Protecting Children - Getting the Balance Right

The reform of children's services over the past ten years has been driven by people with limited understanding of the realities of the social work role. A major objective has been the creation of interesting new jobs for social workers who want to avoid heavy-end child protection work. The emphasis on prevention and early intervention has diverted attention away from the core social work role of protecting children at risk of significant harm and caused difficulties in achieving an appropriate balance between care and control. In a number of recent cases social workers have been criticised for not getting the balance right - either they leave vulnerable children at risk or they are too quick to intervene in family life. It is clearly a difficult balancing act.

Social workers already have considerable powers to intervene with families where a child is deemed to be at risk of abuse or neglect. They are the lead professionals with regard to investigations and legal proceedings and, in the last resort, can use their powers to remove the child. However, the need for confidentiality often prevents any real scrutiny of the way that social workers use their powers, including the effectiveness of their interventions, which means there is no real accountability in this crucial area of work.

The social work role in child protection is one that combines care and control. This involves providing services for children in need and their families whilst also safeguarding and promoting the welfare of vulnerable children. Front-line social workers strive to get the balance right but the job has become even more difficult over the past ten years because new procedures have turned them into case managers instead of human beings who really get to know their clients and understand their difficulties. Furthermore, the introduction of performance measures has shifted management attention to what is measurable and distorted the social work role. These unhelpful reforms have produced a culture of fear, anxiety and blame which is not conducive to good practice.

The social worker is the key to good child protection work. While all agencies have a duty to safeguard children and to co-operate with others, it is the social worker who carries responsibility for the oversight and review of child protection cases. Unfortunately, there is often disagreement about what this means in practice which is creating uncertainty among social workers, doctors and other professionals. Unless there is some degree of shared understanding between professionals on how best to protect children the system will not work well. In some parts of the country not even the basics of goodwill and co-operation between agencies are in place; and poor working relationships mean crucial information does not get through to the social worker.

The emotional tendency to split care and control is a very strong one and difficult to overcome, especially if social workers see themselves as caring agents with no responsibility for the controlling function. However, controls which are based on caring can have very beneficial results and may even provide the security which is necessary for maturation and growth. Social work is most effective when the caring is good and the control is exercised with a light touch but the social worker is willing to exercise greater controls, if necessary. This really is the key to good practice.

It is also important that the balance between care and control is negotiated clearly with families and supported by management. Too far into the control end of the spectrum means resentment, refusal and ultimately failure. Too much faith in care leads to failures of boundaries and uncontainable risks and dangers. These dilemmas must be discussed with the social worker in supervision in ways which promote clear thinking, balanced judgement and a refusal to allow cases to drift.

Unfortunately, recent government guidance is blurring the boundary between child welfare and child protection and adding to confusion about the social work role. There is too much faith in the effectiveness of co-ordinated professional intervention in transforming dysfunctional families, including parents who are dishonest, evasive, devious and manipulative. Fortunately, social workers in stable and supportive teams with plenty of practice experience are continuing to maintain an appropriate balance between welfare and protection. However, those in dysfunctional teams who have allowed themselves to be pushed off course by over-complex systems tend to lose sight of their core duty to protect children.

An over-emphasis on 'prevention' has resulted in too much vaguely-defined social work support to high-risk cases, sometimes with tragic consequences. Some social workers are at a loss to know how to carry out comprehensive risk assessments. Worse still, many social workers have shown a reluctance to act as investigators, a role they seem to find incompatible with family support work, and too many fateful moments to intervene have been missed.

In my experience it is important to have confidence in the legitimacy of the authority you are exercising on behalf of your department, otherwise your ambivalence will show through and weaknesses in your approach will be exposed. When I started out as a social worker I was more ambivalent about the social control aspects of my role and not always comfortable about what I was being asked to do. However, with experience I became more open and explicit about what I was required to do - which led to a more authentic working relationship with families.

The best way of learning how to become an effective child protection worker is through good practice experience but this is only possible in teams that are functioning well. Unfortunately, there are not enough opportunities for new entrants to observe good practice, develop their skills and find meaning and purpose in the work. This is the basic fault in the system and why a fundamental re-think is needed. The recognition that good social work practice always includes the appropriate use of authority would be a good starting point.

The first thing that needs to be done is to create stable working conditions where people can survive in a hostile climate without unfair criticism from blaming and bullying managers. Social work is a very complex and difficult job and a staff care policy is essential to support good practice. Then, a continuing programme of improvement should be put in place driven by workers rather than 'experts'. This could start with experienced workers being valued more highly and encouraged to act as mentors to less experienced workers.

During the 1990's there was an optimism about the progress being made. The Children Act 1989 was highly regarded and 'Messages from Research' pointed the way to a more balanced approach in child protection. Much of this optimism has been destroyed by ill-considered reforms which contributed to a loss of focus on child protection matters. It is now time for experienced social workers to take the lead in developing ideas about how to improve practice and restore confidence in the profession.

Hilary Searing

Further Reading

Child Protection Failures: the Solution

What is Significant Harm? - a simple guide for social workers

The Urgent Need for Reform of Child Protection

What Has Gone Wrong with Child Protection?

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