Safeguarding has become such an integral part of the language we use about children that it is hard to remember the days when the only children that needed this hyper-vigilant protection were those identified as being at actual risk of harm.
Cases such as Victoria Climbié and Baby P have seen huge backlashes against social services that have in turn shaped the way that child protection services have developed. Both cases have seen inquiries and serious case reviews and by the time they draw to a close, someone always earnestly appears on the news telling us that this must never happen again.
But, despite our increasingly suffocating child protection policies and the ever-growing lists of risk indicators, despite anyone who ever goes anywhere near children going on training courses where they’re told what they should be suspicious of, and despite the seemingly endless number of child protection experts offering all-day conferences on how to identify abusers and why you should never trust the parents, inevitably it always does happen again.
With the numbers of children being referred to social services at an all time high, at Special Needs Jungle we have also seen a rise in the reports of families with disabled children finding themselves at the receiving end of child protection allegations when they have sought support, or disagreed with someone involved with their child.
Freedom of information requests highlight that no one seems to be keeping a count of how many families are wrongly accused of child abuse, while research shows that lowering the threshold for referring children to social services is actually reducing the percentage of children who genuinely need help receiving it, isn't it about time that someone asks the question whether our child protection system is harming more children than it helps, with disabled children being the worst affected?
How did we find ourselves living in a nanny state?
Victoria Climbié's death and the public inquiry following it was largely responsible for the various changes in child protection in England that has seen every child become a child needing to be safeguarded. The changes included the formation of the Every Child Matters programme; the introduction of the Children Act 2004. It also created the post of children's commissioner, who heads the Office of the Children's Commissioner, a national agency serving children and families.
The Children Act 2004 is responsible for the formation of the multi-agency Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCBs), which in turn are responsible for commissioning independent Serious Case Reviews and training member agency staff in safeguarding children best practice. The Act also places a duty on all agencies to make arrangements to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. It encourages agencies to share early concerns about safety and welfare of children, not based on any notion of child abuse, but on the basis of “a cause for concern”, that is not defined in the legislation.
The new policy of “safeguarding” children had a much wider remit than just “protecting” children from abuse or neglect. This caused serious concern at the time, because it was seen as overly intrusive as it allowed for surveillance and intrusion well below the threshold where there was an actual concern of abuse. It also saw the framework for protection of children ‘suffering or at risk of suffering significant harm’ under section 47 of the Children Act 1989, and the framework for providing services for children 'in need' under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 being expanded to include all children in the 2004 Act.
The 1989 legislation was very clear that until the threshold identified in section 47 has been reached, coercive measures cannot be used on parents who did not want to engage with social services. However, since the 2004 Act, successive versions of the statutory guidance ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children’ progressively eroded this boundary by enabling very low-level referrals based on theoretical risks.
Social work assessments, therefore, risk assessed all referrals using the same assessment framework, regardless of whether or not the child was actually being abused or instead was a disabled child in need of additional services. Equally, all children were now placed in a category that could be referred, and so slowly we began to talk about children as though they all needed to be safeguarded, and 'experts' appeared happy to capitalise on our wish to comply with the legislation and the fear of being held responsible for failing to prevent a child's death.
So why the haven't the reforms helped?
It has long been forgotten that there were very good reasons that these reforms were criticised. Critics noted that there had been 70 public inquiries into child abuse since 1945 which similarly also led to reform policies—reforms that have not saved the many children killed following them. They pointed out that, "an average of 78 children are killed by parents or minders every year; a figure unaltered in the 30 years since Maria Colwell's death provoked the first criticism of 'communications failure'". They expressed cynicism towards the possibility that these reforms would be different. Dr. Chris Harvey, director of operations at Barnardo's, for example, said, "Victoria's tragic case is the latest in a sad roll-call of child deaths, each leading to fresh inquiries and a new but recurring set of recommendations".
