Research by Professor Devine and Parker investigated the child protection training provided in educational settings and found substantial problems, leading to a culture of over referral and subsequent harm. The research led to a proposal for a social enterprise model designed to address these problems.
We suggest that placing assessment at such an early stage has counter-productive and harmful effects, including stigmatisation, trauma, financial cost, and the furthering of a surveillance agenda which is not aligned with welfare considerations
The research ‘Safer Children? Translating the duty to safeguard children into child protection referrals: Evaluating safeguarding training effectiveness and outcomes in an education setting’ (Devine and Parker, 2016a) investigated the impact of s.11 of the Children Act 2004 and the related statutory guidance, Working Together to Safeguard Children (HMGov, March 2010; DoH, April 2010; DfE, 2013; DfE, 2015) which introduced what amounts to a mandatory reporting requirement for schools. It found that many referrals made by educating professionals were not because of evidenced concerns but because of a culture of fear and aversion to risk.
Devine and Parker’s research on referral trend data showed that this approach had not led to increased detection and prevention of child abuse. Referrals had increased but not identification. Substantial research has shown the serious harm done to families as a result of interventions, where no significant harm was identified.
Training in schools biased towards over-referral
Research showed that training provided in schools was unsatisfactory. Delivered by unregulated profit-making companies the package examined included factual and legal errors and misleading, unsubstantiated claims which encouraged referral of children for factors which did not reach either a s47 or even s17 threshold and was unrelated to any recognised risk factor in relevant literature that would merit referral.
There was no explanation of the high false positive rate in using risk prediction as grounds for referral. Teachers were left unsure of the grounds for referral and of the outcomes and consequences of doing so. They felt they were being encouraged to refer on the basis of ‘signs’ or ‘risks’ that they considered did not amount to abuse nor risk of. They also doubted the assertion that making a referral would necessarily equal a good outcome.
The only beneficiaries of this policy drive are those using the concept of child protection and safeguarding as a means of generating profit
The training was biased towards over-referral which is counter-productive. The children’s social care departments of local authorities have progressively been overloaded with low threshold cases, which as well as harming families unnecessarily caught up in the system also may mean that an overloaded team miss a serious case and therefore fail to help the children most in need of help.
Failure to reduce harm to children
An overloaded social work department may be in a position where a serious case is missed and the very children the system most intended to help do not receive the help they need
The approach to training may be motivated by an aim to increase protection for children but actually achieves the opposite. “…it advocates the abdication of responsibility for any critical sifting in terms of what really should constitute referring a child. It also causes unnecessary stress for the large number of families needlessly referred, including the children, and increases the social care budget. The only beneficiaries of this policy drive are those using the concept of child protection and safeguarding as a means of generating profit.”
The SAFER initiative is a social enterprise model designed to address these problems. It is important not just to aim to improve child safety by making referrals, but to improve child and family safety by supporting the family at the point of an incredibly stressful life event.
“We recognise that the current situation has arisen largely as a result of policy and legislative responses to serious cases of child abuse, representing an incremental shift towards increased referrals, earlier intervention and support as a pro-active means of intervention to reduce child abuse. We agree with the aim of supporting families, but question the referral and assessment process as a progressive response to families’ support needs. The service rationing model that operates in England and other Anglo-American jurisdictions is not the dominant model in many European countries which offer universal, non-assessed support on a much wider basis.41 We argue this is a fairer and less invasive manner of supporting families that is more genuinely grounded in concern for social welfare. We suggest that placing assessment at such an early stage has counter-productive and harmful effects, including stigmatisation, trauma, financial cost, and the furthering of a surveillance agenda which is not aligned with welfare considerations. The enabling Children Act 1989 intended only consensual interventions where support was needed, keeping ss.17 and 47 separate. The original aim of s.17 was not to cause significant stress and distress to families in a manner more easily understood in the context of s.47.”
“Given the sensitivity of the subject area, the biggest challenge to the Initiative will be working in an area that carries a high level of stigma towards referred families. We hope to be part of a culture change in this regard. It is no longer the case that referred families should be considered to be suspected of child abuse as a default position: a very small proportion of referred children are found to have suffered abuse.”