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.
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.