Perhaps surprisingly, there is no evidence to show that, at the population level, child protection activity of the investigative sort carried out in high income English speaking countries reduces harm to children or promotes well-being. In the a major international study across six countries including England considering neglect and physical maltreatment in children younger than eleven it was found:
no clear evidence for an overall decrease in child maltreatment despite decades of policies designed to achieve such reductions Gilbert et al (2012 p.758)
Research in Western Australia over a fourteen year period found showed that whilst there were huge variations in children reported to child protection, investigated and even some increase in those where abuse was substantiated the number of children that social workers found to be harmed during their investigation barely changed. The graph below shows a huge increase in reports and investigations following a policy change in 2005 did not lead to more harmed children being identifies and other research showed that 93.6% of those found to have been maltreated did not have a ‘maltreatment’ related hospital admission.
This finding is similar to a national study in Canada that found concerns focused less on immediate safety and more on the long-term effects of a range of family related problems. Only 1 per cent of investigations involved physical harm requiring treatment and there was a further 2 per cent where treatment was not required. Workers, identified 6 per cent of investigations as showing severe enough emotional harm to require treatment and emotional harm not requiring treatment in a further 4 per cent of investigations. Thus, at least 87 per cent of investigations were unsubstantiated or workers identified no physical or emotional harm.
In England if all this investigative action was effective in protecting children or preventing future harm we would expect to see a reduction in investigations and findings of abuse over time, but there has been an increasing rate of both for the last fifteen years in England. It is sad to note that despite a doubling of child protection investigations, the number of child deaths recorded by the Child Death Overview Panels as being due to deliberately inflicted injury, abuse or neglect have changed little since 2010 fluctuating between a low of 30 in 2010 and a high of 62 in 2014. This is likely to be a more accurate indicator of the deaths in child protection cases than the more general homicide rates often used. This raises the key question of whether the increasingly investigative response to families does reduce risk of serious harm.
At the same time and despite their wealth, none of the post-industrial English speaking countries with increasing investigations and child protection based policies are in the top fourteen rich OECD countries on measures of child health and well-being.