By Andy Bilson emeritus professor of social work and Taliah Drayak, parent with lived experience of child protection, parent advocate and founder of Scots Mums Guide to Safeguarding and Child Protection
Child protection is spiralling out of control in a more of the same loop. Whenever it fails, we apply more of the same solution – more investigations so we don’t miss a child at risk; more children in care and adoption; wider definitions of harm; more and fuller procedures; more information sharing; more blaming of parents and of social workers; and so on and on. However, there is no evidence that our child protection system actually reduces harm to children.
The covid-19 epidemic faces society with a choice about how we do support families and children. It has disproportionately affected Black and Minority Ethnic groups and those in poverty. In the next weeks and months we need to respond to the massive cost of this pandemic. We need to find ways to support families and children that have come under stress because they have lost family members; because they have lost work and income; because there has been domestic violence; because they have had problems with mental health; because they’ve used alcohol and drugs to medicate; because they have struggled to live in inadequate housing during lockdown; because they have got into debt; because charities and other supports have reduced or disappeared; because they are threatened with homelessness.
The current approach of children’s social care is too often to individualise problems like these and to search for blame through child protection investigations. We can’t afford child protection!
We can’t afford child protection
The number of child protection investigations in England has risen every year since 2005. In 2018/19 there were over two hundred thousand child protection investigations – one starting every 2 minutes and 37 seconds! The spiral of investigations has led to one in every 16 children in England being investigated before reaching their fifth birthday with similar rates in Scotland. Increasing proportions of investigations do not find significant harm and the focus is mostly on neglect and future emotional harm which are ever more widely defined and in many cases confuse poverty with abuse. Sexual abuse and physical abuse are largely unchanged over the last 10 years as was the number of abuse related child deaths. This effort is focused in the most deprived communities as the video below shows.
Child protection increasingly contracts out services to private providers alongside a coercive paternalism founded on an assumption that how you fare is your own responsibility depending on your own efforts not on the state. Child protection has become part of an approach to governing that is liberal at the top for those with money and resources and authoritarian and punitive for those without. Whilst the rhetoric is about promoting the well-being of children, English speaking wealthy countries with this approach do not have high levels of child well-being.
The focus on risk and blame distorts and constrains what we do and how we think. It converts requests for help into risk. It can even distort policies and our use of research. Meanwhile the care system is in crisis with major reviews calling for massive change in England and Scotland. We can’t afford child protection because of the: human cost; financial cost; and opportunities lost.
All I did was cry and never sleep
I was stripped of my identity – as a Mum and as a good person.
I lost my Mum too. They took my sister into care, but then they took away my Mum emotionally. She was so busy trying to work with them, she didn’t have much left for us. I hated them for that. I missed my Mum.
16 year old girl
The human cost of our current approach can be seen in the impact on children and families who are investigated. Amy and Chelsea (quoted below) both had children removed because of false interpretations of a bruise. Their children were returned but the cost to these innocent women, their children and families was huge as their quotes and this powerful video show. This harm to parents, families, siblings, community and often the children meant to be protected is collateral damage. Parents, particularly mothers, and children are harmed by the fear and shame caused by investigations, care proceedings and losing their children to care or adoption and their rights are violated. Families lose grandchildren, brothers and sisters, nieces and cousins. Meanwhile, the children removed are stripped of everything they have every known.
Growing numbers of children end up in care or adopted through the child protection system with the true size of this hidden by lack of information on numbers of children living with adoptive parents and special guardians. The outcomes of care for children, even when well-funded and resourced as it is in Scandinavian countries, are horrifyingly poor including increased likelihood of: poor educational performance; mental health problems; involvement in crime; drug and alcohol misuse; even early death; and for care leavers: homelessness; unemployment; their own children being taken into care and adopted to name but a few issues.
In addition the impact on parents, siblings and wider family when children are taken into care is high. Mothers’ physical and mental health can be compromised and again there is an increase in dying early.
Me, Theo and my mum are now in a hostel because we were made homeless … I had to leave my job in the end because of the stress. Me and Theo’s dad broke up because we became distant because of it all. We couldn’t stop arguing. We just lost everything.
The increasing number and cost of child protection investigations and children separated from their families in care and adoption means that local authorities are close to being bankrupt. The cost of safeguarding rose by 23% to £2.3 billion in nine years and children in care costs rose 40% to £4.7 billion whilst spending on support services has fallen by 46% to £1.9 billion. So we spend over three times more on child protection and care than on support for children and families which has been decimated including cuts in key services like: youth work, preventative substance misuse and teenage pregnancy services
Before Covid-19 local authority children’s services had a shortfall of £1.7 billion and now funding other than from central government is affected by the pandemic and will fall dramatically. Directors of children’s services were predicting further increases in safeguarding and children in care before covid-19 and the massive impact of the pandemic on children will cost so much more if we continue business as usual.
