Given this perpetual balancing act there is a never-ending wave of reform which to date has failed to address the public lack of confidence or media focus on shortcomings.
Child protection aims to keep children safe from ‘harm’ and, while this term is heavily debated (Dolgoff et al, 2012); the Working Together guidance (2010) identifies ‘harm’ as developmental impairment or ill-treatment which should be compared to potential impact on a ‘similar child’ (Children’s Act 1989 S.31). Of abuse reported, neglect accounts for 43.5% of cases in the UK, making the most common form of maltreatment (Swift, 1995; Ferguson and O’Reilly, 2001; Munro, 2011).
While there is no an expectation for families to avert all harm to children, parents do, as Kant writes, have an obligation to do what is necessary to aid development (1996). This is in essence the ‘parental thesis’ (Bluestein, 1982: 104-114) which suggests, rather than ‘rights’, parents have a ‘duty’ to protect their children. Fox-Harding’s (1997) seminal work on child care perspectives identifies four different positions on the relationship between state and the family; ‘laissez-faire and patriarchy’ aligns with this thinking; suggesting that the family is largely self-governing and state intervention ought only occur in cases of serious maltreatment, and in these cases the child should be removed (Goldstein et al.,1979). Below thresholds of serious maltreatment, intervention from the state is considered interfering and undermining (Fox-Harding, 1997). Whilst fair in terms of observing rights, Kirton (2009) argues that this view is somewhat idealistic and perhaps naïve, as whilst no system can guarantee freedom from abuse, it has been shown that some of the most severely abused children were known to agencies charged with child protection responsibilities (Johnson and Petrie, 2004). Indeed, in the cases of Victoria Climbié and Peter Connelly the harm suffered was considered entirely preventable (NSPCC, 2001; Laming, 2003; Munro, 2011).
Child protection systems in the UK have largely been punctuated and shaped by deaths of children open to services making these incidents catalysts for reform (Beckett, 2007). The death of Maria Colwell (1973) for example, saw the thresholds for intervention lowered with the aim of ensuring that more children at risk were not missed. The result of this was an inevitable increase in the volume of children and families involved with services. Social workers were accused of being over-involved in service user’s lives, likened to Nazis and McCartyhite persecutors, and accused of involvement in ‘hysterical witch hunts’ (Meyers, 1994; Munro, 1999 p. 119). Enquiries into Kimberley Carlisle (1987), Tyra Henry (1987) and Jasmine Beckford (1985) identified failings of agencies to work together, poor assessment of risk, a need for child-centred practice and failure to intervene, particularly when parents avoided contact (Broadhurst et al, 2009). The Children’s Act followed, re-framing child abuse processes as child protection (Corby, 1993), whilst concurrently introducing the notion of ‘likelihood’ of harm and in doing so contributing to making ours’ an age of inquiry (Stanley and Manthorpe, 2004).
Though some distance from Plato’s collective rearing ideal (1993); Fox-Harding’s ‘State paternalism and child protection’ supports higher levels of intervention, postulating the state has a duty to scrutinise and promote the care of children as well as have the capacity to intervene and ‘provide something better for the child’ (Fox-Harding, 1997 p 41; Dingwall, 1983). Coming from a position of mistrust, this perspective largely ignores difficulties for parents and the potential for families to feel oppressed, as well as overlooking bonds which the child may have and the potential of developmental damage arising from removal (Fox-Harding, 1997; Kitson, 2009). Such processes can cause ‘suspect’ families unnecessary distress through investigation which can affect relationships and generate ethical and legal dilemmas (Munro, 1999b, p 120). Preoccupations with information gathering have also been accused of being beaurocratic, alienating of the natural family, failing to see the child and ultimately getting in the way of ‘real’ social work (Lonne et al, 2008; Munro, 2004, 2011).
Conversely, Dingwall discusses a ‘rule of optimism’ suggesting that in order to keep tensions between state and family to a minimal (and promote responsibility); intervention should reflect the least intrusive measures (1983). While this is the widely adopted stance since the 1980s, it was disregarded by a case in Cleveland when 121 children were removed from their families in an act of ‘over-enthusiasm and zeal’ (1988: 244). The Cleveland ‘scandal’, as it became known, was criticised for breaching the family’s right to a private life (Human Rights Act, Article 8) as, while there were concerns pertaining to some children, it was concluded that there was no substantial evidence to support their actions. This exemplifies the tension between over and under-protection and the need for social work to establish appropriate balance, between family autonomy and state intervention (Parton et al, 1997).
