Long ago my practice teacher told me that sometimes not doing anything was the most helpful thing you could do. She called this “radical non-intervention”. The key point was that often social work involvement is very difficult for families, and therefore sometimes the best thing we can do is … nothing. To adapt the words of Ronan Keating, sometimes we do social work best, when we do nothing at all.
The term “radical non-intervention” emerged in youth justice. The key insight was that if young people can be kept out of professional systems then they usually grow out of trouble. Radical non-intervention tried to keep young people our of criminal justice systems.
I want to argue for minimal intervention – a sort of radical non-intervention – as a key element for children’s social care in the UK, and that revisiting the concept may be helpful for children’s services, during the pandemic and more generally.
A useful framework for thinking about this is the key text by Fox Harding. Fox Harding set out four value positions – which she called “state paternalism and child protection”, “the modern defence of the birth family”, “patriarchy and laissez faire” and “children’s rights”. I want to leave children’s rights to one side, as they would take this paper in a different direction.
Fox Harding originally developed her thinking during the late 1980s and 1990s, and her work can be understood as an historical account of changing attitudes to children and families. Laissez faire was an approach associated with the 19thcentury and then the “new right” of the 1980s. It referred to leaving the market alone, and emphasised minimising state involvement. Fox Harding argued that this broadly patriarchal and right-wing view, which saw families as essentially good, and therefore argued for them to be left alone as much as possible, had characterised much of family policy. She also noted key thinkers who used psychodynamic theory to emphasise the harm that removal can do to a child, and therefore argue it should be done rarely, but when necessary swiftly.
Fox Harding suggests that the argument for child protection emerged from the recognition that families can be sites for abuse and the misuse of power. A key driver was the feminist critique of the family, coupled with the identification of the harms that children could suffer from abuse. Child protection legislation and our current children’s services emerged from this approach.
In a counter argument to this, others, such as Bob Holman, argued that most families want the best for their children, and that poverty and other structural factors need to be addressed to stop child abuse. This position defended the birth family, but from a left wing position, emphasising the role of the state in supporting family life.
These three value positions can be categorised according to how positively or negatively they view two key issues: family life and the state. The following diagram does this, changing “the modern defence of the birth family” to “family support”, and “laissez faire” to “minimal intervention”:
So, for instance, we may see families as inherently good, supportive, helpful and usually wanting the best for their children. Or we may see them as sites for oppression, where children (and often women) experience abuse and where the privacy and secrecy of family life has allowed this to flourish. Equally, is the state generally beneficent – wanting the best for people and delivered by competent professionals? Or is it something we should keep out of family life as much as possible?
Since Fox Harding published, it seems that there has been strong support for both “child protection” and “family support” but there has been less articulation of the need for “minimal intervention” (though the work of Bilson et al., Bywaters et al.,, Featherstone et al. and others has begun to address this). Perhaps Fox Harding’s characterisation of minimal intervention as inherently a right wing position gives a clue about why people have been reluctant to argue for it.
Support for child protection has come from many sources, including studies identifying the positive outcomes of adoption and many that publicised new harms – such as parental substance misuse, domestic abuse and child sexual exploitation. Probably more important were high profile child deaths, and the tendency for inspection to focus on risk. Such factors have contributed to the stark increase in the numbers of children in care.
In contrast, the arguments for family support are being made strongly. Bywaters and colleagues have established – once again – the central contribution that inequality makes to need for services, and key authors such as Featherstone, White, Morris and Gupta (2018) have begun to develop a social model for child protection which seeks to centre structural inequalities. There has been little shift in policy – but the intellectual arguments are being won.
In the hope that it complements this work, I want to re-examine what Fox Harding called “patriarchy and laissez faire” and defend minimal intervention as an essential set of values for children’s services, and a position that can be supported from a left wing perspective.
The central problem with both family support and child protection is that they tend to see the state, and professionals such as social workers, as positive. This is perhaps unsurprising – who would come into this type of work if they did not have such a leaning?
Yet there are strong grounds for arguing that child protection is a negative intrusion in family life, and while sometimes necessary, should be kept to an absolute minimum. First, it is hard to over-emphasise how traumatizing the process of involvement in child protection is for families. If we think of it as a medicine – it is one with some serious side effects. It should only be used when absolutely needed. Second, the numbers being referred to services, and in particular the rate of children in care, seems to be ever growing – it has risen fairly consistently for 25 years. There is widespread concern about this, though less consensus on what should be done about it. At the least, it provides a case for reducing unasked for state involvement with families. Third, while there is some evidence that care can produce good outcomes for children, there is little evidence that the rest of social work involvement helps children or families. In fact, my hunch is that for most families social work involvement is stressful and difficult and achieves little or no positive change.
A fourth point is that some of the most important ways we have developed to help families – such as Sure Start in England and Flying Start in Wales – tend to result in more referrals of concerns. Maybe this is because they discover more need. Certainly, it suggests that more “support” does not equal less need for child protection. It is possible that more state involvement leads to more state involvement – that an uncritical view of the state may be part of the problem.
Fifth, it is poor working class families that are the subject of all this professional focus. It is also particularly likely to be black families and lone mothers. There are key issues of structural discrimination here about the coercive involvement of the state in families’ lives. Maybe, rather than thinking about how we should be involved, the most radical thing we could do would be to try not to be involved.
A public health focus can help us in thinking about how to provide services for families where there are concerns about child welfare – and is broadly consistent with the “social model” perspective. From this perspective action is needed at four levels. First, it is clear that the most important step we could take to help families would be to create a more equal society.
Second, we need stronger and better funded universal services. Many problems could and should be better helped through effective education, health and other services.
Third, we need effective targeted support for those families most in need. There are important gaps in our knowledge here about what works, but effective help for those with problems is essential.
Finally, there will always be a need for involvement with families against their wishes. There will be serious concerns that need to be investigated. Sometimes children will need to come into care. Yet, to return to the medicine metaphor, this is akin to chemotherapy for cancer. It is a potentially devastating intervention in family life that should only be undertaken when absolutely necessary. It is also an area where we have remarkably little evidence about what is most helpful for children and their families.
It is difficult to think about social work involvement in this way. We like to think about the good we can do. Yet, how can we take seriously our commitment to being anti-oppressive – or to “doing no harm” – if we do not recognise the harm we do by being involved in family life when not wanted?
When I teach students about Fox Harding’s positions I tend to conclude by saying that as a social worker it is not appropriate to solely believe in one position.
It is perhaps, though, not just practitioners who need to be able to hold all these positions in mind. A public health perspective helps us to recognise the need for each perspective, depending on the level of risk within families. All these perspectives are a necessary part of an effective response to the needs of children. I have argued that we have not emphasised enough the importance of “minimal intervention”. However, the hard work – intellectually, for policy and in practice – is thinking about how to integrate all three perspectives into the way we deliver services and help children and their families.
Donald Forrester, Professor of Child and Family Social Work, Cardiff University
Featherstone, B., Gupta, A., Morris, K. and White, S. (2018) Protecting Children: A Social Model, Policy Press; Bristol
Fox Harding, L. (2014) Perspectives in child care policy. Routledge.