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 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; lost work and income; suffered domestic violence; had problems with mental health; used alcohol and drugs to medicate; struggled to live in inadequate housing; because they have got into debt; because charities and other supports have reduced or disappeared; been 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. Child protection focuses on the most deprived communities. The video shows estimates of involvement in child protection of an average class of 30 five year-olds in 2015 in the 10% most deprived areas. Six children will have been in need for abuse related reasons and three investigated.
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.
All I did
was cry and never sleep
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.
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
Our current approach impacts harshly on children and families who are investigated. Amy and Chelsea both had children removed because of incorrect interpretations of a bruise. Their children were returned but the cost to these 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 ever known.
In England the number of children separated from parents through care, special guardianship and adoption placements has increased by 56% between 31st March 2008 and 2018. The outcomes of care for children, even when well-funded and resourced as 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.
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.
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 direct costs for families affected by child protection. A parent survey in Scotland showed 69% of parents faced financial hardship directly relating to child protection. Parents on benefits whose children are taken into care can 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. 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 provide help with 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.
As someone who entered social work 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 with its relentless expansion of investigation and blame. We need 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.
Please visit PFAN to read the article in full and explore our ideas for change such as parent advocacy. There is an abundance of ways in which we can work together to achieve a better way forward for children, families and the professionals who dedicate their careers to supporting them.
You can also join PFAN to help us become a force for change.
Andy Bilson and Taliah Drayak @MumScots