2nd Edition April 24th, 2020 Brid Feathersone, Anna Gupta and Kate Morris

On unravelling and re-imagining: child protection in a pandemic

Know that many personal troubles cannot be solved merely as troubles, but must be understood in terms of public issues – and in terms of the problems of history making. Know that the human meaning of public issues must be revealed by relating them to personal troubles – and to the problems of the individual life. Know that the problems of social science, when adequately formulated, must include both troubles and issues, both biography and history, and the range of their intricate relations (Wright Mills 1959 (2000): 226).

In our book Protecting Children: A Social Model (Featherstone, Gupta, Morris and White, 2018) we argued for the importance of exploring the connection between public issues and private troubles. We noted how this sense of connection had been eroded over the decades with the construction of a settlement where individuals were deemed solely responsible for meeting their needs for shelter, food, dignity and social connection.  Any failures in meeting such needs were also their responsibility.  As Rebecca Solnit (2020) has noted, the wave of privatisation that characterised our neoliberal age ‘began with the privatisation of the human heart, the withdrawal from a sense of a shared fate and social bonds’. Truly, all became privatised and individualised as a series of long-standing connections and their dynamic interplay were obscured if not denied: public/ private, social/ individual, structure/ agency. 

Our focus in the book was on how these processes got played out in the disconnect that had emerged between the activities associated with child protection and what was happening in the lives of actual children and their families. Thus, child protection involved professionals assessing risks within individual families, primarily through home visits. There they explored the actions or inactions of individual parents with the causes for these largely sought in a range of psychological or family systems theories, some more sophisticated than others.

In the meantime, the world outside the home was changing at a dizzying rate with huge implications for children and their families. Policies pursued, from 2010 onwards, meant the risks faced by families from poverty, poor housing and the hollowing out of social and physical infrastructures mounted relentlessly with increasing numbers of children with not enough to eat, insecure housing, nowhere safe to play and no libraries to nourish them. These changes have been framed as social harms; harms resulting from the policy choices and activities of local and national states and corporations which impact upon the welfare of individuals and groups (Dorling et al, 2008:14). 

At a time when it needed to be understood more than ever, the relationship between social and individual, public and private became hopelessly confused particularly in relation to how causation is understood. To confront the role poverty and inequality played in child abuse and neglect was seen by key Government Minsters, such as Michael Gove on the right, as excusing bad parenting and by those, on the left of the political spectrum, as pathologizing those living in poverty.  

This was not, of course, unique to child protection. As Sayer (2017:155) noted in relation to the Troubled Families programme:

Radicals are likely to want to repudiate the programme and to reject its blaming of individuals and families, but in so doing they expose themselves to accusations of denying facts of anti-social behaviour …  Rather than deny that any problematic behaviour can be due to injuries of class, we need to frame it in a way that acknowledges both the behaviour and the more complex causality that produces it.

In the Social Model we argued for a new story rooted in evidence and values. We sought to avoid binary choices by acknowledging the realities of the links between poverty and rates of child maltreatment as evidenced in a range of international studies. We addressed the challenges posed by those who harmed others while carrying painful histories of being harmed themselves. We also challenged a deeply entrenched national story about fairness to point out that children from the most deprived parts of the country were over ten times more likely to come into care. 

We suggested the need for a story that rooted the protection of children within broader understandings of what all families need to flourish. We wanted the state to be bigger and yet smaller, closer to home.  Thus, we argued for robust social protections, a re-imagining of the promise of the welfare state with decent income support strategies, housing, education and health for all.  But we also wanted to re-think how services were delivered with a focus on the local, on community and, crucially, a commitment to co-production.  We noted the importance of fostering social connections and argued for a de-centring of the professional and professionally led approaches to child protection. We argued that collective strategies needed to be considered in a project that promoted community work, locality-based approaches and peer support and was founded on seeing families as a source of expertise about system design and best practice. 

A social unravelling and re-imagining

So, two years on in the midst of a pandemic, how does our analysis stand up and what needs rethinking for child protection?

The arguments around poverty, inequality and the need for a new and robust social settlement constitute a new orthodoxy as countless commentators note the need to value care, look after each other and meet basic needs. Of course, how much of this will endure post pandemic remains to be seen.  There is no inevitability about a progressive future, it will have to be fought for. 

A model based upon visiting individual homes, and using the self as the resource to assess strengths and risks, is put under severe pressure in a pandemic.  Fears of infection have led to serious curtailment of face-to-face contact with children, families and other team members and the closure of schools has meant the withdrawal of children from official oversight unless they fall into a particular category of vulnerability. All the while, there is a cacophony of voices counselling that behind each closed door is likely to be found abuse, fear and danger. 

Perhaps, paradoxically, in this climate we are hearing accounts from social workers of their adoption of practices that encompass practical help (such as with food parcels) and expressions of care and solidarity as they worry about the welfare of families in very difficult circumstances. An intensified understanding of the inequalities in families’ experiences of home and environment is also apparent. Such developments may be evidence of what writers, such as Nussbaum (2001), have noted in terms of the possibility for practices of compassion to emerge when we confront our shared vulnerability to misfortune.  Social workers are confronted in a way that many others are not with the reality that, whilst we are all indeed vulnerable to the virus, we are not all equally vulnerable (Solnit, 2020). They face the daily reality of what a lockdown means to those living in overcrowded and unsafe conditions with little access to outside spaces.   

Meanwhile, they must engage with understandable anxieties about violence and abuse and navigate territory that has always been uncomfortable but is probably more so at the moment. Such territory is underpinned by a seldom, fully articulated, belief that social workers (or professionals?) are all that stands between a child and death at the hands of a dangerous parent.   Might this be the moment to confront what has always been the reality- families spend most of their lives beyond the professional gaze anyway?  As has been noted:

If we help a family for six months, and if we do one home visit a week for two hours, the family would spend: 52 hours with the worker, 2860 hours in and with their community[1]

In accounts provided to Featherstone (2020), three weeks into the lockdown, one social worker noted:  

‘In normal times we don’t seek to link families to communities around them, but rather make interventions personal and individualised… and then criticise families if we feel they’re becoming ‘dependent’ on us….  this crisis has highlighted how dependent we are on individualised home visits’ (Featherstone, 2020). 

That professional dependency may be hiding important truths about who is protecting children and from what.  Going forward could mobilising community resources not offer more sustainable futures for all? 

To conclude, it seems there remains much to do to make a social model a reality at many levels but this crisis is offering important spaces to keep thinking (amidst the panic!)

Brid Featherstone, Anna Gupta and Kate Morris 


Dorling, D et al (2008) Criminal obsessions: why harm matters more than crime, London, Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.

Featherstone, B., Gupta, A., Morris, K. and White, S (2018) Protecting Children: A Social Model, Bristol, Policy Press

Sayer, A. (2017) ‘Responding to the Troubled families Programme: framing the injuries of inequality’, Social Policy and Society, 16(1): 155-164.

Nussbaum, M (2001) Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, Cambridge,  Cambridge University Press

Wright Mills, C (1959) The Sociological Imagination, Oxford, Oxford university Press

[1] Becca Dove, personal communication, 2018