How do you define a child’s ‘welfare’ as opposed to ‘wellbeing’?

Dr Julie Doughty, law lecturer at Cardiff University, explains the issues raised by Welsh legal changes for social workers

baby laughing
Photo: Rex/Shutterstock. Model Released

For the past 25 years, social work with children and families across England and Wales has been grounded in the concept of children’s welfare. Amidst a growing awareness of human rights, and especially children’s rights, welfare and best interests remain a constant factor.

So how is welfare defined?

The Children Act 1989

The provision of services for families is authorised by Part III of the Children Act 1989, which places a duty on local authorities to ‘safeguard and promote the welfare of children in their area who are in need’.

Increasing resource constraints may prompt frustration among social workers that they cannot do what they feel is necessary to promote a child’s welfare.

But, generally, when matters come before a court under the 1989 Act, the welfare of that child is the court’s paramount consideration, and social workers who report to court must have that in the forefront of their minds.

Welfare checklist

Although welfare is not defined, the court has regard to a checklist under section 1(3) to assist its decision making, as follows:

  • the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned (considered in the light of age and understanding);
  • the child’s physical, emotional and educational needs;
  • the likely effect on the child of any change in his or her circumstances;
  • the child’s age, sex, background and any characteristics of his which the court considers relevant;
  • any harm which he has suffered or is at risk of suffering;
  • how capable each of the child’s parents, and any other person in relation to whom the court considers the question to be relevant, is of meeting his needs.
  • the range of powers available to the court under this Act in the proceedings in question.

In summary, the principle of welfare runs through the Act, whether it be aspirational in Part III or paramount for the court.

The Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014

This common understanding looks set to change in April 2016, when the whole of Part III of the Children Act 1989 is to be repealed in Wales by the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014. While ‘welfare’ will remain the principle in court disputes, local authorities, when assessing and meeting the needs of children, are directed to do so according to the child’s ‘wellbeing’.

The new Act in Wales provides, in the main, for adult social care services, and most of us probably think of wellbeing as an adult concept; a more appropriate term for meeting adults’ care needs than ‘welfare’ with its connotations of dependency.

According to research by Virginia Morrow and Berry Mayall, the term ‘wellbeing’ originates from a 1946 World Health Organisation definition of health as: ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’.

What is wellbeing?

However, Morrow and Mayall point out the definition has recently moved away from a solely health perspective to become associated with notions of happiness and positive emotions, as well as being a product of economic security. It has also been seen as highly individualistic, emphasising personal responsibility.

In the new Act, wellbeing at all ages is defined in section 2 by a list of eight points:

  1. physical and mental health and emotional wellbeing;
  2. protection from abuse and neglect;
  3. education, training and recreation;
  4. domestic, family and personal relationships;
  5. contribution made to society;
  6. securing rights and entitlements;
  7. social and economic wellbeing;
  8. suitability of living accommodation.

Additionally, an adult’s wellbeing includes control over day to day life and participation in work.

Wellbeing for a child is extended to include their physical, intellectual, emotional, social and behavioural developmental needs, in accordance with the views, wishes and feelings of the child and parents. But a child’s wellbeing also includes ‘welfare as that word is interpreted for the purposes of the Children Act 1989’.

So social workers are understandably asking: How does wellbeing differ from welfare and what will this mean in practice?

Children’s wellbeing

Much has been made in the media of children in the UK being low on UNICEF league tables of wellbeing. However the picture is complex. Morrow and Mayall described wellbeing as ‘conceptually muddy but pervasive’ and were doubtful about its application to children, especially if it came to replacing governments’ responsibilities for their welfare.

In 2010, a research review by June Statham concluded that childhood wellbeing had a weak theoretical status, but that it seemed to be negatively associated with income inequality. All this leads one to wonder how much a social worker can do to contribute to children’s wellbeing.

On the other hand, Sir James Munby, the President of the Family Division clearly pronounced in a 2012 case, called Re G, that welfare, interests and wellbeing are synonymous, and embrace everything that relates to the child’s development as a human being, in their present and future life.

Avoiding a dichotomy in practice

The challenge that social work has always faced is how to focus on an individual child and to secure their best interests and promote and safeguard their welfare, while being aware of the context in which children live and the inequalities that prevail.

It is hoped welfare remains uppermost as an objective for children’s services and that we avoid a dichotomy in practice – welfare for children where there are safeguarding concerns and something ‘muddy’ for children who are in need of care and support.

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