The subsequent death of Peter Connelly, known as Baby P or Baby Peter, in 2008, caused yet another inquiry and also a marked increase in the number of children taken into local authority care. In 2011 the government-commissioned a review of safeguarding practice carried out by Professor Eileen Munro in which Munro said: "A one-size-fits-all approach is not the right way for child protection services to operate. Top-down government targets and too many forms and procedures are preventing professionals from being able to give children the help they need and assess whether that help has made a difference."
This prompted the government to propose changes to children's social care in its 2016 publication, Children’s social care reform: A vision for change. The suggested changes largely centre around the need for talented, well educated social workers by tightening up assessment and regulation of social workers' fitness to practice, but it does not address the fundamentally flawed assumption that identifying child abuse is as simple as identifying the right risk indicators to assess.
So here is the problem. The child protection guidance operates on the assumption that serious case reviews help us identify abusers and those they abuse by finding 'risk characteristics' that everyone can be assessed by.
Dr Lauren Devine argues that, “The current approach is driven by fear rather than by the evidential reality of whether you can predict who will abuse their child”." Devine obtained and reviewed the recommendations of all available Serious Case Reviews and found that they are costly and provide no reliable research findings on which to base future policy. This is supported by an independent report carried out by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, Alan Wood in 2016 who concluded that the process was, “discredited” and unfit for purpose.”
One process for all causes discrimination
Serious case reviews have been used to try to identify risk characteristics to screen out potential abusers, using an assessment process. But applying findings and recommendations relevant to the most serious cases to all cases is hardly a robust evidence-based approach.
Yet since the 2004 Act, each year many tens of thousands of families are assessed based on "risk characteristics" because they have made a simple request for services. That means that families with disabled children are subjected to the same child protection investigation and risk assessment as a family who is suspected of abusing their child. So what we have created is an overwhelmingly defensive approach to risk that is not based on sound evidence and directly discriminates against disabled children.
But surely such measures mean that fewer children are harmed?
Indeed, it seems that exactly the opposite is true. In Devine's recent review of child protection and safeguarding trends, there seems to be a stark difference between the NSPCC’s estimate of the prevalence of child abuse in England and the actual amount of child abuse, (risk of, or actual significant harm) detected in referred cases. Rather than leading to a proportionate increase in the level of child abuse found in referred children, the numbers have dramatically fallen.
The ratio of detection has dramatically altered as policies driving increased referrals have grown, falling from 24% in 1991-1992 to 7.4% in 2013-2014. These ratios are not explained by early intervention as these numbers refer to families before intervention occurs.
“We are now at a situation where up to 5% of all families are now referred for assessment every year." Devine tells us, "The vast majority of those do not injure or seriously harm their children, but government policy requiring risk assessment at quite a low threshold means that rather than feeling supported by social services, some families now feel fear.” Studying these assessments, she found them remarkably inefficient at predicting who is going to kill or seriously hurt their children. Therefore they are not only a bad use of resources, but may actively put other children in danger.
Yet the government continues to cut resources whilst encouraging guidance that drives an increased number of referrals each year. It's simply not sustainable and arguably has created a system where social services are pushed beyond their limit and child protection causes more harm to children and families than it helps.
What are we doing about it?
At Special Needs Jungle we are very aware of the increasing numbers of parents who find themselves subjected to child protection procedures as a result of asking for support, challenging professionals or having a child with a condition that someone working with them does not understand.
Tania and I have already spoken openly to ministers, journalists, child protection experts, medical experts and parents about our concerns surrounding the anti-parent language used in publications and guidance around child protection and the lack of adequate monitoring and accountability for safeguarding personnel.
We have also raised concerns about the lack of evidence supporting much of the guidance published by the government, as well as numerous journal articles listing ‘risk characteristics’, such as a parent asking for a second opinion or disagreeing with a doctor.
