Protecting All Children – jus’ like that

Jill Kirby, Director of the Centre for Policy Studies writes a piece in the Opinion section of Wednesday’s Times entitled ‘It’s not hard to spot the children really at risk’. Self evidently it is a little harder than we would like to think or we wouldn’t have had to add Baby P to a long list of other names of dead or damaged children whose stories have hit the press over the years. But Kirby thinks we just need to apply a bit of common sense and – voila! Tell that to the social workers on the front line in Haringey (if there are any left) and no doubt they will wonder why they hadn’t thought of that before.

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With the benefit of hindsight Kirby suggests that all ‘these cases’ have common features which make it possible to predict where abuse is likely to be occuring by ticking off the number of factors that are statistically associated with abuse (single parent, addiction, domstic violence, mental illness, presence of a step parent etc). There must be someone who can design an algorithm (sp?) somewhere. I don’t argue with the stats, people in my job see it day in day out – always a different mix of the same pointers. But its where she takes these ideas of statistical probability that means she and I part company.

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Kirby says ‘its hard to see why children of addicts are not automatically referred for child protection, since the ability of their parents to reconcile their addiction with their duty of care towards their children must be severely in doubt’. But it’s not hard at all to see why this doesn’t and shouldn’t happen, and it’s not in my view as straightforward a proposition as Kirby suggests: What’s an addict? Does it include the addict who has been clean for 2 years (or 20 years)? Does it include those addicted to prescribed anti depressants or sleeping tablets, or middle class parent who has a little too much montepulciano on a weeknight and is a bit sozzled by the time they go to bed every night? I don’t suppose that’s what Jill Kirby has in mind. She just means the ‘wrong ‘uns’. Like an elephant – hard to describe but you know ’em when you see ’em. Except you don’t. That’s what social workers are for: o investigate and make judgments – about people not statistics. Of course they take into account risk factors – we all know that drug use or single parentdom or poverty are associated with poor parenting or abuse. But it has to be explored and weighed up by a real person, a person with experience and expertise. There are plenty of ‘addicts’ out there whose addiction is well managed and who are able to remain competent and child focused and who present little or no risk to their children.

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That was my first objection. The second is this: if every addict, or to take the point more broadly every family who ticks enough boxes, was automatically referred for child protection not only would we be in the objectionable position of suspecting everybody underpriveleged or from a deprived area or background of abuse (along with a good chunk of the middle class god forbid), but the whole child protection system would collapse as a result. We wouldn’t be able to see the wood for the trees. Social workers in Child Protection work are at breaking point already. In the wake of Baby P social workers can’t keep up with caseloads and new referrals, can’t find placements because so many children are being removed from home that all the suitable placements are full, can’t do anything but firefight the most serious of their cases whilst the initially less serious spiral into crisis whilst unattended. As Kirby says in her piece social workers are already burdened by bureacracy, with 80-90 per cent of their working day spent at their desks rather than visiting families. Does Kirby really expect social workers to somehow filter this vast number of new auto-referrals, to be able on paper to work out which families need to be visited by them, and more importantly, to get that right every time? Is that really the way to make our children safer?

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Kirby also complains that the Child Protection Register has been abolished in favour of Contact Point and that there is no longer any clear line between those at risk and those in need. Was there ever? Every family is different: risk is a spectrum, it changes over time, its existence at low levels does not always indicate a need for drastic action, depending on what protective features are present. And besides, the inclusion of children on Contact Point does not alter the fact that children are still registered and de-registered as being ‘at risk’, and for the duration of their registration are subject to statutory reviews and processes designed to protect them, and to regularly reassess what each child needs. That much has not changed. And what seems to be overlooked in Kirby’s piece is that ‘safeguarding’ is not something accomplished by sticking a label on a family, it is something that means different things to different families from popping round once a month to removing children permanently from home, and something that requires ongoing resources and review.

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I don’t want to be too disparaging about Kirby’s piece: she and I would agree that there is lots wrong with the system, and that we could do better for children at risk. But where I would advocate more and more experienced social workers and more resources, she would appear to advocate further overburdening already overstretched resources. I don’t underestimate the use of statistics to inform social work, but I think there are more important things to focus on. And I am troubled by the underlying implications of her approach. Labelling huge chunks of society potential child abusers because they tick the wrong boxes is insulting to all those good parents who overcome their difficult backgrounds. It does not tell us anything we don’t already know, and mere probability doesn’t assist us in picking out actual child abusers from amongst the good or struggling parents – only good and well resourced social work can do that. And taking this Minority Report approach to child protection has the potential to fundamentally undermine our own sense of responsibility as parents, as individuals, and as members of society for our children’s wellbeing. However much understanding we have of how it came to pass that Baby Peter’s Mother caused or allowed his death to happen (her own desperate background ticks all of Kirby’s boxes) her own personal culpability must always be remembered even if it is not accepted by her.

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This piece reads to me as coming pretty close to saying that large numbers of underpriveleged parents are very likely to be bad parents or abusers (we know that all the risk factors that Kirby identifies tend to cluster together wherever there is underprivelege). Marie Stopes once proposed that the poor should all be sterilised (she’s not the only one). Whilst I’m sure that Kirby would never support or suggest such a view, I can’t help feeling that, ideologically, the distance between the two views is not so very great.

2 thoughts on “Protecting All Children – jus’ like that

  1. I agree with you wholeheartedly and I think Kirby grossly over-simplifies the issues. Ironically, I think this is at the heart of why the system itself is failing.

    We want to make it all better with a box.

    To my mind at least, the problem lies in the levels of interest and the lack of earnest vocational minds. A great social worker is not great because she can tick lots of boxes and came top of her class at college. She is great because she has a ‘feel’ for what she does, combined with a refined Principle Compass. That combination of talent and treading lightly is hard to find but a heavily bureaucratic system just deters that talent.

    Technology and empiricial study make for useful guides, but they should never be our gods.

  2. An admirer of incisive comment

    An excellent critique Lucy.
    It is being circulated!
    Keep up the good work.

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