by Cathy Ashley
This month, a local child safeguarding practice review into the horrific killing of 16-month-old Star Hobson is expected to publish its findings. By May, the government’s review into the circumstances behind six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes’s murder is due to make recommendations around improvements to local and national child safeguarding practice.
The two children’s deaths have of course been devastating for their families, and have dismayed the country. Arthur and Star – and the harm they endured – have been on the minds of many, including all of us for whom safety, care and wellbeing of children is central to, and the motivation for, our work.
Already though we have seen a familiar blame game escalate. One commentator in the Daily Mail pointed the finger at “social workers and police officers capitulating in… a cowardly fashion to the forces of ‘political correctness’”. Meanwhile former government adviser Martin Narey has argued that Arthur’s death exposed flaws in the current approach of social services, which, he said, placed an onus on working with parents instead of ensuring the child’s safety, if necessary, by taking them into care.
So is it right to conclude that we should now abandon the principle of partnership working between state and family in the interests of children – a principle that underpins the Children Act 1989?
‘If we don’t work with families, we lose valuable insight’
Well, no. Why? Because there’s substantial evidence that working with children and their families offers the best means of safeguarding and helping to promote children’s welfare.
First, and key, is that families often know significantly more about their children and their circumstances than the state ever will. If we don’t work with families, we lose all that valuable knowledge and insight. Indeed, it seems relatives of Arthur and Star tried to raise the alarm on a number of occasions.
The importance of engaging with family members doesn’t just apply to those in need of early help. It’s true for children on a child protection plan and indeed those in care.
Unless we intend for another 50,000 children on a child protection plan to be removed from their home and become looked after in care, working with the child, their parents and family is critical to keeping them safe.
Unless we plan to return none of the 80,000 children currently in the care system home, and instead keep them all in care throughout their childhoods, then working with children and their families is key to ensuring their safety and wellbeing.
Unless we think breaking the relationships of children in care with their parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents and others who care about them is really working out well right now, then we need to invest in nurturing and building positive relationships.
‘Families seen through a prism of risk are too readily discounted’
Second, there are some people who are deliberately cruel and sadistic to children but, thankfully, they are rare. As Simon Howarth wrote in his excellent article last month, most families in the child welfare system are struggling to parent in conditions of adversity.
Analysis of child protection plans confirms most children are on a child protection plan as a result of neglect or emotional abuse – and the number of children that applies to has risen by more than a third since 2013. A small minority (14%) are on a plan because of physical abuse, sexual abuse or multiple factors, with the number having declined since 2013.
Most parents care about their children even if they may need support and help to safely care for them or prevent crises from escalating. Partnership working allows for practitioners and families to develop a relationship. It enables practitioners to get to know the family, to provide high support and yes, high challenge. The collapse in early support and preventative services, the turnover of social workers, and high reliance on temporary agency staff have consequences.
Third, as Professor Carlene Firmin’s work on contextual safeguarding demonstrates, for some young people the risk of significant harm doesn’t come from within their families. Parents and carers may have little understanding or influence over these contexts. Extra familial harm, such as involvement with gangs, can undermine parent-child relationships and blaming families in such circumstances can extenuate the harm the child faces.
Fourth, overall the state is not a good corporate parent or grandparent. That is not to minimise the dedication of individuals working within the care system or the achievements of some young people, but in the main outcomes are poor. Research by Professor Amanda Sacker spells this out, including earlier death rates compared with the rest of the population.
When families are only seen through the prism of risk and harm, then we also too readily discount them as a resource. This includes those wider relatives who may be critical sources of support, and those who are prospective carers for children unable to remain at home.
To side-line them flies in the face of evidence that children raised in kinship care in the main do better than those in unconnected foster or residential care – and report feeling loved and more secure.
‘The system harshly judges those it should be there to help’
Far from partnership working being the norm, I would challenge that it is insufficiently embedded in our child welfare system.
Too often we hear of children and families being repeatedly assessed as a substitute for support. There are now more children in the care system than at any time since 1985. In 2018, Family Rights Group facilitated a sector-wide Care Crisis Review. We found:
- Lack of resources, poverty and deprivation are making it harder for families and children’s services to cope.
- Children and families are too often not getting the help they need early enough to prevent difficulties escalating.
- A culture of blame, shame and fear has permeated the system, affecting those working in it as well as the children and families reliant upon it.
- The environment is increasingly one of mistrust and risk adversity, prompting practitioners to seek refuge in bureaucratic and procedural responses.
These challenges have been amplified during the pandemic. We are currently in a position where those who the system should be there to help, such as young parents who were themselves in the care system, or parents who are domestic abuse victims, are often the most harshly judged and treated by it.
Meanwhile depleted children’s services funds are being spent on commissioning hugely expensive, often inappropriate placements for small numbers of children – some of them from companies making excessive profit margins.
To jettison the principle of partnership working between families and the state would be to the severe detriment of children. Instead, our focus should be turning that principle into an everyday reality.
Cathy Ashley is chief executive of the Family Rights Group charity