Also concerning is the focus of safeguarding training encouraging practitioners to rely on lists of risk indicators that have had no rigorous independent scrutiny or any fact-based evidence to support them. Given the heavy price that parents and children have to pay when practitioners follow these guidelines and get it wrong, we simply cannot understand why no one is demanding the same rigorous scrutiny and quality control as we expect of the scientific community.
New NICE guidelines
As a result of our concerns, we are now actively involved in trying to influence the people who are responsible for writing the child protection guidance that is causing ongoing problems for families with disabled children. We registered as stakeholders in order to respond to new guidance on 'soft' signs of child abuse and neglect that NICE was producing.
This guideline on handling and responding to abuse and neglect caused us serious concern that it was directly discriminating against disabled children and their families, and would lead to specific developmental disorders being targeted. We believed that the evidence gathered, including the testimonies of expert witnesses, was not representative of all the people on whom these guidelines will impact. For example, it fails to properly explore the likelihood that these guidelines will be applied in error and what the unwarranted consequences of this might be to children and their families.
The evidence search also failed to properly explore the consequences and possible harm that could be caused by incorrectly accusing parents of abuse and the expert witnesses and committee members did not include any experience of childhood disability and its presentation and did not invite input from experts dealing with false allegations of abuse.
We were pleased to see that NICE took on board all our requests to reword large parts of the guidance to ensure that practitioners were aware that these signs also were indicative of disability. But it seems like a drop in the ocean when you step back and look at the bigger picture and see the families who are already struggling at the mercy of child protection procedures that can be wielded by practitioners without any fear of consequences.
So why aren’t the government and NICE taking on board the evidence that current safeguarding guidance is a flawed system? Why aren't safeguarding outcomes audited? Why are self-proclaimed experts teaching practitioners to suspect parents based on signs that have no factual basis? And why, when services are at breaking point, are we resorting to repeating the same approach that has actually meant that fewer abused children are protected and more children from loving families have harm inflicted on them?
Isn't it time we stopped being so scared of having an open and honest conversation about child protection? Isn’t it time we stopped demonising all parents, and stopped putting child protection 'experts' on untouchable pedestals?
What happens elsewhere
There are people out there who do things differently, and you know what... it works!
In New Zealand their belief is "that in the right environment, with the right people surrounding and nurturing them, any child can, and should flourish", and they do because their social services focus on supporting parents rather than criminalising them. Closer to home in Leeds, they have brought about a huge culture shift offering “family group conferences”, to which parents can invite anyone they feel would be willing to support them. The professionals, who are in the minority in the meeting, then outline their concerns and then leave the group to come up with practical ways to support the parents. They have a 98% success rate in keeping children who would otherwise go into care, with their families. The one thing they do differently? They focus on raising the children's wellbeing, by remembering the importance of family, not by dragging parents through a system that leaves them broken, ostracised from their community and with no trust for the people meant to be looking after them.
Time to change
It is time to change the way we communicate about how to protect children. When a professional points their finger they are going to forever change the relationship that the family has with the people around that child. Even if the professional is outrageously wrong and there is a wealth of evidence that there is no blame on the parent, that accusation is never lost from the system, the doubt is never far away.
It is the most terrible thing to be accused of as a parent, and the weight of the accusation should not be lost because we hide behind the pretence that we are acting in the best interests of the child, because we are not.
When you accuse a parent, you are taking away their ability to advocate for their child. You are removing and discrediting the best source of information you have about how to help the child. You are taking away the expertise of the person that knows them the best. This is not in the best interests of anyone.
So let's stop repeating the same mistakes and learn from best practice rather than guidance that tells us to ignore our instincts and use an assessment tool that is no more accurate than rolling a dice. Let's approach child protection from a position of kindness, compassion, and communication, then all the money we save by not overwhelming social services with pointless assessment referrals, could be ploughed back into supporting families and helping give children positive outcomes rather than dragging families through the dirt and then blaming them for being too broken to cope.
We'd love hear about your experiences and ideas on what good practice in child protection looks like.