In an attempt to avoid ‘missing’ children or being needlessly intrusive, predictive models emerged during the 1980s (DoH, 1991; Corby, 1993). Professor Cyril Greenland assisted in the development of a checklist for practitioners to identify high-risk situations (Parton, 1991), which along with the recognition of likelihood of harm under the Children’s Act 1989, substantiated the need for authorities to consider risk. Terms such as ‘risk’ and ‘harm’ are now synonymous with social work which now holds a mandate not just to support families, but to assess dangerousness and risk (DH, 1988). Identification and assessment of risk (as well as implementing management plans) involves balancing respect for individuals’ rights alongside public safety requiring collaboration, transparency, sensitivity, openness and a non-judgemental attitude with clients, particularly where there is use of statutory powers (Beckett, 2010; GSCC, 2010).
As such, assessment is a crucial element of social work and fundamental to child protection. The Framework for Assessment of Children in need and their families (DOH, 2000b) targets children at risk with focus on encouraging practitioners to adopt holistic approaches and consider family and environment, as well as the child’s development (Hamilton and Browne, 2002). The framework lends itself to the exchange model of questioning where service users are viewed as the ‘experts’ in their lives (Milner and O’Bryne, 2002). While this is thought to empower and support engagement from the family; Calder (2003) argues that the strict timescales requiring core assessments to be completed in 35 days are too short to build meaningful relationships. Such timescales, which coincided with the introduction of local authority performance cultures (Ferguson, 2005) can result in practitioners having to adopt a questioning model which is not as conducive to engagement and potentially damaging for relationships. Calder also discussed how differing cultures and attitudes must also be considered and how these may require additional time, sensitivity and cultural awareness. Indeed, the enquiry into the death of Tyra Moore found social workers who failed to detect her abuse were inherently trusting and made assumptions about her extended family because they too were black (Batty, 2003).
The recent trial of Lucy Adeniji and inquests into Victoria Climbié and Kyrya Ishaq established similar findings and, despite significant training, there are still concerns that many social workers are not fully equipped to work with families from ethnic minorities and, in particular, are wary of tackling cultural and religious practices and beliefs they do not fully understand (Munro, 2011). While the Children Act 1989 encourages consideration of the family and child’s needs arising from their race, culture and religion, social workers must still prioritise safety and risk in child protection cases. Additionally, the use of interpreters, multi-agency working, information sharing can support defensible decision and professional judgement.
Despite inclusion in both 1989 and 2004 Children’s Acts, failure to ‘see the child’ has been a common feature in serious case reviews (Munro, 2011); as such social workers must acknowledge the needs of the child and also, where possible, meet with children in the absence of their parents (NSPCC, 2011). Fox-Harding’s ‘Children’s rights and child liberation’ perspective asks us to acknowledge the child’s voice; an ethos which is embedded much recent literature including Working Together 2010, Children’s Plan 2007, Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998 and ratified under the United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). The child’s best interests should therefore remain the focus of child protection systems (Munro, 2011), and research from the NSPCC suggests children’s views are central to assessment and should be considered in all decisions which affect them (2011). Whilst progressive, the view has also been criticised for sometimes tokenistic inclusion and assumptions made regarding a child’s ability to be autonomous. As such, assessment should adopt a healthy professional cynicism not to over-estimate parental capacity (Forrester et al, 2008); to do so is collusive and, as witnessed in the case of Peter Connelly potentially fatal.
Child protection processes are stressful for families and can generate resent internally and towards services. Social workers must walk a ‘delicate tightrope’ (Dingwall et al, 1983: p19) between liberation and authoritarian positions operating within society’s values, but in accordance within their legal obligations. Families involved in child protection cases frequently have a myriad of issues including single parental responsibility, poverty, substance misuse, mental ill-health and domestic violence (Ferguson, 2004). The three latter mentioned areas are referred to as the ‘toxic trio’, which have been identified as significant risk factors in families where abuse has occurred. Brandon’s 2009 study found domestic violence present in two thirds of the sample families, parental mental ill health present in 57% and parental substance misuse in 55% of cases respectively. Three quarters of the serious case reviews analysed reported that the child lived in a home with one or more of these factors, while a third lived with families where all three were present (Brandon et al, 2009).
