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Is the child protection system fit for purpose?
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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
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
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
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.
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
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