Child protection ‘should be split into investigation and support’

Hilary Searing, a retired social worker in Carmarthenshire, reflects on some of the changes to child protection that need to be considered by the Munro review

Increased pressures in children’s services are coming from more referrals, court work and high social work vacancy rates. These will be exacerbated by tighter budgets and make it inevitable that social workers will only be able to focus on children at serious risk and in greatest need. Support services will have to be focused on reducing the risk of abuse and neglect and preventing the need for care.

Social work may struggle to accept these harsh realities but it must recognise that it has spread itself too thinly and is doing too much unfocused preventive work.

Responsibility for low-risk cases should be shifted on to the voluntary sector and community-based groups. A clearer focus on child protection and children in care might help to make training more relevant to the social work task.

A recurring theme of the past 30 years has been the struggle to balance care and control. In the 1980s, controls were emphasised and a key part of the statutory social worker’s role was to investigate child abuse allegations.

Balance shift

Since then the balance has shifted towards a caring approach with more emphasis on assessing the vulnerability of children. This has been accompanied with excessively complicated procedures and paperwork which, in some situations, is leading to dangerous social work.

The sharp increase in the number of care applications since the Baby P case is a good sign that authorities are taking a more balanced approach but is also raising concern that practice is now moving too far back towards control.

At the core of child protection work is the capacity to recognise significant harm to children and to make decisions that may provoke strong emotions among clients and the professional involved. The work requires fine judgements and the balancing of risks. But policies that blur the boundary between child protection and other social work now cause widespread confusion about the social work role.

There is also gulf between the rhetoric of family support services and the reality – which means that social workers spend too much time refusing people help.

Joint working

Another problem that must be confronted has arisen out of joint working with other agencies. Good practice is based on the recognition that social work is the lead agency in child protection. However, when councils use the argument that child protection is the responsibility of all agencies it sends a signal that social workers do not need to be proactive.

While the Children Act 2004 offered the promise of an all-embracing new safeguarding team, it should not be forgotten that section 47 of the 1989 Act is still in force – the social worker’s duty to identify children at risk of abuse and neglect and to take action.

Some social workers seem paralysed by the apparent contradiction. Anecdotal evidence suggests that social workers are now more uncertain about what they are required to do and less confident about their ability to make difficult decisions.


Top priority must be given to improving the system for dealing with child protection referrals. The root of the problem is the integration of the child protection investigation into the Common Assessment Framework (CAF).

The timescales required sometimes result in inadequately considered decision-making. Difficulties arise because social workers sometimes find it impossible to perform the dual roles of investigation and assessment.

It is therefore right to provide a centralised team dealing only with referrals and those cases where the child may be at risk of suffering significant harm and an investigation may be required.

Splitting off formal investigation from the other types of social work would have two advantages. The separation of the investigative role would provide a new opportunity to clarify roles, develop staff expertise and provide training which is more focused on staff need.

Second, a separate referral point for child protection concerns would be better understood by other agencies and the public.

Detective mindset

Although much social work combines protection with support, an investigation requires a mindset on the part of the social worker similar to that for detective work. The style of working is very different from support work. It requires more detachment, more probing and considerable skills in terms of tact, perception and judgement.

Not all social workers are suited to child protection investigations. This is why it makes sense to have a specialist team that is comfortable with this type of work and is appropriately selected, trained and supported.

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