Why social workers should question the use and origins of ‘failure to protect’ in domestic violence cases

Stacey Stewart critically analyses the origins of failure to protect and its impact on social work assessments and practice

Photo: Tomsickova/Fotolia

by Stacey Stewart

A recent article shared how social work often concentrates on work with victims of domestic abuse rather than the perpetrators of the violence. The article shared different approaches to working with perpetrators to overcome the focus on women.

The underlying reason for the focus on women, however, needs to be explored further as it is pertinent to child protection social work practice.

Social constructions

Within the UK gender is socially constructed. This means that we learn how to act like boys and girls from a young age, through interactions with those around us. From these social constructions, expectations are set for boys and girls, men and women.

No one is exempt from these expectations, and everyone within society contributes to their continuation; if we see someone acting outside of their stereotypical gender role, for example a man wearing heels and a dress, the reaction is often to stare, make comments to those you are with or maybe even say something.

We like to know what to expect from people, and if we are seeing something we don’t expect we want it to change. This social shaming and judgement (to meet the aforementioned expectations) is what keeps people abiding by gender roles, and it is insidious as it is silently maintained without force.

Parenting itself is gendered. For mothers, they are expected to put their children before themselves in everything. They are expected to raise children without complaint and maintain family cohesion. While there are many mothers who are employed, and this number is increasing, it is still expected that men go out to work. This means that they are not present to undertake the majority of parenting tasks. Men are often not considered the primary care giver and raising children is not deemed to be their domain.

Because of these expectations if a problem arises within the family, or in relation to the child, this is seen as the mother’s responsibility.

Involvement with children’s services

Issues arise when children’s services receive a referral for domestic abuse. Children’s social workers are focused on children because the Children Act 1989 states that the child is paramount.

Within child protection social work, because of the expectations set out for mothers and fathers, the mother and her parenting ability becomes the focus of the assessment rather than the perpetrator of the violence.

We expect mothers to try to prevent incidents, protect their children from violence and we expect her to choose her children over her partner. When social work attention and focus is only placed on the mother, it sends the message that she is the one expected to implement the solution. The mother becomes accountable for her child’s exposure to the domestic abuse, and this is known as failure to protect.

Social workers’ unconscious ideas about the expectations of mothers and often singular focus on the child means that the situation is viewed simplistically; the mother didn’t prevent the child’s exposure to domestic abuse, so she has failed.

However, the mother did not ask to be harmed and abused. She did not want her children to be exposed to violence. She could not and should not be expected to control a perpetrator of abuse, as she herself is a victim/survivor.

Yet we still focus on her ability to prevent her children’s exposure to abuse, rather than placing responsibility where it belongs; with the perpetrator. If he did not abuse his partner, the child would not be exposed to violence.

We see in most assessments that partners/fathers/perpetrators are not spoken to. Reasons often given are that he is unavailable due to working or being outside of the home, however, this would not be accepted if it was the mother who was unavailable – we expect to see her.

It is sometimes suggested that social workers are fearful of abusive men and therefore do not feel able to meaningfully engage them. Yet we expect mothers to be able to control their partners, or be able to leave abusive relationships when research states that little support is given to women leaving abusive relationships and that this is the most dangerous time for them.


As social workers, we need to be mindful of ‘failure to protect’ and its origins. We need to question why we are using it in the work we are doing and who it helps; does criticising the mother who is also a victim help the child in this situation? Or would holding a perpetrator accountable for his actions, with a plan for preventing it happening in future be more beneficial?

Further to this, we need to question the expectations and assumptions we hold and why we continue to follow them; are they actually making a positive difference to your assessment? View the family individually, without the expectations, and ensure responsibility lies with the person who enacted the behaviour.

Stacey Stewart is a PHD researcher at Nottingham Trent University.

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14 Responses to Why social workers should question the use and origins of ‘failure to protect’ in domestic violence cases

  1. LF October 23, 2018 at 11:58 am #

    It saddens and angers me that the term ‘failure to protect is still being used

  2. Sharon Williamson October 23, 2018 at 12:04 pm #

    a Very thought provoking peice , well worth reading . Thank you Stacey

  3. dave October 23, 2018 at 12:18 pm #

    Looking at the last two paragraphs: if dad is a perpetrator of domestic violence and mum is a victim, isn’t dad in prison? Or is it that the failure-to-protect criticism looks forward to potential violence, before a perpetrator can be held accountable? It would make the job much easier if the courts could convict people of abuse before they did it.

    Failure-to-protect is logically prior to the violence, whereas the violence is logically prior to the perpetrator’s culpability. So practitioners aren’t making a binary choice over which parent to blame.

    More importantly: a failure-to-protect has a fundamentally different domain from the violence itself, because it is exclusively concerned with violence toward the parent’s children, not the other parent’s violence in general. So it can’t be said that failure-to-protect reduces to an accusation of failure-to-prevent-violence (which we would call victim-blaming), it is categorically different from victim-blaming. Someone can fail-to-protect children from violence that is never actually committed.

    But if someone presents such eminent risks that parents can lose custody of their children just for not avoiding them – shouldn’t the courts pre-empt that and lock them up permanently? If they don’t, isn’t that an even worse failure-to-protect?

  4. A Man Called Horse October 23, 2018 at 1:41 pm #

    Well actually you are right Social Workers are fearful for their own safety and engaging with men who abuse women is very difficult to achieve. It is the job of the Police to protect women from abuse and violence as they have law and physical powers of arrest should it be needed.

    Social Workers should not be expected to deal with violent and abusive men who seek to control women without proper protection. I see no purpose in blaming Social Workers for problems that are beyond their power to do anything about.

