Social class does get in the way of child protection – but it shouldn’t

Joanna Nicolas takes the findings from a recent serious case review and explains how social class can be a barrier to protecting children

by Joanna Nicolas, independent child protection consultant and author

In a recent serious case review the authors concluded that within the way the professionals worked with the family: “The couple’s affluent, middle class status, which together with their assertiveness, posed challenge to professionals, some of whom would not be used to this level of questioning. This was particularly the case in dealings with the father who as a lawyer and a company director was experienced as powerful”.

This is not the first time we have seen this from a serious case review and it will not be the last.

In the child protection arena it is relatively unusual to be working with a family who would be deemed to be middle-class.

Of course that is not to say middle-class parents do not abuse their children, which did not happen in this recent case but has been found in other serious case reviews, so why are those children not being identified as being maltreated?

‘In the way of child protection’

The problem is that class, along with disability, culture, ethnicity, race and religion all get in the way of child protection. My first experience of this was over 20 years ago, when I was a newly qualified social worker.

I was working in a London borough and it was brought to our attention that a young child was being taken from school every day to a very dodgy pub by a “baby-sitter”, who would proceed to get drunk and the child would be wandering around the pub, on his own, until 7pm, or 8pm.

When we looked into it we found that the mother was a high-ranking councillor and my manager said to me “You can ring her, Joanna, because you’re posh and you won’t be intimidated by her”. When I did telephone her the mother was disgusted that a lowly social worker would dare to question her childcare arrangements and I am ashamed to say that our response was to close the case.

In another case, a child, who had anorexia, was in an independent boarding school. She managed to hide the fact that she was not eating and one day collapsed and had to be taken to hospital. Her parents, who lived abroad, were contacted but they said they could not possibly come over because they were too busy.

That was never referred to social care but if it had been a single mother, living in social housing, who had gone off to Scunthorpe for the weekend with a man she had just met and she had said she was too busy to come back, I have no doubt the school/hospital would have made a referral to social care.

In another serious case review a mother was charged with 88 counts of child cruelty. What came from the review was that the three children had been abused for 10 years.

Child focus

The review found that one of the factors that prevented professionals from recognising the severity of the abuse was they “struggled to maintain a child focus and their approach was affected by perceptions and assumptions made regarding the parents’ social class, professional status, and high academic qualifications, and the attitude of the mother and father towards them”.

In my view, attending a child protection conference is a very different experience when the parents are middle-class, particularly if they bring their lawyer with them. All the professionals are on edge and the focus is very much on the parents and their lawyer, the child becomes completely invisible.

It should never be the case that professionals work in different ways depending on the social status of the family who they are working with, but that can be the reality.

It is appalling to think that because many of the families that we work with are used to being “done to”, professionals may not question so rigorously how they follow legislation and statutory guidance.

Strip away class

This brings to mind the recent ruling by the president of the Family Courts, Sir James Munby, about voluntary placements of children under section 20 of the Children Act 1989, in which he concluded that local authorities can fail to get informed consent from parents before placing children and are reluctant to return the child to the parent(s) immediately after parental consent is withdrawn.

Would this ever happen if it was a middle-class family? I suspect not.

How can we prevent what comes down to a failure to protect children born into middle-class families? The answer is the same as for children from the Black and minority ethnic community, or children with disabilities.

We need to strip away class, socio-economic status, skin colour, race, religion, culture and disability – in the case of a middle-class child the question should always be: “Would I be responding in this way if the child lived in social housing, in an area of extreme deprivation, with a single mother with five children by five different partners?” The answer to that question should always be “Yes”.

Every child living in this country has the right to be provided with the same level of protection and everyone working with children should take responsibility for that.

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6 Responses to Social class does get in the way of child protection – but it shouldn’t

  1. Tracy December 9, 2015 at 12:25 pm #

    This is interesting. I’m also interested to know how often you even get visibility of ‘middle class’ cases? I was subject to abuse as a child in a ‘middle class’ family and it was never spotted, even when complaining at school, teachers dismissed it. It was a good school too. They are good at giving an image of upstanding community people so how would anyone believe they are abusing their child. There were no hospital visits from injuries either. I feel child protection fails on all levels in many cases where there is no way to identify abuse, or a child is often dismissed by someone they tell, for fear of the ‘trouble’ it causes.

    My own behaviour caused me to have to see a family therapist by social services, referred by the school. They were not trained enough to spot the signs. They allowed a parent to be in the therapy so I was not able to talk freely. There was a big mirror in the room, and as a child I watched movies (those mirrors you spy on people with), I felt unsafe. This was in the eighties. I really hope things have changed.

    “Every child living in this country has the right to be provided with the same level of protection and everyone working with children should take responsibility for that.”

  2. Keith Berry December 9, 2015 at 5:29 pm #

    Social class gets in the way of child protection much more than this implies. The relatively middle class social workers are so judgemental of working class families that they see child protection issues when there none. They are unable to engage with working class families. They are unable to gain or give trust. Thus they are critics but nothing ever changes. And do the wheel goes around and around.
    Prejudice and judgemental attitudes prevent real progress.

  3. Helen December 9, 2015 at 10:40 pm #

    It cuts both ways. i am middle class and have contact with social workers because I have special guardianship of a child from my wider family. Some of the social workers very openly make assumptions about my values, parenting skills and financial situation based on my class.

    For instance, I have been scathingly referred to “an intellectual” because I have been studying for a higher degree, and told that “intellectuals are often not vey good at the practical side of life”. This is not very professional and gets in the way of maintaining a child focus.

  4. Jonathan Ritchie December 10, 2015 at 7:59 am #

    The fascist ideology of class is intentionally reinforced by codes of practice in the professions which dictate that professionals should “respect each others roles” that is place, caste, class. How many social workers consider themselves superior to the poor because being a “professional” is considered to be middle class? How many social workers blindly obey illegal orders from the LA hierarchy forgetting that councillors and managers work for all citizens and are not superior to anyone despite their delusions top the contrary?

  5. Tallulah December 11, 2015 at 12:14 am #

    This article is very naive. If only it were this simple. It is all to do with difference; in an area where the social workers are predominantly working class, middle class single mothers are particularly vulnerable. They can be considered too pushy, not indulgent enough etc. I have seen this happen on several occasions. There is a ghastly side-effect of the ridiculous reality that some social workers are so cowardly that they are too “intimidated” to phone someone who is “posh” (as this article freely admits.) The flip side can be a nasty class-conscious resentment that can lead to the ganging up of a bunch of social workers against an “intimidating” person, i.e. a person who is better educated than the social workers. In this type of case the social workers pick holes in everything the parent does, in a way they wouldn’t with a working class parent.

    Joanna Nicolas says that local authorities would not fail to get informed consent for a section 20 from a middle class parent. This is completely inaccurate. Middle class people have a reputation to lose, and are TERRIFIED of being associated with social services. They will therefore sign anything, anything at all, because they can feel so intimidated and harrassed by social services.

  6. margaretwillis December 13, 2015 at 10:24 pm #

    The other case where social class comes in that of Maddy- her parents, both doctors, left her [aged 3] and her younger siblings alone in the house while they went out to dinner with friends.

    If that had been a working class family that would be a case of child abuse.

    Margaret Willis