Even with risk management tools, predicting abuse is not straightforward and therefore it is crucial that practitioners have confidence, as well as skills and knowledge in the application of theoretical frameworks. Knowledge of attachment and ecological theory (Bronfrenbrenner, 1979) for example support practitioners’ awareness of how factors manifest and help recognise developmental delays which can indicate abuse (Trevithick, 2012). Brandon (2009) writes that thinking systematically and methodically helps avoid the sort of over-reaction which can be caused by the media frenzy surrounding high profile deaths and is best achieved by quality, holistic assessment and inter-agency working.
Thresholds to maltreatment vary significantly across the UK indicating complexity and professional anxiety (Broadhurst et al, 2010). Cases such as Victoria Climbié and Peter Connelly influenced an understandable spike in referrals and Ayre (2001) discusses a climate of fear, blame and mistrust within child protection. The enquiry into Victoria Climbié’s death established 12 possible occasions where she may been rescued (Ferguson, 2004), seeing blame placed on ‘non-existent’ multi-agency working, and as with Peter Connelly, local authority social workers and leaders named in the media (Guardian, 2002). Such outcomes can contribute towards a culture of over-referring which puts additional pressures on already overworked child protection teams (Beckett, 2011).
Recommendations from the Laming report (2003) called for increased emphasis on multidisciplinary teams, (as well as promotion of universal services) reflecting the mantra joined-up solutions to joined-up problems (Buchanan, 2007). Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards were subsequently set up to ensure safeguarding of children by all agencies, awareness promotion, training and a focus on vulnerable groups (DfES 2006). Working Together replaced previous guidance for professionals, providing detailed protection procedures and promoting multi-agency coordination such as strategy discussions, child protection conferences and core groups as part of investigations. Effective child protection is a multi-agency responsibility and working alongside teams and professionals promotes shared responsibility, accountability and most importantly knowledge and skills.
By definition, child protection systems must be able to keep at risk children safe from harm. However increasing reports of vulnerability around ‘looked after children’ suggest failings; Rochdale local authority for example recently acknowledged that they were unable to guarantee the safety of looked after children (BBC, 2012), yet rates of children entering care continue to rise. At the end of 31 March 2011, a total of 65,520 children were looked after by local authorities in England with up to 90,000 passing through in any year. This marks an increase of 9% since 2007 (HCOMS, 2012); the highest in history. Furthermore, while the majority of looked after children (74%) are in foster care placements, children who have been taken into care are more at risk of poorer outcomes and more likely to suffer mental disorders, achieve less well academically, become involved in the criminal justice system, use substances and suffer health inequality (Meltzer et al, 2003; HCOMS, 2012). This raises the argument of whether the protection that the state provides is actually effective, as the outcomes for ‘protected’ children tend to be, on the whole worse.
Human growth arguments state that the child should, as far as possible remain with the family as children are inherently vulnerable and dependent at early states, thus needing dedicated care, protection and nurturing (Bowlby, 1969; Archard, 2003). This is reflected in the Fox-Harding perspective of ‘Modern defence of the birth family’ which is, like laissez-faire, concerned primarily with the rights of the family (1997). Article 33 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU provides expressly that families should have legal, economic and social protection and therefore ‘should’ be inherently private. However, social work exists within a balance of risk and need, thus while familial privacy is, as Archard writes, an ideal; it should not detract from the protection of children who are at risk (2003).
While numbers of cases increase; CAFCASS report that neglect is being detected more promptly and local authorities were not only making more care applications, but also completing them sooner (2012). However, government cut-backs, fewer staff and resources, increasing referrals and external scrutiny continue to place demands on child protection teams and further impinge on the fragility of morale and social worker’s ability to recognise and understand dynamics of abuse (Brandon et al, 2008; Gilbert et al, 2008). Thus, while the death of a child may be more important than the death of a profession, the future safety of many children is linked to the effectiveness of social work as the primary statutory agency for child protection (Ferguson, 2004). Therefore while it may be criticised for overly bureaucratic systems, child protection’s tight procedural frameworks protects staff as well as children as such practitioners must find a way to exist within these systems, requiring understanding colleagues, managers and family to ensure workers continue to be effective and unaffected by disillusionment.
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