Opinion: A warning from history

The first ever UK-wide elder abuse prevalence study, published last month, drew a lot of eminently sensible thoughts from eminently sensible people.

Not least was care services minister Ivan Lewis’ demand that people should feel as outraged by adult abuse as they are by child abuse. Others called for the protection of adults to be placed on the same statutory footing as child protection.

But before this blanket endorsement smothers us, a warning against complacency can be found in the consequences of the lonesome death of Maria Colwell in Sussex in the 1970s.

It’s acknowledged now that her murder skewed the then recently created social services departments away from the dynamic family and community resources that their creator, Lord Seebohm, had envisaged. And instead, for a whole variety of perfectly sensible reasons, began to push them towards being almost exclusively child protection agencies.

The lure to accept sole responsibility for the safety and protection of children resulted as much from the professional values and pride nurtured within social work itself as from the additional funds that might be up for grabs. Yet the impetus came from politicians and a media rabid in its desire to hang someone, anyone, for the bestial crimes.

Once the responsibility was accepted, however, social services were never able to convince the world, the press nor the public that, in fact, the safety of children was not their sole nor exclusive preserve.

What started off as an apparent self-defining crusade ended up as witch-hunt, virtually destroying them.

Back to the present, and is there not a danger that the same thing might happen again? With all the best will in the world, might the newly created adult services departments, over time, be led similarly down a narrower and perhaps more defensive, adult protection agency route? Or will they have the space to exploit fully the opportunities their new and wider role has opened up for them?

It isn’t necessarily either/or. Nor was it 30 years ago after Maria Colwell’s death. But the call to protect and defend can sometimes deafen social care to other, less emotionally strident, tones. It is a strategic challenge that the new adult social services departments will do well to bear in mind over the coming decades.

Drew Clode is the policy and press adviser for the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services and is writing in a personal capacity.

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