by Simon Haworth
Amid the blaze of publicity surrounding the appalling murders of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson there have been calls for more intervention and less aversion to taking children into care. Social workers have been told – by those both inside and outside children and families social work – they must not be fooled by manipulative and deceitful parents.
The government has decided upon a national review into the circumstances leading up to Arthur’s death. In parliament Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, said that “if there is any evidence, any inkling, any iota of harm to any child, that child [should be] taken away immediately”.
Thankfully, there is as yet no law or policy allowing for child removal based on an “inkling” of harm. Such statements, made in the heat of the moment and with the benefit of hindsight, do not recognise the complex and difficult situations social workers and other professionals face.
A child protection investigation starts when an interdisciplinary strategy group decides there is “reasonable cause to suspect a child is suffering or likely to suffer significant harm”. If this represents an inkling of harm, then in the last five years there were almost a million (984,500) such investigations under section 47 of the Children Act.
Yet the vast majority of these did not find the child required removal from home – or even a child protection plan. Research shows that one in every seven children were subject to a child protection enquiry before their fifth birthday by 2015-16, compared with one in 16 in 2009-10.
Over decades, reforms to children and families social work that have focused on target-driven cultures, efficiency and procedures, and taken social workers further away from families, seem to have achieved little for children and their safety. We now have systems that are more focused on organisational needs and targets than the needs of children and their families.
Research has found no clear evidence for an overall decrease in child maltreatment despite reams of policies and decades of practice focused upon the safeguarding of children. These contexts for practice can have real, and often long-term, negative consequences for children and their families.
There have been more than 1,500 serious case reviews, dating all the way back to 1945. These have often been criticised for offering repetitive findings, recommendations that don’t improve practice, and ‘learning’ that has very limited impact on practice.
Any reviews of practice, including those now being initiated in respect of Arthur, need a rigorous focus on the complexity of working with children and families and the underlying causes of the issues families face and those inhibiting good social work practice.
Tragedies fuel defensive practice
More investigation on its own simply leads to too many families coming into child protection and care proceedings. For pretty much the whole of this century the numbers of investigations have spiralled, with numbers tripling from 65,000 in 2003 following the publication of the review into Victoria Climbié and increasing year on year, ramped up again following the tragedy of Peter Connelly (Baby P) to around 200,000 in each of the last three years.
Between 2014-17 child protection plans increased by 24%, care orders by 25% and care proceedings by 56%. This was despite the numbers of referrals remaining relatively stable. Such statistics reveal a system where more authoritarian responses have become the norm and practice has become intensely focused on negating risk and uncertainty.
In our anger, horror and desire to make sure that nothing like this happens again, we do precisely the wrong thing. We apply increasing pressure on those whose difficult job it is to protect children.
The Daily Mail names and shames social workers even before there has been a review of what happened. We call for workers to do more, investigate more and remove more children.
It is thus not surprising that, fired up by previous tragedies, practice becomes increasingly defensive and investigative, and we fail to make the relationships with families and local communities that can protect children.
We currently have a system that can both over- and under-intervene. What is needed is a system that investigates less families and concentrates on fewer interventions that are more focused, thorough and inclusive of families. Responses that are based firmly in research and evidence, but also compassion and support. A return to support under section 17 of the Children Act 1989, as was originally intended.
Perhaps if nearly a decade of austerity politics had not reduced services to a minimum with investigations prioritised, in a case like Arthur’s we might have provided ongoing help to a child whose mother had murdered someone in his household, making what happened later far less likely. Our focus on blame and investigation undermines our ability to help.
A system based on extreme cases is illogical and unfair
There will sadly likely always be parents who are willing to act in genuinely cruel ways. However cases such as Arthur’s and Star’s are tragic outliers and not typical of the vast majority of families who come into contact with children’s services.
To design a system around such cases and parents is illogical and deeply unfair on the many families struggling due to a range of factors, including poverty, social exclusion, neighbourhood deprivation and indeed lack of local supportive services following significant cuts. Further moves to a system founded on overly zealous vigilance and investigation will only exacerbate the troubling issue of families coming under the gaze of intrusive state services unnecessarily, and encourage draconian actions such as children being removed from their parents when this is avoidable.
Social work is at its best when it adopts a relationship-based, proportionate and humane approach to risk, and gets to know and work with children and their families. A social work that recognises that risk, uncertainty and ambiguity are inherent to working with children and families. We need a sector that understands that risk can be managed but not eliminated and that practice responses must not be polarised or simplistic, but should recognise the complexity of humans and their behaviours.
Shame is a dominant emotion in child protection social work. Shame for the parents and families brought into a stigmatising system to have their parenting picked apart, and shame for social workers when things go wrong.
We all need to stand together to develop a more supportive, collective and compassionate approach to child protection that recognises and works with the inherent complexity of families, and works with their often difficult and socioeconomically deprived circumstances.
Simon Haworth (@SiHaworth) is a lecturer at the University of Birmingham currently doing a PhD on child neglect and its assessment. He is a founding member of the Best Interests of the Child Review (BIC Review) and a core member of the Parents, Families and Allies Network (PFAN). He has written this piece with the parents of BIC and PFAN. With thanks to Natasha Phillips and Professor Andy Bilson.