Spare a thought for the parents

A key objective of the government’s Quality Protects programme
is to promote the participation of children and their families in
the planning and delivery of services and in decisions that affect
their day-to-day lives. Steps have already been taken to promote
advocacy for children and young people and the government has also
acknowledged that advice and advocacy is an important and
legitimate resource for parents whose children are the subject of
child protection inquiries.

There is an expectation in Working Together (1999) that
parents should routinely be given information about how they can
access advice and advocacy services from the outset of child
protection inquiries. Many such parents will need an independent
advocate to participate in an informed way in the process because,
if a social worker and a child’s parents disagree about the risk to
the child, the social worker’s duty to protect the child takes
precedence over their role as advocate for the family as a whole.
The consequence is that the parents are often left unsupported.
Many such parents will need an independent advocate to participate
in an informed way in the process.

Unfortunately such advice and advocacy is not as yet a coherent,
nationally run service. The few specialist schemes that exist are
innovative. Their advocates, along with solicitor advocates, have
had to develop many of their skills on the hoof.

The research explored the process of advocacy, paying particular
attention to the function of advocacy, the professional dilemmas
inherent in the advocate’s role, and what makes advocacy successful
or unsuccessful.1 Parents, advocates and social workers
views about the current service were canvassed, and suggestions for
improvements were sought.

Several key findings emerged from the study. Advice and advocacy
had many functions. It included supporting and advising the parents
about the process; the child protection concerns and how they may
be overcome; what the likely consequences of particular courses of
action might be; empowering parents to express their views; and
trying to ensure that parents’ views were heard when the child
protection plan was drawn up.

Advocacy for parents in child protection was generally provided by
two groups: informal advocates or supporters, who tend to be lay
advocates, relatives and friends, and who generally do not have
such specialist knowledge prior to their involvement in the case;
and formal advocates who tend to be professionals with specialist
knowledge of child protection issues. Advocacy was provided by a
few organisations working specifically with parents whose children
were subject to section 47 inquiries and by solicitors, most of
whom were child care specialists and on the Law Society’s children
panel. There was a strong consensus among those surveyed that
parents should be referred to local and national advice and
advocacy as soon as inquiries are initiated as part of the child
protection procedures. Funding for specialist advice and advocacy
was considered inadequate and insecure, leading to unequal service
provision for parents.

However, there was some evidence of resistance among professionals
to the advocate’s involvement in the case, especially when they
were not familiar with the advocate’s work and when the advocate
was confrontational.

Overall, the research found a strong consensus that advocacy is
helpful or very helpful provided the advocate has specialist
knowledge and experience of the child protection process and
issues, acts in a professional, non-adversarial manner and becomes
involved early on in the process. But as this was not always the
case it was felt that there was a need for an advocacy protocol to
be drawn up, giving guidance about professional, ethical and
practice issues, such as the advocate’s independence.

The Department of Health commissioned the Centre for Family
Research at the University of Cambridge to develop a protocol on
advice and advocacy for parents.2 It outlines the
ethical and practice issues that need to be addressed by both
advocates, social workers and other child care professionals (see
The Protocol Outlines, opposite). It focuses on the work of
advocates drawn primarily from a professional background, but it
also looks at supporters, making important distinctions about how
they should be regarded and involved in child protection cases,
compared with advocates.

The overall aim of the protocol is to promote best practice, so
that advocacy for parents enhances parental participation rather
than undermines it.3 It draws upon the research and has
also been developed in consultation with child care and advocacy
organisations, and also the Department of Health, the Association
of Directors of Social Services, the Law Society and members of the
judiciary. It is the first time such a protocol has been developed
at a national level.

We believe we have outlined a framework for best practice but,
given the fact that this protocol is breaking new ground, we would
welcome feedback from readers about how it works in practice in
child protection cases.

The Study    

The research was funded by the Nuffield Foundation and carried
out by researchers from the Centre for Family Research at the
University of Cambridge. Phase 1 involved interviewing parents,
advocates and social workers were interviewed in phase 1 about the
work of professional advocates in 36 child protection cases. The
interviews revealed a wide variation in what advocates did to
support, advise and advocate for parents, and also what councils
allowed advocates to do. Phase 2 explored these issues by
interviewing advocates, and local authority staff who had direct
experience of working with advocates.

The protocol outlines

  • Why parents might want an advocate, and whether or not they
    have a right to one.  
  • Who might act as an advocate for parents, and how  they might
    be referred to advocates.  
  • How such advocacy may be funded.  
  • The skills and training advocates need to work
  • The extent of their role.    

Most importantly, the protocol also looks at ethical
considerations for advocates working in this context, in which the
avoidance of collusion with both the parent and the local authority
is crucial, including for example: 

  • Whether the advocate needs to be independent of the local
  • Whether the advocate should maintain the parents’
    confidentiality absolutely. 
  • When and how the advocate should report information they
    receive about a child suffering or likely to suffer significant
    harm to the local authority. 
  • Whether they should ever withhold information from
  • How the advocate can balance parents’ rights and children’s
  • How directive advocates should be, if at all, when working with
  • How should the advocate conduct him/herself in a child
    protection forum.   

Bridget Lindley is senior research associate at the
Centre for Family Research, University of Cambridge.

For further information about the briefing pack for
non-specialist supporters e-mail  


1 B Lindley, M Richards and
P Freeman, “Advice and advocacy for parents in child protection
cases – what’s happening in current practice?” in Child and
Family Law Quarterly
13:2 2001

Protocol on Advice and
Advocacy for Pa
rents (Child protection) at 

3 It has been used as the
framework for a new advocacy project being developed by Family
Rights Group, which started in April 2003. Further information

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