List-based approach is not enough

In the second of our series on the future of
child protection, David Thorpe says the Victoria Climbie inquiry
may prove to be the catalyst that sees child protection orthodoxy
supplanted by new methods of work.

T he Victoria Climbie inquiry will hopefully
come to be seen as the last of the “big” public child abuse
inquiries which began after Maria Colwell’s murder in 1973. Phase 2
of the Climbie inquiry, which has just begun and will look at
future arrangements for child and family social work, could begin
the process of dismantling the procedures and practices, ideologies
and beliefs which have driven the orthodox version of child

The child protection orthodoxy has been based
on an assumption that social work can do things that it
demonstrably can’t, namely prevent all child murder and significant
harm while simultaneously trying to enforce child-rearing practices
and conforming to an unspecified but value-laden norm. But now we
seem to be going through a transition phase, as evidenced by the
greatly increased confusion among social workers and their

This confusion is largely a consequence of
measures resulting from Quality Protects and the National
Assessment Framework. These initiatives represent a considerable
improvement on the old orthodoxy, but the drawback is that they
have simply been laid on top of it. Everywhere in files one reads
of “section 47 assessments” and “section 17 investigations” when,
of course, it should be the other way around – evidence here that
practitioners cannot see boundaries and clear distinctions between
the orthodoxy and important initiatives in child care.

The problem of children and family social work
during the past 20 years or so is that it has swallowed wholesale a
prepackaged version of the child protection orthodoxy, in the form
of that familiar litany, “Physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual
abuse, neglect, at risk”. As one social worker commented to me
years ago: “It’s dead easy this child protection work, you don’t
have to think.”

Using this abuse litany, the complexities of
the social world become reduced to a simple formula. The structure
of social services departments reflects this world view with its
grandiose assumption that following simplified procedures and
administrative processes constitutes an adequate response to the
wide variety of social problems routinely encountered by
investigating social workers.

Recent advances in theory, practice and policy
have begun to offer children and family social workers and agencies
a way out of this morass. To begin with, it is now recognised that
the term child abuse has no agreed meaning and is unhelpful to
practitioners who need to obtain accurate descriptions of specific
events in unique contexts.

Distinct from the child protection orthodoxy
might be the introduction of measures designed to prevent
significant harm – where there is a realistic, identifiable and
calculable threat – while maintaining the existing repertoire of
legal interventions, which we know successfully protect already
significantly harmed children from further harm.

Theories of systemic intervention1
also have the capacity to develop interventions that enable
practitioners to reflect on linguistically, procedurally and
socially constructed boundaries – and change them. The evidence is
that these practices will produce better outcomes and are
especially helpful in referral-taking work. Following on from
research consisting in part of video taping duty work, we have
begun to develop new conversational routines that reduce
uncertainty and clarify the purposes of intervention. These
routines cause social workers to think about the consequences of
the words they use in defining and categorising social

Such practices are light years away from the
panic, fear, pressure and alienation inherent in the child
protection orthodoxy. Much more work remains to be done, however,
around implementing these routines. At the moment many agencies are
restructuring to conform to the deadlines set for initial and core
assessments. Again, sadly, they have missed the fundamental
importance of referral-taking work and the focusing of resources on
the immediate crises of relationships, behaviour and health endemic
to many stressed families.

Nationally since 1994, the numbers of children
in care have risen steadily after a 20-year decline. North
Lincolnshire social services and a small number of other agencies
have, in conjunction with Lancaster University, reversed this trend
by a strategy involving researching the outcomes of traditional
child protection practices and disseminating their findings to
local Working Together networks, then putting a tight focus on

The result is a reduction in section 47
activity and a freeing-up of resources for more section 17
assessments which enable rapid responses to families with children
in need, whose circumstances can be quickly matched by flexible
services which maintain stability, as opposed to inflexible “care
packages”. Service allocation meetings replace strategy

This virtuous circle is then completed by
reduced admissions to care and, consequently, providing more
resources for preventing family breakdown. It is what the Children
Act 1989 intended.

Phase 2 of the Climbie inquiry points clearly
in this direction. These changes offer an achievable alternative to
increasing expenditure on more investigations, which in too many
instances reinforce social exclusion and, sadly, sometimes fail to
identify significantly harmed children.

1 See, G Midgley,
Systemic Intervention: Philosophy, Methodology and Practice
Plenum, 2000

David Thorpe is professor of applied
social science at Lancaster University


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