Child protection system does not need a political game of 'tough and tougher'

On 3 March 2015, in the wake of the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal, the Prime Minister announced that professionals such as social workers and teachers could face criminal charges for ‘wilful neglect’ and up to five years in prison if they fail to report child abuse. In a party political game of tough and tougher, Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, also called for a ‘crusade’ against child abuse and ‘mandatory reporting’. But are new crimes really what the child protection system needs?

A recent study by my team at the University of Birmingham confirms how socially, emotionally and cognitively complex child protection and the detection of abuse are – signs and symptoms are often ambiguous. For example, serious physical injury accompanied by an implausible parental explanation is tragic for the child but is organisationally easy to manage: the information can be transferred from one agency to another, and everyone knows what they are dealing with. Far more common are cases in which the significant players in the family and professional network are dispersed through time and space.

Imagine, for instance, a young woman attends A&E for the treatment of a medically trivial injury – say a sprained ankle. She is accompanied by a man who she says is her father, but the staff nurse notices something odd in their interaction. The department is very busy, and the staff nurse mentions this to the treating clinician, but the man does not accompany the young woman to the cubicle for treatment. The young woman resists any probing about her circumstances and insists she is fine apart from her sprained ankle.

What the system needs in this kind of case is space for professional discussion, consultation and reflection – but even with these in place, retrospectively ‘obvious’ cases will be ‘missed’. The threat of potential prosecution for failure to report abuse is intended to provide incentives to probe further, but it will likely have the opposite effect. Best not look under the stone in the first place if those kinds of liabilities ensue.

Further complexities arise from the need to pass unclear, speculative and ambiguous information across service boundaries. There are a wide range of factors that get in the way: different professional perspectives and working practices, organisational structures, and high levels of anxiety and pressure. Information is changed as it crosses organisational boundaries, especially where there is a reliance on information and communication technologies. The ‘jigsaw’ may be incomplete, and the professional concerned may, or may not, know that some of the pieces are missing.

Children’s social care services and the police face unprecedented levels of demand – a problem exacerbated by the fact they are key to other organisations managing their own institutional risk. Mandatory reporting of abuse is being hailed as a big step forward, but the systemic effect on the police and children’s services would be significant and, based on the results of our research at Birmingham, counter-productive. High demand and a referring culture are likely to generate vigorous gatekeeping behaviours among social workers, while colleagues in other agencies will try to gatecrash in an effort to manage their own risk in a high-blame environment. Both practices are rational but potentially unsafe.

Professionals must negotiate the contingencies of each and every case. Most errors in child protection are of a systemic nature, and their remedies do not lie in the creation of new crimes: hard cases make bad law.

Our research affirms some simple truths – for example, that face-to-face relationships make safe teams. When technological developments disrupt this, such as using call centres to filter all communication, the translation of tacit understandings and ‘gut feelings’ into explicit and communicable knowledge is rendered extremely difficult. It is these parts of the system that urgently need fixing, and our research describes some realistic and modest methods to achieve that.

Professor Sue White
Professor of Social Work (Children and Families), University of Birmingham