In our second Ask The Expert forum we asked Neil Hunt, director
of child protection for the NSPCC, to respond to questions and
views from readers.
Here are the questions we received followed by Neil’s
I am a fourth year MSc social work student at Southampton
University and am currently writing my dissertation titled
“Children’s responses to Domestic Violence: are there gender
differences and what are the implications?” I was wondering if you
could tell me how child protection deals with the issue of children
witnessing domestic violence – what are the most common
practices/services in place? also is there recognition in such
practices of such gender differences? If so how are such
Neil: Caroline McGhee’s research has highlighted the
devastating impact domestic violence can have on children even if
they are not physically harmed. It is vital that an “in need”
assessment is undertaken on all children affected to ascertain
whether they are in need of protection. We know in at least 1/3 of
all cases of domestic violence, child protection is an issue.
“From good intentions to good practice – mapping services
where there is domestic violence” published by the Joseph Rowntree
Foundation is an excellent source of info and may help to set an
agenda for local domestic violence for area child protection
committees the issue of gender differences is ripe for research and
will be an important contribution to service planning.
Child protection is an issue that can affect every social work
discipline. More generic debate and liaison eg with mental health
teams, could allow a more holistic risk assessment to exist that
could pinpoint children at risk earlier which could only be of
benefit. Pooling of resources can provide a greater level of
Neil: This is a key issue for many families. There is a real
risk that if mental health services do not assess the needs of
dependents, children can end up not only carrying a large part of
the carer’s role, but can experience neglectful and sometimes
hostile treatment that is not picked up. Different thresholds of
confidentiality can leave professionals confused. This is often at
its most acute where substance abuse is an issue.
It is difficult for mental health services, which rightly have
responsibility for the identified patient, to challenge parenting
styles that might be harmful to children. There is obvious scope
for formalised arrangements between community care and mental
health services. We are aware of some good protocols in Northern
Ireland and it would be good to hear concrete examples of where
this routinely occurs. Community Care facilitate exchange
of good practice perhaps.
Area child protection committees must have a role in ensuring
basic community care training is available for staff in these
services particularly for senior members of the interdisciplinary
I have worked in social work education for 12 years and prior to
that I managed a team of social workers whose main role was child
My own son recently completed a two year DipSW in which he
specialised in mental health and had his placements there. And yet
he was immediately given an agency job with a full child protection
No other professional is expected to take on this level of
responsibility and decision making without adequate training.
Unless there is adequate investment in a three year basic training
followed by proper induction and post qualifying training – so that
those people who have responsibility for child protection are
prepared for the role – these problems will continue.
Neil: I am not sure what a full child protection caseload is but
I can guess, and this sounds bad. This cannot be right or fair on a
newly qualified worker let alone the children for whom she/he then
has responsibility. Sadly this is not uncommon and it cannot be
overstressed that a generic qualifications does not equip people
for complex child care situations.
Induction, protected caseloads, quality supervision and post
qualification training must be intrinsic to effective support to
newly qualification staff.
The call for three years basic training has still not been
There is now a real risk that as more agencies move into cover
for gaps in local statutory provision, this pressure on new staff
We can only hope that the new General Social Care Council will
address these issues.
I am a social worker who left front line child protection work
because of its stresses.
Now some years later social workers are still, I understand,
mostly not given even basic protection or opportunity to seek
advice from seniors that “modern” technology ( eg not even access
to a mobile phone unless the worker buys it themselves ) gives, and
I have since come to expect in my work with a voluntary
The stresses are such that most people who have left this part
of the profession place child protection work at the very bottom of
their list of work they would take on in the future. The result is
that newly qualified social workers often find themselves at this
front line in the most misunderstood part of their chosen
The staffing of child protection teams is in crisis. I am not
sure that financial reward would attract or solve anything. What is
needed is a complete overhaul of the way child care work is managed
in this country, and an attempt to change the culture of the work
and the way people see social workers.
Social work needs to adapt to a changing society which has a
tendency to be more aggressive and challenging in its relationship
with all professionals. What we have now can not possibly hope to
meet this challenge. And we need more than hope to prevent further
Neil: Many points here echo concerns above. It is tragic that so
many people who choose this very difficult career find themselves
quickly disillusioned by the lack of support, recognition and
It’s a well made point that society is more challenging of
professional activity, and this is good in many ways. But we have
yet to see government action to promote social work and what it can
achieve in the same way that teaching and nursing have been
Given the national investment in public child care, this seems
to make no business sense at all.
