From investigating to empowering parents: how MacAlister review should reshape children’s social care

Social work professor and care review adviser Paul Bywaters says it should advocate a reversal of focus in children's social care towards investing in families and an end to poverty

Yellow question mark amid pile of black ones
Image: rcfotostock

By Paul Bywaters

As a member of the evidence group for the care review I’ve been trying to think what are the absolutely key messages I’d want to get across when I get my chance to have a say. You might want to try this too. Josh MacAlister has repeatedly said he wants to listen to all the stakeholders. So let him know.

The next crucial moment will be when the care review’s ‘case for change’ goes out for feedback in June. My list is influenced by my interests and is bound to leave out some vital issues.

I welcome the care review. I particularly welcome its broad remit. Despite all the good intentions of people employed in and around the children’s social care system, it’s not working well.

We have a good record as a country of keeping children safe from extreme harm. But we run a social care system which is increasingly separating children from their parents and prioritising investigations of possible maltreatment, while offering less and less by way of help to families, to the point where you wonder what ‘social’ and ‘care’ are supposed to mean.

‘Alienating parents and exacerbating inequalities’

So I’d want the care review to articulate a new vision for children’s social care. It would be a vision which recognises that almost all parents want the best for their children, even those currently being accused of abuse or neglect.

Of course, sometimes parents (people like us) are unable to meet our ambitions for ourselves as mothers or fathers, but that’s most likely when we have inadequate resources.

The new vision would also recognise that the current system all too often alienates parents while exacerbating inequalities in children’s life chances.

The review must recognise that the dominance of a focus on identifying risk to children has turned what was intended to be a family oriented ‘service’ into an investigatory child protection ‘system’, causing huge collateral damage and distorting expenditure by slashing prevention.

In the last year we have data for, over 135,000 families were investigated for abuse or neglect without a child protection plan resulting, three times as many as just ten years earlier.

Addressing ‘thorny issues’

We need to transform relationships with parents, children and young people, extended families and communities, so that they become seen as full partners. This isn’t about offering participation, with children’s services retaining all the real power, but resetting how we think about and work with people.

That starts by viewing parents as essential to finding solutions rather than central to the problem. Far more parent advocates might be a start. We need to be in the business of building and sustaining long term relationships with and for people and communities. Gaining the confidence of families will be a huge task.

In turn, that means the review must address some thorny issues:

  • Spending
    Is it sufficient, is it appropriately distributed between local authorities and is it being spent on the right priorities?
  • Numbers
    Do we have too many children on child protection plans and in care? Can the review grasp that nettle as the Scottish care review did?
  • The care market
    Should anyone make a profit out of children’s misery? How do we ensure there is sufficient supply without sucking even more children out of their families? Cutting the looked after numbers might be part of the answer to that. How can we have a care system which values its staff and pays them accordingly?
  • Inspection
    Can we design an inspection regime which helps children’s social care achieve the new vision rather than reinforcing the risk monster?

Sustained relationships and more equal life chances

The review must move us away from a one size fits all system to a locally based and diverse matrix of services which understands and meets what families need and want.

We need a service tailored to children and young people of different ages, from different ethnic groups, and geographical communities, while always keeping in mind the aims of sustained relationships and more equal life chances.

And, will the review be brave enough to say that none of this can be effective unless government policies more widely ensure that there is a strong infrastructure surrounding families?

550,000 children are experiencing destitution in a single year – and that was before the pandemic – and countless more are in severe poverty, with 120,000 children living in temporary accommodation.

The wait for mental health services is catastrophic in many places. Domestic violence services are insufficient. Schools are struggling. Youth services, like children’s centres, have been decimated. In that context, how can children’s social care work effectively?

So let’s have a children’s social care service which does what it says on the tin. Let’s support that with a society that doesn’t allow anyone to go hungry, or cold, or feel ashamed because they lack basic resources.

Let’s keep more children at home and help them and their families to sustain lifelong relationships with each other and with their local communities. Let’s help families and children to heal when they need to. Let’s build trust between families and services.

It’s a levelling up agenda. It’s giving back control to families, communities and local authorities. It’s investing public money wisely for the long term benefit of all. That’s what building back better might look like.

Paul Bywaters is a member of the evidence group for the independent review of children’s social care in England and is a professor of social work at the University of Huddersfield.

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6 Responses to From investigating to empowering parents: how MacAlister review should reshape children’s social care

  1. Kathie May 25, 2021 at 9:51 am #

    The whole ‘care’ system is built on power imbalances so why the constant pretence that “empowerment” is a possibility? Social workers get paid to mould families into expected legal, social and economic norms. Lets not pretend asking but not listening isn’t our core business. The review outcomes are surely already determined by the restrictions put in by Gavin Williamdon and the terms of the cintrast signed by Josh MacAlister. Nothing independent going on here I venture.

  2. Jenni Randall May 25, 2021 at 10:01 am #

    Absolutely agree with you. As a very vintage social worker I started my career working with families and still believe that prevention and support are better than investigation and speparation in many instances. I hope the review listens to your evidence.

  3. A Man Called Horse May 25, 2021 at 10:03 am #

    I fear the analysis here is obviously correct, the data speaks for itself. The problem is that there is absolutely zero chance of a small state, free market anti redistribution Conservative government addressing issues such as shameful levels of poverty and destitution. The economy is widely dysfunctional with massive regional inequalities of opportunity and life chances for a wide section of the poorest children in society. Many of their parents are working 2 or 3 zero hour jobs, live in poor housing and have underfunded schools. It is also obvious to many of them that Education while good offers no guarantee of a good job and a good life. The best way to ensure a good life is being born into wealth and privilege.

    550,000 children are experiencing destitution in a single year – and that was before the pandemic – and countless more are in severe poverty, with 120,000 children living in temporary accommodation. This conservative government which many Social Workers voted for and don’t say you didn’t because the 80 seat majority speaks for itself. The facts are that many people in the UK oppose redistribution and helping poor families and vote for vicious social policies on welfare and oppose poor people being given any chance of a better life. They will never vote for better public services because they will have to have a more fair tax system that takes more from the higher income groups. Levelling up is a slogan like the Northern Powerhouse, will never happen and clearly the money allocated is no way near enough to build better and bigger. The UK is falling behind and will likely be a third world economy in 50 years with even more poverty and destitution. The only thing this review will achieve is exactly what its paymasters want it to achieve. Much easier and cheaper to scapegoat Local Councils for poor services and Social Workers as not fit to do their jobs.

  4. Michael Colvin May 25, 2021 at 4:02 pm #

    It would help if the academics who advise governments stopped ignoring the less convenient drivers of rising demand, like family breakdown. Solution-focus effectively means refusing to understand the problem. Ominous.

  5. Alison Tate May 26, 2021 at 5:27 pm #

    I can’t disagree with the comments. My worries come from the interventions that cause extreme harm with no evidence at all. The review does not appear to be looking at that

  6. Terry Deen June 2, 2021 at 11:02 pm #

    Prevention is better than cure. I expectvthe review will side step that.