'Every bruise now means an investigation'

Social Services is failing abused children, because it is too busy scrutinising ordinary families. A child protection officer talks to Virginia Hume.

B, until recently, was responsible for the child protection services in a large local authority in inner-city London. She still works in child protection elsewhere in the UK, so she has asked to remain anonymous for the purposes of this interview.

There were many contributing factors to the tragic death of eight-year-old Victoria Climbie at the hands of her great-aunt and her great-aunt’s boyfriend in February 2000 (see The missed lesson of the Climbie inquiry, by Helene Guldberg). But one important, general factor seems to have been overlooked by the official inquiry.

B claims that Social Services no longer provide a safety net for children in mortal danger. Instead, Social Services have become ‘a standards agency’, with social workers spending more time investigating parents who, far from being potential murderers or torturers, are simply not as good at parenting as we might like them to be.

Child protection today is less about protecting a few children from being killed or seriously injured by their carers, than about making sure that all parents meet a prescribed standard of parenting. ‘The child protection register has become huge’, says B.  ‘Referrals come from teachers, health visitors, GPs - people are watching their neighbours now, looking for signs of minimal neglect and abuse. A child goes to school with bruises, says “mummy did it”, and we have to follow it up. Every bruise now means a section 47 investigation together with the police.’

B says that a social worker might be sent to investigate an abuse claim and it turns out that, for example, a father has slapped his child across the face for doing something wrong, ‘so the social worker will tell daddy he shouldn’t do that’. Or perhaps parents go to the pub and leave younger children in the care of older siblings, ‘something that would have gone unnoticed 20 years ago’, says B, ‘but which now warrants an investigation. [The system] is becoming draconian about what is acceptable, or perhaps I should say, about what is politically correct’. According to B, this wastes social workers’ time as well as being intrusive into people’s lives.

B estimates that there are about 30 referrals a week to a London authority. Many of these, she says, are about a child living in poverty or developing too slowly - ‘things that it would be nice if you could solve or improve’, says B. ‘But you can’t.’ Of these 30 referrals, two or three will be reports of real abuse: ‘People seriously hurting a child and unable to see it.  These two cases per week then get mixed up in the 28 others.’

B says that the government has to shoulder some of the blame for the explosion of directionless activity in Social Services. ‘The general attitude to children has changed’, she says, and legislation has led the way. B cites the Children Act (1989), which could be seen as encouraging an obsessive attitude towards children and their ‘rights’, and the Crime and Disorder Act (1998), which states that children cannot be out on the streets at night.

‘So if they are out on the streets, there is an assumption that they must be out of the control of their parents’, says B. ‘This has brought loads of young people into the justice system and Social Services - kids who would previously not have known that they had a problem.’

B believes that taking a child into care ‘can be a good thing’, in occasional, very specific cases. ‘But the numbers of children in care is going up all over the country.  In the main, we interfere in situations where children would have been as well off [staying] where they were.’

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that it is difficult to get people to work in statutory child care these days. ‘In London, I was responsible for maybe 7000 to 8000 children. If something happened to one of them, I would be suspended, and so would the social worker assigned to them’, says B.

Huge caseloads have a deep effect on staff morale - but more importantly, they mean that social workers cannot give each case the time and attention it needs. Many of us outside Social Services imagine that each report of child abuse is carefully discussed and considered before action is taken, but B says this isn’t so. ‘Most business is done in snatched five-minute conversations, during which time we would decide whether or not a child should be removed from its parents, put on a register, provided with a care arrangement, or the case closed.’

‘We are stretched too thinly’, says B. ‘Families who are able to play us at our own game - we just don’t have the energy to match them.’

Social workers who deal with child protection are under such pressure that it seems some are now primarily interested in protecting themselves. According to B, ‘There is so much buck-passing in Social Services, it is phenomenal’, claims B. ‘Brent [a local authority] were probably thrilled when Victoria Climbie’s case went to Haringey. It was no longer their responsibility.

‘Every day in my department we found ourselves arguing tooth and nail not to have to take a case on if we could get away with not taking it. The Inner London authorities are worse than the others. We dealt with 120 to 140 cases in a month, about 110 of these would turn out not to have needed to go through the process. There would be about 10 that it was right to put through the system.’

It seems that the child protection net is thrown so widely today, and so many things are considered as forms of ‘abuse’, that, as B says, ‘There is an assumption that if a thing is investigated, it must be a real problem’.

Perhaps controversially, B thinks that organisations such as ChildLine and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) contribute to the problem.  These charities, and others, seem to think that the more problems you unearth, the more complaints you receive, the safer children are. In fact, the opposite may be the case.  ‘ChildLine never sees a child’, says B. Although ChildLine gets hundreds of calls it simply refers them to Social Services. Similarly with the NSPCC: ‘We get loads of referrals from them, and we are busy trying to refer cases back to them.’

Political correctness worries B greatly. Of the Victoria Climbie case she says, ‘it is incredible that [the social workers] accepted the explanation that a major scald on the head was scabies. I believe they were afraid to challenge it. However, scabies is considered a dirty disease. If a white child had scabies to such an extent, they would have said that this constituted neglect. If this was a white child I do not believe they would have released her back to the carers’ control’.

It seems that the same impetus that has led to the lives of ordinary parents and their children being investigated has also created a situation where an expert can be faced with a plainly tortured and terrified child, and not see a problem.

Read on:

The missed lesson of the Climbie inquiry, by Helene Guldberg

spiked-issue: Parents and kids

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