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5th Edition July 14th, 2020 Brid Featherstone, Anna Gupta & Kate Morris

Why ‘radical non-intervention’ needs some help (like we all do!): A response to Forrester



Orthodoxies on state spending, welfare sanctions, hopping on a plane to New York for the weekend!  In March 2020 all vanished in a bonfire of the vanities and cruelties associated with our small state, welfare claimant blaming, careless and consumerist social settlement.   Three months later, as we move on from the prohibitionist culture of lockdown to re-engage with each other, and the world around us, taking stock seems to be very much in vogue.

Donald Forrester’s article on radical non-intervention makes a welcome contribution to the taking stock we need to do in child protection[1]. The late, and much lamented, Professor Olive Stevenson would be pleased to see history being given ‘a bit more time’[2] at this strangest of all times and we are very pleased too!

Forrester argues that sometimes not doing anything is the most helpful thing you can do and that this is the essence of ‘radical non-intervention, noting this was a key aspect of the approach to youth justice historically. Two of us had our first jobs in social work in this area in the 1980s and Forrester’s points have prompted us to reflect on that time.  We remember radical non-intervention, not as an end in-itself but as part of a broader philosophy, a philosophy that promoted decarceration. Thus, we were not anti-intervention per se but rather were opposed to interventions such as incarceration. Keeping young people out of the criminal justice system so that they did not get labelled with a criminal identity and, crucially, were offered the opportunity to ‘grow out’ of crime meant that workers offered bail support and intensive support programmes as alternatives to the courts. Indeed, in our attempts to provide a persuasive case to the courts and avoid custodial sentences, we were often criticised by colleagues in the youth services as we enforced, or acceded to, quite strict controls on young people’s liberty in the community, for example, through intensive supervision programmes. 

On reflection, it is both amusing and depressing to note how hopelessly out of touch we were with wider developments in 1980s Britain. For example, we assumed that ‘growing out of crime’ meant getting a job, getting married and starting a family; all assumptions that were in many ways naïve, and, out of touch, in a climate of mass unemployment, de-industrialisation and significant shifts in sexuality and family forms.  A salutary reminder of the complex and intricate interconnection of public issues and private troubles, a reality that so many radical non-interventionists seem oblivious to when rehearsing a narrative of non-intervention and ‘ageing out of the system’. There was, undeniably, value in this approach but, without a robust interrogation of the intersectional nature of these young men’s experiences, the model was wanting. 

And so to today! Forrester argues radical non-intervention should be a key element of children’s social care.  We agree with many of the reasons he advances here and, indeed, as he indicates, our research has been an important support in his thinking.   Most importantly, he seeks to puncture assumptions that ‘the state and professionals such as social workers are positive’.  And, indeed, it is shocking to note that, irrespective of intent, the outcomes of child protection involvement appear to be that that it is families from deprived backgrounds who are disproportionately focused upon, and there are significant inequalities in children’s chances of being able to grow up in their families of origin and their communities.  It is simply not acceptable  that a child in the most deprived part of England is over ten times more likely to be looked after than a child in the least deprived part and, moreover, that tackling poverty is not considered a core element of child protection policy and practice[3].

We also agree with him on the traumatizing impact of many child protection processes and our research bears out the human costs of a system where stories of need are too often translated into evidence of risk. Our recent work on domestic abuse has benefitted enormously from engagement with research and scholarship from the US where understandings that the state and state agencies bear down disproportionately on marginalised communities, particularly communities of colour,  are better known and understood by researchers and advocates than in the UK.   We recognise the importance of movements that seek to build restorative approaches which are either community led or involved in very careful partnerships between the state and communities.[4]

So, given all this evidence about the deeply concerning impact of many interventions, why do we think revisiting radical non-intervention leads us down a cul-de-sac?   A full response to this question is beyond the scope of this short article and we are delighted that we will be involved in debates on this over the coming months with Forrester.

But let us take one policy area that highlights some of our concerns. Adoption, especially in the closed form it takes in this country, is promoted and favoured by politicians across the spectrum but appears especially favoured by those who want the state to ‘butt out’ of family life. That this requires the most draconian action by the state is an irony lost on politicians, in their desire for an end result where children can live lives that are not marked by the mess and complexity of old family ties and troubles, and are free from social work and state interference.  Our research into adoption is part of a wider literature that fundamentally undermines the ‘happy ever after’ narratives often promoted by such politicians[5].  Indeed, current developments suggest that the ‘adoption cure’ requires more and more money and help to work – building a raft of interventions to support a policy based on minimal intervention (albeit draconian).

Forrester is right, though, that we urgently need to re-think the role of the state and professionals but, and this is crucial, this re-thinking must go hand in glove with re-thinking the role of families and communities. Thus, in our book, Protecting Children: A Social Model[6], we suggest the need for an approach that roots the protection of children within broader understandings of what all families need to flourish. We want the state to be bigger and yet smaller, closer to home.  We argue 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 want to re-think how services are delivered with a focus on the local, on community and, crucially, a commitment to co-production.  In our work we note the importance of fostering social connections and argue for a de-centring of the professional and professionally led approaches to child protection. We argue that collective strategies need to be considered in a project that promotes community work, locality-based approaches and peer support and is founded on seeing families as a source of expertise about system design and best practice. It is not about ‘radical non-intervention’ but about different, and radical, ways of working with families and communities.

It is worth reflecting too on some of the lessons we have learned throughout this pandemic. Across the world, and within the UK itself, it has become apparent that the state matters.  Collective strategies have been needed to safeguard incomes and deliver health services, and the limitations of hollowed out states, wedded to de-regulation and non-intervention, have been cruelly exposed.  But it has also been clear  that there is a  need for state responses to the pandemic  that do not seek to command and control  and ride  roughshod over local and community expertise. Local strategies rooted in communities are essential;  not only because they  make for a stronger and more cohesive polity, but  are  more likely to be effective. 

Radical non-intervention can open many doors, let us be wary of the door marked ‘sink or swim’ and instead focus on reducing coercive state interventions as part of a wider picture of co-produced help and support.

Professor Brid Featherstone – University of Huddersfield

Twitter: @Acsocialwork

Professor Anna Gupta – Royal Holloway University of London-

Twitter: @Anna Gupta2

Professor Kate Morris – University of Sheffield


[1] https://sw2020covid19.group.shef.ac.uk/2020/06/03/in-defence-of-radical-non-intervention-reconsidering-fox-hardings-value-positions/

[2] Stevenson, O. (2013) Reflections on a life in social work, Hinton House, Buckingham

[3] Child Welfare Inequalities Project – https://www.coventry.ac.uk/research/research-directories/current-projects/2014/child-welfare-inequality-uk/cwip-project-outputs/

[4] Ferguson, G., Featherstone, B. and Morris, K. (2020) Framed to fit? Critical and Radical Social Work, https://doi.org/10.1332/204986019X15668424450790

[5] Featherstone, B. Gupta, A. and Mills, S. (2018) The role of the social worker in adoption: ethics and human rights, www.basw.org.uk

[6] Featherstone, Gupta, A. Morris, A. and White, S. (2018) Protecting Children: A Social Model, Policy Press