Narrow, restrictive and reactive

In the first of a series of articles on the
future of child protection, Nigel Parton argues that the child
protection system needs to incorporate a broader definition of
child abuse and take on board young people’s views.

There can be little doubt that the Laming
inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie‚ has prompted a
range of questions about the future of the child protection system
in this country. The injuries that she suffered and the apparent
failures of the various health, welfare, and police services to
respond in any positive way have posed major questions about future
policy and practice.

In recognising this it is also important to
note that many of the themes have been well-rehearsed in a series
of child abuse inquiries going back nearly 30 years. It was the
public inquiry into the death of Maria Colwell in 1973 that
prompted government to circulate recommendations the following
year, which in effect established the contemporary child protection
system. Child protection registers, case conferences, and area
child abuse committees (now called area child protection
committees), were all inaugurated as a result.

These are still the core elements of the child
protection system, even though it has been updated and refined,
usually in response to the latest public inquiry. At the same time,
child protection procedures have become ever more detailed and
comprehensive. However, it is important to recognise a number of
key themes.

First, until the most recent version of
Working Together in 1999,1 changes in
procedural guidance had always followed on from major public
inquiries. By definition these have always been cases that have
gone badly wrong. The most recent rewriting is a little different
in that it is also informed by research which has attempted to look
at the more typical cases that go through the system, and which
were summarised in Messages from Research, published by
the Department of Health in 1995.2

Though the child protection system is informed
by research, it is important to remember the system is based on
cases that go wrong and a very narrow conception of what we mean by
child abuse.

This connects with a second important theme.
There is now considerable evidence to suggest that the nature of
child abuse and how it is experienced is far more wide-ranging and
complex than ever comes to be known to the official agencies. This
is well illustrated in the NSPCC’s Prevalence
.3 It is also evident in terms of the sorts of
experiences that are made known to organisations like ChildLine.
Very few of those who call ChildLine are ever in any direct contact
with the formal agencies and the kinds of problems callers describe
are rather different in many respects to those that are known to
the formal child protection system.

In fact, ChildLine’s cases have much more in
common with the sorts of issues described in the NSPCC
Prevalence Study. Issues around bullying, racism and the
way young people are treated by their peers more generally figure
very highly.

These points suggest that the child protection
system is extremely restrictive and reactive, with a very narrow
conception of what constitutes child maltreatment, and in few ways
can it be seen as child-centred. Apart from anything else, it
becomes clear that children and young people rarely refer
themselves to it and, if they did so, they would have little
control over what happened to them. It is clear from what children
and young people say about official systems that a key issue is
confidentiality and who controls the information and what is done
with it.

This all connects with an important third
theme. Essentially, area child protection committees have never
been allowed to develop the more strategic roles that official
guidance implies that they should have. Essentially, they have no
budget and are really only concerned with case management issues.
Their primary focus is on trying to insure against things going
wrong and reviewing cases if they do, rather than seriously
engaging with preventive and promotional activities.

There is a danger that the final Laming report
may simply reiterate many of the conclusions that have been
forthcoming during the past 30 years and in response to previous
child abuse inquiries.

While one would not wish to undermine many of
the good relationships and practices that have been developed over
the years, it is simply not adequate to fall back on a defensive
response to the issues. It is important that the good work
professionals carry out in the field is recognised but in the
context of trying to develop a service that also links in to a much
higher profile for child protection policies and practices.

This implies that area child protection
committees should be given the structures and finances to address
issues around the safeguarding of children in the way that recent
DoH guidance suggests. Whether this requires a new agency to
support their activities or a reconfiguration of arrangements so
that professionals can work more closely together is not the main

What is important is that child protection be
recognised as a much wider societal and community priority and that
the resources are earmarked to support it. In doing so, the views,
interests and experiences of children and young people need to be
clearly and explicitly represented. Simply tampering in such a way
that individual professionals and agencies are blamed seems
thoroughly inadequate.

If we do this, we will be doing no more than
what has been the typical response over the past 30 years.

Nigel Parton is professor of child
care and child protection, centre for applied childhood studies,
University of Huddersfield.

1 Department of Health,
Home Office, Department for Education and Employment, Working
Together to Safeguard Children
, The Stationery Office,

2 Department of Health,
Child Protection: Messages from Research, HMSO,

3 Pat Cawson et al,
Prevalence Study, NSPCC, 2000


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