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Is the child protection system fit for purpose?

Date:3 JUN 2015
Sarah Phillimore, Barrister, St John's Chambers

About 100 delegates and speakers representing all those involved in the child protection system – lawyers, magistrates, Cafcass, social workers, guardians, psychologists, therapists, charities, parents, care leavers, campaigners - met in London on 1 June to discuss issues of concern about the current system and where we can go from here. The event was organised by the Transparency Project and opened by Sir Mark Hedley, who highlighted the need for an honest acceptance that no system could ever be perfect.

Presentations followed from Dr Lauren Devine of UWE who is carrying out research into the efficacy of the current system; Brigid Featherstone, co-author of Re-Imagining Child Protection, psychologist Lisa Wolfe and social work practitioner Vicki Ellis. Cathy Ashley also spoke about the work of the Family Rights Group, highlighting her frustration at the reduced funding at a time when more and more parents were looking for help.

Kirsty Seddon, a care leaver, and groups of parents also gave their perspectives about the system and spoke with powerful and raw emotion

Dr Kate Harrington of Exeter University spoke about the impact of language on how we think and analyse cases and delegates completed a questionnaire to discover how they understood certain common professional terms.

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A common theme ran through the discussions; that we have been drifting ever further away from the guiding principles of the Children Act 1989. Current policies and practice have emerged that cause trauma to families without actually helping children or keeping them safe. Of particular concern was that the approach of ‘muscular authoritarianism’ towards struggling families, coupled with the climate of austerity, which meant that social workers were not encouraged to recognise that children are embedded in the networks of family and community that should be protected and supported. Instead, the system was in danger of becoming just about managing professional anxiety and ticking boxes, with little or no accountability when things went wrong or a willingness to learn from mistakes.

The parents and Kirsty Seddon spoke with great emotion about how painful their experiences had been and how difficult it was to find help, advice or support. Parents become of interest only in so far as they met the needs of the child, and social work practice was too often defensive. Interaction with families became an assessment of their risk, rather than an opportunity to support or engage. Children are left in a system which has them constantly saying goodbye to people. This leads to a vicious cycle of care leavers losing their own children.

The professionals identified their dismay that their efforts to help families were frustrated by the deficiencies of the current system; caused either by deliberate policies to limit their engagement, or as the unfortunate by-product of the climate of austerity.

There was recognition of the impossible tension in current social work practice between supporting and policing that is inimical to the building of trusting relationships and has a significant impact upon parents’ capacity to engage and benefit from support on offer. But credit was also given to social workers who in spite of the difficulties are striving to do an often impossible job.

The day ended with speakers and delegates participating in a question and answer session. Despite the very different views and perspectives of those attending, dialogue and debate was constructive and open, and the feedback was almost universally positive – most felt energised and encouraged and were keen to keep the conversation going.

The Transparency Project will publish more detail of the contributions on their website and in a special edition of Seen and Heard to be published in July.

To follow the discussions on the day, follow #CPConf2015

An in-depth article, pulling together the various strands of the different speakers' perspectives and suggesting where we go from here, will be published in the August issue of Family Law.

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