Twin-track approach

If the forthcoming Institute for Public Policy Research report
on a new vision for social care is to be welcomed, its authors will
have to pay attention to the complexity of child care, which
includes some very particular challenges.

In the first place, a child is by definition part of a family. So
views about families will have a significant impact on child care
policy, with the risk that political desire for vote-winning
policies will trump the need for more subtle responses. An example
can be seen in current adoption policies, a strategy seized on by
the Prime Minister in order to demonstrate he was supporting the
traditional family as the best place for children. Designing
policies based on research evidence, supposedly a goal of
ministers, would have produced something that more adequately met
children’s needs.

A second problem for policy analysts is the way in which ideas
about child and childhood fluctuate over time. Current versions of
“the child” range from the criminal to the alienated drop-out who
will benefit from Connexions, to the more conventional innocent for
whom Sure Start is designed. Also, there are contradictory notions
of “service” and “care”, both of which can be involuntary or
requested. Understanding how the rights of the child fit into much
of this must be a high priority and is a complicated task.

But one challenge stands out above all the others:the relationship
between universality and selectivity. New Labour has been rightly
preoccupied with the improvement of mainstream, universal services
such as education and health care. The central goal of social
inclusion for the majority is to be reached by improvement in, and
increased access to, agencies such as schools, primary care medical
services, and day care.

However, this approach has major implications for those individuals
who fail to make the grade at various points in their lives. It is
of course these individuals, often parents, who are most likely to
be the users of the services currently provided by social workers
and their social care colleagues.

There will probably always be some families who need more help than
others. For many reasons, of which the overwhelming one is still
poverty, some people still value the help which social work has
evolved to provide. This is illustrated by the findings of a
Department of Health-commissioned study.1 The majority
of parents who were interviewed valued that they were able to
obtain advice and support through the “children in need route”,
which was established by the Children Act 1989. They could approach
social services and, in many cases, receive services on the basis
of need, not risk. Such a system enables the resolution of problems
which, if not addressed, could turn into child protection

These are the children and families who will be penalised if any
new structure for services fails to acknowledge this reality. It
should not be assumed that anyone, whose needs are not met by
better universal services, deserves a punitive response. Parenting
orders or even, as has already been the case, jail sentences, must
not be seen as the answer to problematic parenting. Even though
there are examples of universal initiatives, such as Sure Start,
that have been rolled out, they will almost certainly fail to meet
every family support need. In that case, the alternative must not
simply be a child protection response. It is noticeable how the
word “risk” has now routinely begun to replace “need” in much of
the language that describes children and family services.

The worst scenario would be a new system which undermines the
continuum between prevention and protection, such as a separate,
national child protection agency. There has been some support for
this idea following the Victoria Climbi’ case and inquiry and it
may seem to provide a magic answer. This is far from the case: it
would effectively return child care to a Poor Law ethos.

For the sake of children and their families, and the professionals
whose values focus on valuing their clients, we must move forwards
not backwards.

Jane Tunstill is professor of social work, Royal
Holloway College, University of London.


1 JTunstill and J Aldgate, Children in Need:From
Policy to Practice
, The Stationery Office, 2000

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