New research examines the links between child
abuse deaths and violence against child protection workers. Chris
Goddard and Janet Stanley discuss their findings.
The failures of child protection services have
preoccupied health and welfare professions for 30 years. Media
interest is international. The dead children form a litany to which
the media return: in the UK, Kimberley Carlile, Tyra Henry, Susan
Auckland; in New Zealand, James Whakaruru; in the US, Danzel
Bailey; in Australia, Daniel Valerio.
Media attention has been merciless towards
social workers and others involved. The Victoria Climbie Inquiry
prompted an editorial in The Daily Telegraph entitled
“Anti-social workers”. The newspaper called for “the abolition of
social worker training” which has “only one effect”, turning
trainees into people who are “incapable of seeing the blindingly
Research undertaken during the past 14 years
at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, suggests that a new
perspective is required if we are to understand child protection
failures that result in death. The research links child abuse
deaths with another topic receiving extensive coverage in
Community Care – violence against social care staff.
Our research, published last month, suggests
that there are links between the trauma and isolation experienced
by child protection workers at the hands of child-abusing families
and the re-abuse of children known to protective
services.2 In addition, we propose that the full extent
and impact of all violence occurring in and around families –
including actual and threatened violence to social care staff –
needs to be understood. The findings are based on interviews with
child protection workers and rigorous analysis of their cases. Some
major points are summarised below.
The need for partnerships with parents who
assault, abuse or neglect their children, for example, is stressed.
Little is offered to the child protection worker where such
partnerships are impossible or unsafe because of violence. Much of
the child protection literature has failed to make important
connections or to resolve significant contradictions.
– Violence is too narrowly defined. Power is
regarded as residing almost exclusively with the social worker.
Where the existence of violence is acknowledged the gulf between
theory and practice is exacerbated by defining violence too
narrowly. The report of the National Task Force on Violence Against
Social Care Staff acknowledges that the threat and impact of
violence against social workers can be very severe because they may
be alone when it occurs. Verbal abuse and threatening behaviour are
recognised. Yet there is still a preoccupation with physical
violence in the definition used.3
We need to pay more attention to the
all-pervasive and cumulative atmosphere of violence that may
involve many people, and may have significant effects on practice.
Until such connections are made, training and improved procedures
will not safeguard seriously abused children.
– Too much focus on the wrong cases. Another
deficit in research has been the dearth of studies that examine
what happens to children who are referred to protective services.
Research has concentrated on what causes the abuse of children,
with little on what is effective practice once serious abuse has
The Monash University research concentrated on
a sample of children who were on a legal protection order because
of assault, abuse or neglect. Therefore the study examined the most
serious cases. We need more research into serious non-fatal
assault, abuse and neglect. As has been noted in the US, luck may
play a “major role” in deciding which children survive and which
– Violence against front-line staff is only
part of the violence present in serious cases. Domestic violence
was present in more than 60 per cent of the cases analysed. Severe
drug abuse, and suicide threats and attempts were present in nearly
80 per cent. Criminal and anti-social activities outside the family
Much of the literature on fatal child abuse
and many of the child abuse inquiries have failed to make these
connections. Our analysis of material available in the US, UK and
Australia suggests that these studies have not closely examined the
connections between the assault, abuse and/or neglect of children,
and the other violence inside and outside the family (including
violence against workers). Where other violence is acknowledged, it
is too often minimised.
– Workers can be traumatised in many ways.
Many deal regularly with the victims of serious abuse. As a result,
social care staff may be subject to secondary traumatisation, in
addition to violence to themselves. Lack of support can compound
the trauma and this is another component in child protection
failures that requires more rigorous examination. Little attention
has been paid to the issue of whether workers feel supported or
isolated in their work. The connections between trauma and
isolation have been noted in the literature on traumatic stress.
Research suggests that those already disconnected or disempowered
may be at greater risk.6
Our findings indicate that, in addition to an
extraordinary amount of actual and threatened violence, some
workers felt that they lacked the support of their employers. Many
felt unsupported by other agencies, and a significant percentage
struggled to integrate theory and practice. Supervisors
concentrated on bureaucratic and procedural elements, rather than
recognising that workers were subject to multiple and interrelated
We recognise that there are many possible
causes of child protection failure. We acknowledge that many
complex factors are interconnected, and may affect outcomes in a
variety of ways. Our research, however, suggests that the
intimidation and violence experienced by workers may have a
dramatic impact on practice.
In suggesting this we are not blaming
individual child protection workers. It would be extraordinary if
the violence partially summarised above did not affect child
protection practice. Some child protection workers are subject to
multiple and interrelated stress and receive little assistance.
This trauma and isolation may lead some
workers to develop defences in response to the need for
self-preservation and relief from overwhelming stress. These
defences, such as denial, rationalisation, intellectualisation,
even identification with the aggressor, serve appropriate
functions, but may obstruct the accurate evaluation of the safety
of the home.
Our research suggests that this happens in
some cases. Seriously abused children were not protected. A highly
significant statistical relationship was found between those
workers who had experienced the greatest violence and who felt the
most isolated, and those displaying the greatest use of
These workers also experienced strong feelings
of powerlessness and helplessness. We found practical and
measurable examples of this hostage-like behaviour. Workers
consistently under-recalled, for example, the extent of violence in
the families for whom they were responsible. Protection and support
for child protection workers is essential if children are to be
protected. Violence against and intimidation of social workers must
be treated as seriously as child abuse and neglect. Regular and
high quality supervision is essential. Workers need assistance to
face, and appropriately respond to, the totality of violence and
the traumatic nature of some child protection work. CC
Extent of violence
The full extent of violence is still not
recognised. Being yelled at, sworn at, or subjected to other verbal
aggression was an almost everyday occurrence. Of 50 randomly
selected front-line child protection workers, in the six-months
prior to interview:
– 23 had received at least one death
– 12 had been assaulted.
– 22 had been threatened with assault.
– Five had been threatened with sexual
– 42 had been threatened with complaints to
superiors, politicians or the press, and 28 had actually been the
subject of such complaints.
– In addition, there were many other forms of
intimidation, such as blocking exits and the use of dogs.
Source: In the Firing Line: Violence and
Power in Child Protection Work
Christopher Goddard is an associate
professor and Janet Stanley is a research assistant at the school
of primary health care, Monash University, Melbourne,
1 “Anti-social workers”,
The Daily Telegraph, 9 December 2001
2 J Stanley and C Goddard,
In the Firing Line: Violence and Power in Child Protection
Work, John Wiley, 2002
3 National Task Force on
Violence Against Social Care Staff, Report and National Action
Plan, 2001, is available at www.doh.gov.uk/violencetaskforce/natactplan.htm
4 E Farmer and M Owen,
Child Protection Practice: Private Risks and Public
Remedies, HMSO, 1995
5 US Advisory Board on
Child Abuse and Neglect, A Nation’s Shame, Department of
Health and Human Services, Washington DC, 1995
6 J Herman, Trauma and
Recovery, Basic Books, 1992