Social work can learn from police

The question I asked myself when I first heard about Victoria
Climbi‚ was how could social workers in duty teams be so
seriously lacking in the necessary skills to detect child abuse?
Lord Laming’s report is very weak in analysing what went wrong in
situations where immediate protective action was required.

The fact that a serious case such as this did not get as far as
a conference and registration makes me think that there may be some
social workers who do not have the judgement and relationship
skills that are crucial in working with manipulative clients.
Furthermore, some managers are incapable of identifying these
social workers and ensuring they develop the necessary skills.

Social workers who carry out child abuse investigations have a
“policing” role and need different skills from social workers who
provide family support. The investigative role requires a more
decisive and probing style of working than that normally adopted by
social workers. If this work was recognised as “policing” work the
task might be much simpler.

Training courses do not prepare social work students adequately
for the child protection role. For example, they lack confidence in
determining whether there is enough evidence to justify further

In most social work teams an informal system of support and
information-sharing operates. Often the more experienced workers
act as mentors to the less experienced, giving support and advice
on matters in which they have expertise. But in recent years, the
departure of many experienced social workers has left teams without
their mentors.

To prevent a similar tragedy arising again every local authority
should have a specialised team for investigations. This should
ensure that suspicious incidents, injuries and allegations of abuse
are thoroughly and promptly investigated. Some cases where
continuing child maltreatment is suspected would still be dealt
with by the district team if it already knew the family and it was
felt the assessment should be carried out over a longer period.

The key to good practice is social workers who are more
confident, less defensive and more explicit about what they do.
Child abuse is a complex area of work and evokes strong feelings in
professionals – unless those feelings are considered they can
adversely affect judgement. This was a problem for all the
professionals in contact with Victoria, not only social

Hilary Searing is a retired social worker.


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