System should be shaped by users

In the third of our five-part series on child
protection, Peter Beresford says that if the child protection
system is to change for the better then it is time for front-line
social workers and children to be involved in running it.

Child protection is one issue where government
needs to do some serious “blue skies” thinking. Tragedy,
hand-wringing, denial and scapegoating sum up the public face of
more than 50 years of child protection.

There has been a similar consistency in the
responses: reorganisations, policy about-turns and calls for more
training. Few of these have had a strong knowledge base. Most have
lacked the resources to make them effective. They do not seem to
have worked.

The death of Victoria Climbi‚ has raised
many expectations. It is not difficult to see why. The failure
seems so global – across services and service providers, between
organisations and at every level within organisations. The evidence
of abuse now appears so obvious. Most important, Victoria herself
was so clearly ignored by services. When it mattered, no one
listened to the voice of the child. There are now hopes that her
murder may mark a watershed, but if this is to happen, a much more
fundamental reassessment of child protection policy and practice
will be needed than there has generally been so far.

The inclusion of practitioners’ and service
users’ knowledge is crucial if we are to develop effective
initiatives and responses to secure the rights of children and
young people.

Practitioners play little part in shaping or
creating policy and practice. Pick up any textbook about child
protection or indeed most other areas of social work. You will find
few key contributions from current practitioners. Managers,
academics and politicians are the key players and if they have
direct experience as social work practitioners, it is likely to be
far away from current situations. If practitioners were more
centrally involved in the production of social work courses and
training, then perhaps training would be more child-focused and
practice more evidence-based rather than judgement-based. It is
essential that this gap is addressed in the major reform of social
work education and training currently taking place.

Even more important, though, is the
involvement or lack of involvement of children and young people in
child protection issues. Both adult and children users of social
care services have had rights to be involved, consulted and
listened to for more than a decade. However, it has been very much
a matter of separate development. While no one is saying that there
are no problems for adult social care service users, initiatives
for their involvement have developed apace. There are now
vociferous and well established national, regional and local
organisations controlled by a variety of adult service users. These
are providing their own services and support, have developed new
models of policy and practice, their own literature, training,
evaluation and research. While their funding is rarely adequate or
secure, they have had an impact on policies, changing approaches
and understandings to meet their rights and needs.

The same simply has not happened for children
and young people, despite the determined efforts of some
individuals, organisations and initiatives. The argument is
routinely offered that children are different. How can they define
their own rights and needs? But the evidence is that children’s
support and self-advocacy groups can work and that children, from a
very young age, can be and want to be involved over very sensitive
issues and decisions. The failure of this to happen systematically
may say more about adult perceptions and anxieties over children’s
voices, rights and needs, than about their actual capacities. We
have also heard arguments that treat adults with learning
difficulties and mental health service users as children; that they
cannot really speak for themselves and will only be manipulated by

Of course, there are many competing voices to
be heard where child protection is concerned, including those of
children and young people themselves, birth, foster and adoptive
parents, grandparents and others. But the job of child protection
is to negotiate these and to ensure that the child’s rights and
interests are paramount. Similar issues can arise between adult
service users and “carers” and we know that with support and good
practice, these can be addressed and worked through.

One of the lessons adult service user
organisations have learned is that an effective say requires three
key components: voice, choice and credibility.

In recent years we have seen the effect of
denying these, as systematic long-term child sexual abuse in the
state child “care” system itself has emerged.

If such past patterns are to be challenged,
there must be strategic support from government to develop
imaginative approaches to children’s involvement, at both
individual and collective levels. Some adult service user
organisations, like Shaping Our Lives, are now beginning to extend
their activities to include children and young people. Those
concerned with child protection might do well to turn initially to
adult service user organisations for information and guidance.

If the experience of adult service users is
anything to go by, children may have some very different ideas to
service providers. For example, is “child protection” the best way
of framing the issues involved? What does it tell us about the way
issues of class, “race” and culture are dealt with? What should
social work’s role be here? It’s time children had the chance to
cast their vote on these matters.

Peter Beresford is chairperson of
Shaping Our Lives and professor of social policy, Brunel


More from Community Care

Comments are closed.