    We also do not have the resources to deal with these issues in a climate of ongoing Austerity. The Government have actually been responsible for withdrawing vital support from women experiencing domestic violence, perhaps we need to stop voting for them and hold them to account for the policies they are happily implementing that harm women.

    • Janie October 25, 2018 at 12:18 pm #

      A Man Called Horse – Men that abuse often target their partner and implicate the children by using physical violence or threats of, whilst most will say they have “anger management problems” When you risk assess their behaviour they rarely go around assaulting the elderly and post boxes. So I often confront them with this……. “I don’t think you have an eager management problem, in fact, you manage your anger by targeting your partner” It gives perpetrators food for thought.
      Most perpetrators steer away from engaging with social workers when they are constructively challenged, this means that this action alone keeps them away from the home.
      If social workers feel intimidated by perpetrators and leave sole responsibility to the Police who alone last year had 102 million complaints of domestic abuse and violence then, victims and children are being left at increased risk.
      Victims and children need protection which, can be achieved in many different ways. Over the years I have worked with mother’s to help them gain insight and understanding and transform their future from a place of vulnerability to a place of strength and safety.
      I agree that the government fail to be pro-active and withhold investment but this cannot be the reason why social workers do not invest in the families we work with……. After all never forget we are the resource!!!

  5. Tom J October 23, 2018 at 2:19 pm #

    However… If we look at the Blake Fowler serious case review; his mother was clearly identified as a victim/survivor to the detriment of her son.

    Blake was lost, as we now know that she was both a victim and perpetrator. The tidy labels of victim and perpetrator often fail to take into account the complexity of human beings.

  6. Afia October 23, 2018 at 9:06 pm #

    Well written article, however domestic violence is so entrenched, and it is the children or child in the household that suffers in all this. As frontline workers, our priority is to keep the child/ren safe in a volatile environment. Frontline workers are not marriage counsellors or there to resolve parental conflicts. Our job is to keep the child/ren safe, I.e abuser out of the home or work with families to reduce risk where it us sage to do so.

    • Zohra October 24, 2018 at 12:03 am #

      Domestic violence isn’t a parental conflict as that suggests both parties are on equal footing. This is about one person abusing another. Marriage counsellors do not get involved in cases of DV. These are not simply domestic disputes- it’s domestic abuse.

      As social workers we know that most mothers (and it is usually women who are victims) are often actively protecting their children in ways we do not see, and so supporting them is usually the best way to protect children , AS WELL as putting pressure on other agencies to use their powers and resources to remove the risk – the perpetrator.

  7. Louise October 24, 2018 at 9:00 am #

    If the abuse is psychological it is almost impossible to prove and even physical violence in DV incidents is unfortunately taken very lightly/not really seriously by the courts and slapped wrist is usually the consequence not jail

  8. Kirsty October 24, 2018 at 11:58 am #

    I am passionate about making change in the current response to Domestic Abuse by social services.
    My sister left the home and had to leave her kids all due to the ignorance surrrounding abusers. She was killed by her partner … too late for SS to do anything about….
    Lessons won’t be learned if we don’t all wake up.

  9. Tracey Ivory October 24, 2018 at 8:44 pm #

    It is, as having experienced domestic abuse, so awful to think that at a time when you are at your lowest, trying to survive and protecting your children that there is know one there by your side to help and stand with you. Instead victims are told to get on with it and to be aware that there children could be taken away, I cant think of anything worse as I know what its like. Its like your not being heard or believed so its no wonder these perpetraters carry on using there manipulation and control knowing that no one will stand up to them but if you look at it this way how are social services protecting these children from harm if they cannot confront or be prepared to help victims who are trying to protect there children. We have many agencies who are there to help and protect so what use is it if there is nothing in place to improve these situations and prevent abuse. Something needs to change to understand what is needed to help those who are suffering in silence.

    • Janie October 25, 2018 at 12:34 pm #

      Tracey – I hear you, no person should be told to get on with it or be expected to cope alone because of the Impact domestic abuse and violence has, in my words it is dis-abling. I have worked with many woman who were so beaten by their situation and abuse that they could not see the wood from the trees, similar to driving in fog – You crash and can’t make informed decisions it’s near impossible.
      People who have experienced abuse need support, encouragement and leadership and children need a voice – I have on many occasions intervened in many ways such as picking up a family and taking them to a refuge, Non Molestation Orders, or locating the perpetrator and engaging them.
      Parents are fearful of disclosing abuse to social workers due to the consequence of further abuse and assault, who would talk in that situation.
      Education and learning is needed to raised the profile of domestic abuse and violence, in particular the IMPACT.

  10. sw11 October 25, 2018 at 12:15 am #

    There is very limited intervention for the abuser unless the matter has gone to court and the perpetrator is offered various programs through probation. Why is that.
    Simply because the programs that were piloted or instigated never proved to be effective. Rather than pursuing these interventions, the local authority or other agencies abandoned those and focussed their attention on the mothers/victims.

  11. Tracey Ivory October 25, 2018 at 9:47 pm #

    Janie, thankyou for your supportive comment and couldn’t agree more on the dis-abling remark, absolutely the case as all your time and energy is focused on trying to stay safe. Every minute of life is trying to find ways to safeguard your children and trying not to let them see the violence and after time this takes a toll on your mental health and wellbeing. It is not living but trying to survive and I think this is what should be learnt within professional agencies. In my case it was appalling as they gave my children to my abuser against my wishes and 3 years later my children were returned to me after being neglected and abused during this time. The authorities were aware but took no action even though there were numerous referrals from school, family matters and myself. I am so trying ways to put my story across so others do not suffer as we have.
    Thankyou again Janie