The child protection system is caught in an ‘unhealthy cycle’ that loses sight of the child, says Joanna Nicolas*. Here she looks at where professionals are going wrong and the best ways of ensuring neglect cases are taken seriously in court.
There is a myth that neglecting a child is not as damaging to that child as sexually, emotionally or physically harming them. Nearly half (44%) of all children on child protection plans in England were under the category of neglect as of 31 March 2011. That means we will leave a child in a home where neglect has been identified, but we’d never leave a child in a home where we had clear evidence of sexual abuse, or repeated physical abuse.
So, why is it ok when a child is being neglected?
I think most professionals would agree that chronic neglect is the most difficult category of abuse to work with. (It’s interesting, that word ‘chronic’ - we would not use it with other types of maltreatment, unless we had learnt about historical information, because we would not leave a child, knowingly, in those circumstances.)
So, why don’t we act sooner in neglect cases?
Typically things get better for a bit, then worse, then better. The difficulty is in deciding when enough is enough. So, why don’t we act sooner in neglect cases? At this point that I can hear social workers saying, “it’s the hardest category to evidence in the court”, but having researched this field extensively and reviewed cases, I would challenge that statement.
It is true that the judiciary need to have a better understanding of the impact of neglect, but it’s also true of everyone working with children, including social workers. There is extensive research in the field of neglect and it’s all very clear. Neglect is just as damaging -and some neuroscientists would argue more damaging - than other types of maltreatment.
So, why do we leave children at home?
I think we are caught in an unhealthy cycle that loses sight of the child. The judiciary reject cases because sometimes we do not give them the evidence and then we complain. There are differing views of using research in court, but social workers can be guilty of quoting research when they do not really know the details of what it says and how it was conducted. So we fall down and become reluctant to use it.
Use research - in the right way – and remember you are the expert
Research should be used but you have to understand it, and it should be relevant and proper academic research. Never forget that in that courtroom you are the expert on that child and that family. No one in that courtroom will know the child as well as you do. The barrister who is cross-examining you may be paid 50 times more than you and may have been to a higher ranking university but the chances are they will have read the papers the day before.
‘Take that home to the court – use photographs’
You know that child, that family, that home. Take charge and believe in yourself as the expert. Don’t let yourself be squashed by the arrogance, or ignorance, of others. Most people in the courtroom will never have been into the sort of home that you go into every day. So, you have to take that home into the courtroom.
Photographs can be an excellent way to show the court what state a home is in, and you will also have to be very descriptive about the mould, the faeces, the rotting food, the nappies, the needles. You are there because you believe that child should not be in that home, so take control and be assertive.
But you also have to have the evidence and the research to back up what you are saying. So, practice in the mirror, or with a kind partner or friend. Run through difficult questions so you are prepared, and tell your manager you need time to prepare. We only give our profession a bad name if we present poorly in the court – don’t give our critics the ammunition!
So, to summarise, here are five top tips:
1. Discuss and analyse the parents’ motivation in your reports, as well as their capacity to change. Consider historical information.
2. Present the hard evidence and bring together the evidence from all the agencies.
3. As the social worker, present all the evidence to the court and use research to back up your arguments. What has happened before is very likely to happen again.
4. Use general research, not specific studies on particular groups of people.
5. Remember, in the court, you are the expert on that child and that family. No one in that court will know the child as you do.
Joanna Nicolas is an independent child protection consultant and author of “Conducting the Home Visit in Child Protection”. Follow her on Twitter. Picture: Rex Features