Moving from the individual to the relational: child protection re-imagined

Jo has been qualified as a social worker for two years. She works from a new office in the centre of town, based above the ‘one stop shop’ access point for local authority services.  The council’s policy of hot desking means there is little clutter on desks.  It is perfect white space, corporately pristine. There are few personalised areas and Jo may be sitting with different people each day. Most days she visits families in their homes driving to the estate where  many of those on her caseload live.  Jo visits the estate in her car.  She has never walked around it, shopped there or stopped for a coffee, sandwich or a drink. Indeed, there are few places to buy food and drink.  She has noticed that the corner shop has just closed and some of her families have complained to her that the supermarket is two bus rides away. There is a children’s centre and she has visited it for meetings but she has no time to be involved in any of the activities run there (activities that are being cut at an alarming rate currently).

When she visits family homes, she is very aware of the importance of seeing and talking to the children and tries to take them out for a trip to town on their own occasionally. The importance of engaging directly with children has been reinforced for her by the recent tragic deaths of children such as Daniel Pelka. She recognises that children can become invisible especially if workers are too caught up with the needs of parents or immobilised by their angry and resistant behaviour.  So she works very hard to adopt a firm and consistent approach with parents. She is always aware of the dangers of being too trusting of their accounts or becoming too involved with them, though their problems are obvious and pressing.  She is careful to keep conversations very clearly focused on the children’s welfare and is aware of the need to see the contents of cupboards and fridges and also to check bedrooms.

In summary, Jo makes sure she is child focused and that she returns to her office to record all her activities diligently and reinforces her accountability for her actions in supervision.

Welcome to the everyday world of social work practice with children and families in England. Its moral mandate is clear enough, but what are the effects of this system design and the underpinning ethos on children, families and social workers themselves?   While boxes are ticked and the ‘right’ people are seen and talked to, we suggest there is too high a price being paid by children, families and social workers. Although the system is ostensibly all about them, children and young people seldom self-refer and tell researchers that when they are troubled, they prefer to seek help from those they know and trust  (or helplines where they can remain anonymous). They tell of their fear  of talking to social workers as they may lose control over what is done and how.

Our research with parents and wider family networks, suggests encounters that are experienced as frightening and deficit-focused.  Moreover, their distrust of services can be furthered when they see social workers operating within an instrumental approach that treats them as means rather than ends. Thus, they are considered only insofar as their actions/inactions impact upon children, not as people in their own right. They know and resent it when no attempt is made to understand them as relational, emoting beings and there is apparently little appreciation of their everyday struggles in a context of little money and neighbourhoods with rapidly disappearing facilities.

Parents who can afford little for themselves and, indeed, forego things to ensure children have birthday presents can find it quite painful when social workers take their children out for treats. It is, therefore, not that surprising that they become angry and resentful when they pick up that the intent of such activities, on the part of workers, is to assess for abuse.    Indeed, we also know from children themselves that they can experience this kind of practice very ambivalently.

As for social workers, more and more often we encounter disquiet about contemporary policy and practice, and anxiety that the social justice aspect of social work is being lost in a child protection project that is characterized by a muscular authoritarianism towards multiply deprived families. Some  express clear disquiet about aspects of the system design described above and feel, for example, that the loss of a desk symbolises a profound lack of respect for their relational needs.

We understand that the phrase ‘I’m only here for the child’  heard from many social workers  supports the performance of a moral identity in a confusing and frightening landscape where there are multiple vulnerabilities and risks.  However, for all its rhetorical and moral potency, it reflects, in our view, a misrecognition of children’s relational identities and needs across the life course.

Across a range of welfare regimes in the last decades, Gilbert et al (2011) have noted a decoupling of the child from their family in a child-focused orientation. This orientation concentrates on the child as an individual with an independent relation to the state.  In such an orientation children’s relationships with siblings, their parents, their family networks,, friends and neighbourhoods become background.  The complexities of relational identities, past present and future, are glossed and, indeed, as we are seeing in England currently, a powerful moral mandate can be provided for a child rescue project, reinforced by every terrible death

The strengths in family networks and communities are not recognised in a child rescue model. This occurs despite practice approaches such as Family Group Conferences that broaden the possibilities of support for those struggling and the evidence from friends and family care of how an ethic of care can flourish even in the most adverse circumstances.  In recent decades we have also moved decisively away from neighbourhood based teams  using community development approaches.  Jack and Gill (2010) offer practical examples of such approaches from previous decades. Neighbourhood based social workers adopted a community development approach to reduce the pressures on parents and their children by enhancing the range of activities and informal social supports available to them.  They note that a five- year evaluation of one project found there had been significant reductions in the numbers of children in care or on supervision orders and that numbers on the child protection register had fallen to almost zero. The workers had helped not only to increase the levels of informal activities and social supports but also reduced mistrust between parents and workers so that help was sought earlier.

When we make these arguments, we are often accused of invoking a ‘golden age’. Maybe this is the case, but whatever their metal, the systems that currently dominate practice are terribly tarnished by the relentless pursuit of efficiency through standardised processes and risk-averse individualist practices.  Corporate front doors are often slammed shut, rupturing relationships at all levels. Violence has been done to relational social work. Of course history does not repeat itself but sometimes it rhymes. It is time to retune!

And to end on a positive note we are very excited to see a growing interest  in developing  local teams using family focused approaches, We also need to salute those who never stopped working and living in poverty stricken communities to support families to flourish such as the inspiring Bob Holman in Scotland.

Brid Featherstone, Professor of Social Care, The Open University,

Sue White, Professor of Social Work, Birmingham University,

Kate Morris, Associate Professor of Social Work, University of Nottingham


Gilbert, N., Parton, N. and Skiveness, M. (2011) ‘Changing Patterns of Responses and Emerging Orientations’ in N. Gilbert, N. Parton and M. Skiveness (eds) Child Protection Systems: International Trends and Orientations, Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Jack, G. and Gill, O. (2010)  ‘The Role of Communities in Safeguarding Children and Young People,’ Child Abuse Review, vol 19, pp 82-96.

3 thoughts on “Moving from the individual to the relational: child protection re-imagined”

  1. I am interested in developing clearer social models of how deprivation affects children and their parents and contributes to neglect and abuse. A lot of work has been done within social work in adult mental healt in recent years. For example, jerry tews articles and books on social models in mental health or the work of david smail and guy holmes within community psychology. These sets out clearer frameworks for understanding broad social processes and the way they shape individuals lifes.
    In the current debate about the child rescue emphasis sue white and colleagues where challenged by brown and ward to come up with alternative explanations for individual outcomes for children than those apparently provided by neuroscience! I think it is important that practising social workers rise to this challenge too!
    Ps I would also reccomend jack and gills 2003 book ‘the missing side of the triangle’ which offers very practical ways to think about the interaction of environmental factors with parenting and child development!

  2. Many important issues of todays health and social care practise are raised in this blog. I personally think it would be very beneficial if each day you were sat next to the same colleagues. Morale could be shared between each other and you could boost confidence and self esteem when maybe someone is lacking. Continuity would be very beneficial. Personalised areas would make social workers feel welcome and comfortable in their surroundings.
    By having your own desk it would allow you to return after a hard visit and sit at your own personal area and gather your thoughts.
    It worries me that activities for children are decreasing at a rapid rate. This needs tackled and I’m glad that someone has the guts to raise the point. This point needs far more attention. We, as social workers of the future, need to advertise our worries of the rapid decline of our society
    All social workers should be focused on the welfare of the service user. Establishing relationships and building trust is vital when dealing with a service user.

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