Neglect lays bare the worst aspects of being a social worker

As a Community Care/NSPCC survey reveals alarming levels of concern that child neglect cases are not being handled properly, Alan Fisher, a children's social worker for 28 years, examines why neglect has become such a low priority

Neglect can involve 'debilitating uncertainty' (Pic posed by model; Image Source/Rex Features)

I once worked in a neighbourhood social work team in south east London. At a community meeting one evening, the debate on disruptive neighbours became increasingly heated, centring on one family known to every resident and professional in the area.

The children were not properly looked after. Dirty and thin. Foul-mouthed or not speaking enough, depending on your point of view. One man, incensed, had had enough. He solemnly rose to his feet and snorted with derision: “The RSPCA have taken the dog away but social services have left the bloody kids!”

That’s the thing about neglect. Everyone knows what it is, but for social workers there are other questions – a delicate balance of physical and emotional signs, a lack of absolutes, of thresholds, of the rights of children as well as parents. Perhaps we need a different word for this process. After all, neglect is the only child protection category that does not contain the word ‘abuse’.

‘Alarming degree of concern’

My robust defence satisfied few but at least social services were visible, sharing the nature of our work and open about our powers, including their limits. In the long run, that counts for a lot. What I didn’t add was that social workers feel increasingly powerless when it comes to dealing with this prevalent and most pernicious form of harm.

Neglect constitutes a major element of the workload of children and families’ professionals yet a survey by Community Care and the NSPCC, published today, reveals an alarming degree of concern amongt social workers that these cases will not be handled properly. When asked if timely action will be taken in response to neglect, fewer than one in ten respondents were ‘very confident’ and nearly 60% of respondents rated it ‘unlikely’. For emotional abuse, the figure is even higher, a staggering 72%.

This most complex of issues creates considerable stress and anxiety amongst social workers. All our problems and stressors come together – gathering evidence, communication with other professionals and working with recalcitrant birth families. Key decisions are out of our hands, taken by managers, solicitors and resource allocation panels. Evidence in court will be strongly contested, that is if the matter even reaches the courtroom because of the perceived difficulties of proving the case.

Recent case highlights problems

As if this were not enough, workers are left feeling vulnerable because the system in which they perform their duties fails them and fails the child. A recent report into a Haringey family where children were neglected and emotionally abused over several years is a compelling critique of the problems within child protection. The authors’ systems approach imposes order amidst the chaos. In reality, participants were caught in a maelstrom of confusion within which the needs of the children disappeared. 

Professionals not only displayed a “chronic inability to work together”, the lack of a shared understanding of the causes and impact of neglect meant signs were ignored or minimised and information was never evaluated using mutually agreed benchmarks. To put it crudely, no one was sure what they were looking for or what it meant. No meaningful assessments of the family were undertaken over a period of time. The children were not seen regularly and because of endless personnel changes there was no consistency in those observations that were made.  

‘Neglect is a low priority’

Also, the damage caused by neglect is cumulative over time whereas our child protection system prioritises immediate risk.  As the case passed through many hands, the level of risk at any given point was never enough to trigger the thresholds. Yet an overview would have revealed a very different conclusion.

These very thresholds, the core of child protection decision-taking, are a moveable feast with change driven by resources rather than evidence-based practice or professional guidelines. Neglect is low priority.

This would matter less were it not for the fact that preventive services have borne the brunt of the cuts. This family were removed from child protection planning and categorised as ‘children in need’. In reality, this meant they received no service at all.

Will the new Working Together address the problem?

Nothing in the proposals for the revised Working Together leads me to believe this problem will be addressed. Neglect requires clear definition alongside national guidelines for investigation, assessment and invention. The links between child protection and preventive work must be restored, starting with the artificial distinction between child protection and children in need teams, which do not correspond with the reality of families’ day-to-day life. Children move in and out of these categories and changes of worker cause further disruptions to continuity.

Neglect lays bare the worst aspects of being a social worker, the debilitating uncertainty about whether or not you are doing the right thing for a child. That family in the meeting, it was my case. I did everything I could to keep them together but did my dedication serve only to obscure the extent of the problems? When they moved to another area, the oldest child was immediately removed. Maybe I was wrong, maybe not. 

What I am sure of is that we need to shift the balance in favour of traditional social work skills. Seeing children regularly and forming relationships over time provides essential evidence and consistency to protect neglected children, whether they are at home or in care.

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