However, these direct costs are only part of the story as the financial cost of the social impact of these policies are not included. For example, the poor outcomes for children who have been in care and the impact on parents families and communities cost further billions.
There are also costs for families affected by child protection. A parent survey conducted in Scotland showed 69% of parents faced financial hardship directly relating to child protection. Parents on benefits whose children enter care lose much of their income and can face penalties for over payments. They often face cuts because of the bedroom tax and many lose their homes and parents not on benefits can be faced with huge legal fees if they want to discharge a care order or appeal against a care order. Taliah recounts her experience:
The initial blow was having to spend all our savings on legal fees before we could qualify for legal aid. Years of hard work and saving gone almost overnight. Next, we went from being a two-income household to being on benefits. This was a huge adjustment for us as a family but to continue to qualify for legal aid we could not afford to work. And if we worked we could not possibly make enough to pay our legal expenses. It is devastating …and – the authorities are spending huge sums pursuing blame – not a solution or support.
The focus on investigation and individualisation of the difficulties families face has led to a set of services that do not reduce and in many cases increase the pressures that make parenting difficult. There is a need to focus on areas including poverty, housing, mental health, drug and alcohol use, but the focus on risk means that all too often these issues become part of a case for statutory intervention rather than for support.
The high level of concentration on families in deprived communities where high proportions of all children are in need is too often met with individualised risk oriented responses that weaken and place pressure on communities and destroy families.
Families lose opportunities too. For example parents often cannot work if they are to comply with requirements for contact, planning meetings and parent training. Taliah says of her experience:
When our child protection investigation hit us, our eldest daughter was home educated and studying for her exams. These exams were privately paid for and were to be sat at a college out of county. Between meeting the requirements of contact with our daughter in care, meetings, hearings and assessments, there was no way we could take the three weeks needed to take our daughter to sit the exams. Equally, she was suffering incredible trauma and we did not feel that it was fair on her. The poor girl wasn’t sleeping for the worries she carried. Her exam marks certainly wouldn’t have been an accurate reflection of her capabilities. Hence, she had to repeat a year of schooling which hasn’t been kind to her confidence.
As a parent you want your child to be confident and believe in their capabilities, but once you experience a child protection investigation, you lose your own confidence. And it isn’t a baseless fear. You can’t let your child climb a tree, they might fall and be hurt. You may well be blamed and lose your child. You can’t let your child walk to the shop alone, if they face any minor hurdle and ask for help, you may be reported for neglect.
We cannot risk losing our children to the state and so our children are over protected and not allowed to have the independence that they need to develop resilience, life skills and self-confidence.
A New Approach
Change must happen! The necessary change is passionately and articulately expressed by professors Featherston, Gupta, Morris and White in their books Re-Imagining Child Protection and Protecting Children a Social Model. They call for a Social Model of:
family-minded humane practice where children are understood as relational beings, parents are recognized as people with needs and hopes and families as carrying extraordinary capacities for care and protection”
There are others calling for similar reform and we believe they are both necessary and possible. In fact, they fit with the international definition of social work which has a social development orientation.
Our current approach to child protection has been called a child rights approach. It isn’t. We need to reclaim child rights. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Guidelines on Alternative Care are clear that parents have the key duty to bring up children and protect their rights. The state’s efforts should primarily be to support families. Whilst there are situations in which the child’s best interests are served by being placed outside of parental care, this should only be where the child’s own family is unable, even with appropriate support, to provide adequate care and should be seen as a measure of last resort and should, wherever possible, be temporary and for the shortest possible duration.
A Social Development framework
To implement a Social Model we need a change of focus. Midgley and Conley describe a social development framework to child protection which has a key focus on “tangible improvements in standards of living, health and education, and a concomitant reduction in poverty, malnutrition, and illiteracy.” Key features of such an orientation relevant for child protection are: strengths; poverty reduction; advocacy; community; and partnership and collaboration.
Strengths: We need to acknowledge and develop family and community assets and aim to promote resilience. An orientation that focusses on strengths and experiences and develops links within families and communities can support families in difficulty. This includes approaches such as: Love Barrow Families; Family Group Conferencing; Asset based community work; Protective factors
Poverty reduction and sustainable livelihoods: We should aim to achieve social and economic justice through strengthening people and their communities’ livelihood capabilities. This might include social investments that enhance individual and community capabilities including employment placement (e.g. employment opportunities for care leavers; employment services for people with a learning difficulty; or parent advocates employed in legal practices or to support parents facing the child protection system), childcare, adult literacy, micro-enterprise, and asset savings accounts alongside benefits and debt counselling. In Malta many of these approaches have been adopted by government leading to reductions in poverty and better conditions for children and families. The power for local authorities to provide these approaches are already part of our legislation in the UK and there are good examples undertaken in middle and low income countries by social workers with few resources and in alliance with families.
