August 5, 2011

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.

Filed under: Secret family courts — Granarchist @ 6:46 pm

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.


1 Comment »

  1. I think we need to begin to accept that the Government has no intention to ‘make good’ or ‘do the right thing’ at all. To the contrary: they are as busy denying and covering up as the respective local councils themselves.

    This is being proven by the Nigerian couple that is held in prison since November 28th. They are blatantly innocent while Haringey Council invent one allegation after another that have now turned into “charges” and “bail refused” while they are held in APPALLING prison conditions. Their six children will experience their second Christmas with foster parents. The 19-year old son of the carers of the eldest daughter has molested her in August 2010. Since then, the girl has not been seen or heard of. The other children not since May 2011. The mother is limping and in pain due to the atrocities of Haringey Police.

    Anybody who can help raise awareness and profile with publicity online, please visit

    With many thanks in advance,


    Comment by Sabine Kurjo McNeill — December 10, 2011 @ 11:37 am | Reply

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