What ending physical punishment of children in Wales means for social work

Legislation in Wales will make all physical punishment of children illegal from March 2022. This change will better equip social workers to help child victims of physical assault, says one team manager

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By Maisie Duckworth

Wales is entering a historic period that will see children’s rights further protected thanks to new Welsh Government legislation. The Children (Abolition of Defence of Reasonable Punishment) (Wales) Act 2020 will remove an archaic legal defence by outlawing the physical punishment of children when it comes into force in Wales from 21 March 2022.

I’ve been fortunate to co-chair for the last two years one of the task-and-finish groups with the Welsh Government on the practical implementation of the new legislation. I welcome it as something that has been needed for a very long time.

In my role as a social worker in Merthyr Tydfil, south Wales, I manage two teams – the new intake team, which deals with new cases coming through into children’s services needing assessment, and the multi agency safeguarding hub (MASH) team, which handles all referrals.

As social workers, our main role is safeguarding children and young people. Adults have legal protection from assault – why shouldn’t children, some of the most vulnerable people in our society?

Unfortunately, we deal day-in, day-out with cases of physical assault on children. With the defence of reasonable punishment in place, and able to be used as a tool to avoid prosecution, it is harder to explain to parents that they need to stop.

We see children who have experienced physical abuse coming back through the system time and time again – a cycle that this new legislation will hopefully begin to break once and for all.

Hidden impact of physical abuse

We as a team have been raising awareness for a long time now about the new law, so I think some families will already be aware that change is coming in Wales. We have been promoting positive parenting techniques not just as social workers, but also through health workers and schools too.

The advice is always that physical punishment shouldn’t be used. There are other forms of discipline which should be used instead, because we know the negative emotional as well as physical impact physical punishment has on children.

When you look at the most serious cases of physical abuse you see that emotional turmoil, and the impact on children’s behaviour and emotional regulation as they get older.

People will sometimes say they weren’t physically hurt by any punishment, but it is often these less visible impacts they have to deal with for many years afterwards.”

Our daily practice as social workers won’t change once the legislation comes into force on 21 March 2022. Our thresholds for significant harm will be maintained. But as a result of the new law, we, and the police, may receive reports we wouldn’t have received before. When police investigate, depending on seriousness and public interest considerations, they may not charge and will likely refer those cases back to us.

If the threshold of significant harm isn’t met, we are likely to refer those parents to some form of parenting support – meaning those referrals may rise. While there may be more families coming to our attention, the focus will not be on criminalising parents but helping, educating and supporting them in managing behaviours differently. What’s going to be key is pushing out messaging to parents that there is support available and that alternatives to physical punishment exist.

The clarity the new legislation provides is also very important. There are no grey areas anymore – and this applies not just within children’s services, but to professionals who have concerns and who make referrals. With the implementation of the legislation, any referral going to the police will hopefully lead to these instances not occurring again.

Changing minds

In Merthyr Tydfil, we have an early help hub that we signpost families to for preventive support whether it is about parenting, budgeting or emotional support. A wide range of services work with families to identify the right level of support for each. It is a tailored piece of work looking at all available avenues.

The programmes are positive and productive, although sometimes there are barriers, and families who might think they don’t need support. We are lucky in Merthyr Tydfil to have so many services on offer and good relationships between families, schools and health colleagues. They are able to give encouragement, rather than penalising, and to prevent escalation in the near future.

I’m a mother myself. Parenting is the hardest job in the world – my office job is difficult, but when I go home it is much harder! Babies don’t come with a manual and any parenting strategy for one child may have a different impact for another. I think it is about acknowledging that sometimes it’s not you, it’s not your child and it’s about adapting to make things work within your own family and with each child individually.

I think there has definitely been a change in attitude already towards physical punishment over the last few years. As the new law comes in, there will unfortunately be a small number of parents who fall foul of the law. But hopefully we can then break the chain of assault on children once and for all.

Rising referrals?

Covid and the subsequent lockdowns were worrying for us – as they were for all professionals working with children – in terms of visiting families and missing referrals, most of which usually came through schools, which had been shut. We were fortunate to have rigorous health protocols and assessments in place, enabling us to continue coming into the office on a rota basis and to see families we were working with. Of course, though, there have been cases we weren’t aware of.

We haven’t yet seen a massive increase in referrals since restrictions have eased, although I keep thinking that only time will tell, as things are still not fully back to normal. Children may have kept instances of abuse to themselves for a long time because of being unable to have contact with other people and to share things.

It could be that once the new law comes into force we get more people ringing in to say, for example, that they know their neighbours have been physically punishing their children. I anticipate more of those kinds of referrals, along with people saying they have witnessed something on the street or in the supermarket. But, day-to-day, it’s not going to change how we manage those types of referrals. The focus will still be on educating families and preventing any escalation.

Finally, while the law change will only apply to Wales, it is not, of course, only for people living here. We need to be prepared for families visiting from England and elsewhere who may now be found to be breaking the law.

It may even be that when we contact relevant authorities in England, for example, they may not be aware of the change in the law here. It is crucial to raise awareness now so that people visiting Wales know that our laws regarding physical punishment will have changed – for the better – from 21 March.

Maisie Duckworth is a team manager at Merthyr Tydfil council’s children’s services

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