Telegraph View: Child abuse won't be overcome until we define what it is
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- Date: Sun, 11 Jan 2009 05:17:37 -0800 (PST)
Telegraph View: Child abuse won't be overcome until we define what it
Ed Balls will fail unless he gives guidance on what social workers
should be doing.
Last Updated: 7:39PM GMT 10 Jan 2009
The horrific accounts of errors and incompetence by social services
officials that we publish today will generate outrage and despair:
outrage that officials could leave children with parents they know to
be violent, criminal and addicted to drugs; and despair that despite
the hundreds of inquiries, the hundreds of inspections, despite the
repeated promises from the Government that things are getting better,
nothing changes. The same mistakes are consistently repeated, with
fatal consequences for children.
The persistent failure of social workers to protect children who are
in very serious danger is made even more outrageous by the
profession's propensity to remove children from parents who are
manifestly no danger at all to them. Of the 35,000 children who are
taken into care every year on the recommendation of social workers, a
large proportion are removed on grounds of "emotional abuse" – a
category so broad and ill-defined that it can include both praising
your children too much and not praising them enough, or feeding them
too many vegetables or too little fresh fruit. It appears that social
workers, aware of their inability to intervene in cases where children
really are at risk, compensate for that failure by intervening in
families where they are obviously safe.
There is no doubt that those two bad practices are connected. The
resources of social work departments are, as directors of those
departments frequently point out, strictly limited. Time spent
investigating parents who do not threaten or endanger the children in
their care is time not spent investigating, visiting or intervening in
the cases where there is a threat. If genuinely at-risk children are
to be protected, resources have to be targeted at cases where parents
pose a clear and present danger.
It is, in a literal sense, true that social workers do not know what
they are doing. That is not their fault. Government "advice" on what
they should do is, quite correctly, centred on ensuring that children
are protected from "significant harm". But, in all the many hundreds
of pages that both Labour and Conservative governments have issued on
when social workers should intervene, the notion of "significant harm"
has never been defined in a meaningful and precise way. The result is
that it is left to officials to interpret the term as they see fit.
And that means "significant harm" has as many interpretations as there
are social workers: one can conclude that a child whose parents are
violent drug-addicts is not at risk of "significant harm", while
another can claim that a parent who "plays too often and too long"
with her is so dangerous that the child should be taken into care.
The first step the Government needs to take in order to stop this
malpractice is properly to define the notion of "significant harm".
That will not prevent fatal misjudgments being made. But it will make
those misjudgments less likely. It will save the lives of many
children, and also prevent forcible removal from parents who love them
and protect them, and who would provide them with a far better start
in life than the dismal future that awaits those who are taken into
state care. It will also make it possible for the inquiries and
inspections that take place after a child dies to say something
useful, instead of merely reporting (as they do at present) that "no
one was to blame". So long as inspectors do not work with a clear and
fixed notion of "significant harm", they are in exactly the same
position as social workers: they cannot identify the kinds of practice
that they ought to prevent.
Ed Balls, the Children's Secretary, has insisted that he will take
steps to end social services' persistent failure to protect seriously
at-risk children. He will fail unless he gives clear guidance on what
social workers should be doing – and he can only do that by defining
the notion of "significant harm." We await his proposals.
At last, others are now asking.
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