Should the role and functions of Area Child Protection
Committees be reviewed?
School of Social Work
University of Leicester
Neil: Of course there has just been a review viz Working
Together 3. However area child protection committees still have no
real authority to make things happen or ensure all agencies comply
with local procedure. And we have no clear mechanism for raising
the priority of child protection work in any agency that is
pursuing other agendas.
There are too many examples of excellent area child protection
committee collaboration for this model to be abandoned, but it may
well be worth exploring the role of a senior executive area child
protection officer who has real interagency authority.
What role do you envisage CAFCASS (the Child and Family Court
Advisory and Support Service) performing in the future child
Neil: Too early to say but if it delivers, we will see more
consistency of info available to courts, more attention given to
children’s points of view and therefore better decisions in
the courts. Another benefit will be the liaison locally with area
child protection committees.
What is the most effective ways to improve on partnership in
cases of acute child protection concerns?
I understand there are existing procedures to ensure partnership
and we don’t always adhere to them as well as we should. However,
given the increasing pressure on service providers and, for several
reasons, an increasing reliance on social services departments to
carry out child protection plans I wonder how we might be creative
in improving on our working partnership with children, families and
Independent Reviewing Officer
London Borough of Lambeth
Directorate of Social Services
Neil: Family group conferences indicate important ways in which
families and professionals can share responsibility if these can
happen early enough.
The notion of core groups provides a model for closer working in
acute cases. Training, staff time and agreed priorities will all
affect outcomes. These will be determined by the extent to which
the area child protection committee is able to create genuine
collaboration at all levels.
How can the government be encouraged to take on board child
poverty as a top priority? If it were to do so, instead of only
aiming to halve it in 20 years, we would have far less need for
child protection as the key emphasis of work with children and
Professor Lena Dominelli, President, the International
Association of Schools of Social Work
Academician, the Academy of the Social Sciences
Director, Centre for International Social and Community
Department of Social Work Studies
The University of Southampton
Neil: Of course poverty creates huge stress for many families
and this chancellor appears more determined than others in living
memory but how are we going to vote?
I have experience of working with cases of child
abuse/protection in both local authorities and the NSPCC.
Messages from Research told us many things about the operation
of child protection processes including a key fact that “None of
the researchers concluded that heavy end cases were being missed or
ignored by the system, although this can happen”.
The points made by Colin Pritchard in his article in Community
Care 15-22 February are very valid and there is no room for
complacency or reducing the focus on child protection (alongside
the need for good family support services). It is very concerning
and disheartening that media attention is appearing to drive
potential policy change.
Child protection duties and responsibilities are subject to
procedures and processes, recently re-affirmed/expanded through new
Working Together guidance, are operating through area child
protection committees. ACPCs provide a good model of
inter-agency working together in many areas.
No policies or procedures will eradicate all child abuse.
However in order for policies and procedures to be effective they
need to be adhered to and complied with. Organisational systems,
across the multi-agency arena, need to be robust and should be the
focus when there are apparent failures to comply with clear
policies/procedures and best practice requirements.
Neil: This is all true. There still remains an agenda that takes
child protection beyond professional activity, and makes it a
national preoccupation. A fundamental shift in attitudes to
children will arguably make the greatest difference.
1. The procedures are a fine structure to guide practice, but
these do not necessarily guarantee good professional practice. The
professionalism, calibre and judgement of people operating the
procedures are still key. 2. Resources are usually too scarce to
enable the best practice to take place. 3. The “hounding” and
blaming culture of the media does not contribute to sound
risk-taking practice. 4. The balance does not feel as if it has
shifted towards family support as a result of the messages from
Bracknell Forest Council
Neil: Much of this is absolutely right, but we must not move to
an acceptance that there is a tolerable level of child
In fact there is some evidence that other countries have
succeeded in reducing violence to children to very low levels
indeed. There must be lessons here.
What are Mr Hunt’s views on the high numbers of children
registered across the country in the category of neglect?
Does Mr Hunt have any suggestions about how practitioners could
offer support to neglectful families, to prevent children’s names
remaining on child protection registers for long periods of time
and avoid “drift” in cases where chronic neglect is an issue?
Neil: The new assessment framework ought to provide a useful
tool for making the difficult judgement about the level of
intervention that will be of greatest benefit to neglected
children. It will help to pinpoint what changes families are being
asked to make and help assess the resources that need to be made
Clearer timescales for change are sometimes needed to resolve
how serious the risk and to make clear decisions about alternative
action. Child protection conferences must be biased towards change