Advocacy: We must move from a narrow preoccupation with practice with families and children to taking an advocacy stance alongside the families we work with. We should campaign together with parents, families and children. We can learn from the parent advocacy movement in New York in which parents and allies challenged and continue to challenge the child protection system. This was central to reducing the numbers of children in care from 50,000 to around 9,000 today. Examples include advocacy in child protection conferences; in alcohol and drug misuse programs; in group work programmes; in helplines; in legal practice and much more.
We can continue to strengthen the voices of children for example working with care leavers groups; supporting children to change their own communities and to participate in shaping child protection.
Partnership and collaboration with a range of actors: The problems families face require us to work across boundaries for example promoting access to affordable housing, addiction services, pregnancy support services, education, and recreational facilities.
How can we get this change?
The good news is that most if not all of this is possible within current legislation (what is needed is change in our approach) and we have seen major changes in the past.
For example, in England in the 1980’s a movement, eventually coming together under the banner of the Association for Juvenile Justice (AJJ) campaigned for reforms on youth offending. It worked alongside academics who provided an evidence base and challenged conventional thinking on youth offending. During the 1980s, mostly under Margaret Thatcher, a revolution occurred for young offenders. New community services were set up. Numbers of children in care for offending fell from around 14,000 to under 1,000 in 1989 and prison sentences for males under 16 fell from 7,700 to 1,400 per year. During that time members of the AJJ campaigned; developed alliances; developed new community-based services; lobbied local authorities; held conferences and workshops – in other words we organised.
Here are some ideas for what we can do:
The Parents, Families and Allies Network (PFAN), is our framework for organising. We will bring together like-minded people in gatherings to grow the solutions we need and campaign for change.
- Continue to develop humane practice
Working alongside parents and children who are experts by experience we can find out what really works and how best to support families. We can promote these practices using webinars, training and publicity.
- Strengthen unheard voices
Listening to the many unheard voices on all sides of the divide caused by our adversarial child protection system we can help tell their stories and amplify their voices.
- Create local strategies
Many of the changes needed can be carried out within a local authority if brave decisions are made by policy makers and managers. We need to help them to make these decisions by lobbying elected members; gathering the evidence for change; and developing campaigns.
- Carry out national campaigns
Research and understand people’s situations and use our knowledge to campaign for change.
- Bring together allies and support each other
We need to find common ground and act with solidarity if we are to become a force for change.
At a time of great suffering because of a pandemic which has highlighted and preyed on the growing inequality in the world we need an awakening of social work and nowhere more so than in child protection. As someone who entered the social work profession almost 50 years ago and who has helped to establish social work in many countries and as a parent who has been through the trauma of a child protection investigation, we are sad to say that social work in child protection is no longer part of the solution to cruelty to children – it has become part of the problem. The mantra child protection is everybody’s business is true. We do all need to fight to end cruelty, violence and harm to children. But business as usual will not only not achieve this aim, it will continue to make life for children in poor and excluded communities worse. It will do this because the weight of oppression is added to by social work that has led to a relentless expansion of investigation and blame. We hope we can promote a reawakening of social work to the core of its international definition that it
… facilitates social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work.
by PFAN steering group
Writing at this time we need to acknowledge what is happening around the world. Anna Gupta’s impassioned editorial for Social Work 2020 under covid-19 lays out how the injustice rightly felt in the Black Lives Matter movement speaks not just to America but to racism in the UK too.
We believe that the child protection ... Read More
By Francesca Crozier-Roche (Parent with lived experience of the CP system) and Simon Haworth (Social work academic, University of Birmingham)
We seem often be hearing of differences and disagreements in the current world, with conflict and anger seemingly in the news constantly. Social workers and parents can and do agree, get along and work together. Francesca, a parent with lived experience of the child protection system, and Simon, a social work academic, agreed each ... Read More
By Andy Bilson
In October 2019 The Open Nest Charity hosted a conference in York consisting of a non-profit collaboration between a group of individuals and organisations who were concerned about some child protection practices that lead to the traumatic and permanent severance of parents and families from their children via adoption. A group convened by Denise Smalley and Amanda Boorman had carefully planned the conference and identified the need for a network to promote ... Read More