Research into practice

The balance between
child protection and child welfare is often a source of controversy. Here,
Patrick Ayre looks at new research on the issue

Over the past decade,
services for children and their families have been struggling to regain their
balance. Their most important challenge has centred on the way they handle the
twin imperatives of promoting children’s welfare and ensuring their protection
from harm. An influential series of research reports published in the
mid-1990s, reported collectively in Child Protection: Messages from Research,
suggested powerfully that intervention had come to concentrate much too
narrowly on protection at the expense of a more holistic child welfare
approach.1 The Children Act 1989 offered an opportunity to put child
protection back in its proper place as part of a wider response to children in
need. However, somehow this readjustment had never quite been achieved. Messages
from Research
, and the government guidance that followed it, provided a
further major impetus for change.

Some very useful
insights into progress made can be found in research undertaken by Trevor
Spratt, a lecturer at Queens University, Belfast. Working with one of Northern
Ireland’s health and social services trusts, he set out to examine the style of
service received by families referred for help with child welfare problems.
Initial assessment had suggested that they did not require a child protection
intervention. Ideally, these families would have been offered access to a
well-developed and comprehensive range of services able to provide a tailored
response to child care problems of all types.  

However, Spratt found
what looked much more like a two-tier child protection system – the difference
between child protection interventions and child welfare work was largely one
of degree not of type. At all the key stages of intervention that he examined –
from initial assessment through to service provision – the prime focus
continued to be on the identification and elimination of risk rather than the
assessment of need and the promotion of well-being. While the vast majority of
the social workers interviewed said that they would prefer to adopt a child
welfare approach, Spratt was forced to conclude that such an approach was in
practice still “more virtual than real”.

It would seem,
therefore, that, although legislation, guidance, professional values and the
personal inclinations of the workers involved all coincided to support a change
of orientation, very limited progress was being made on the ground. What can be
done to make it easier to bring about practice changes that are so universally
supported in principle? Spratt has three helpful proposals.

First, he suggests
that social workers’ networks are too narrow and restricted to those who share
their predominant concern with managing risk. Social work should be more
integrated with other community-based health and social care services,
encouraging decision-making based on a wider set of priorities.

Second, senior
managers must promote a shift away from the culture of blame prevalent in
current services toward a “no-fault” ethos and a learning culture. Spratt
argues that the “fear factor” inevitably plays an important part in the
tendency of workers to apply child protection processes to child welfare cases.

Third, managers need
to take a more active stance in scrutinising the reality of practice within
their services. How far have changes in service really been little more than
changes of name? As Spratt suggests, without substantial change in the context
of child welfare work, the aspirations of the Children Act for a balanced
response to all facets of need may remain unrealised for another decade.

– T Spratt, “The
influence of child protection orientation on child welfare practice”, British
Journal of Social Work
, 31, 933-954, 2001

Ayre is senior lecturer, department of applied social studies, University of


1 DoH, Child
Protection: Messages from Research
, HMSO, 1995

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