How Ideas Shape Child Protection Services

I recently had the privilege of being invited to attend and contribute to a conference in Japan. The title of my presentation was The Changing U.K Welfare Landscape; a Focus on Child Protection. It was a broadly based historical overview of the system – a system that is disjointed, fragmented by the diversity of services, providers and also by devolution.

The Role of Government

In my presentation I started my analysis at the end of the nineteenth century, a period of unprecedented change due to the industrial revolution. This was a time when there was considerable concern about the welfare of children, a period which signalled the rise of organisations like the NSPCC. In social policy terms the nineteenth century was a period of liberalism, in which the Government’s role was “to provide a firmly established and clearly understood framework within which society could very largely run itself” (Thane, 1990, p.1 – cited in Stewart, J. 2007:26).

Understanding the historical roots gives us an insight into child care law, in particular the reluctance of the state to interfere into family life as enshrined in the Children Act 1989 and the ‘No order principle’. This aspect, it could be argued, influences not only care proceedings but also the Government’s reluctance to ban smacking.

Child Protection

In the child protection arena the main focus of the reformers’ gaze in the nineteenth century was largely on neglect, due to concerns about issues such as poverty, housing, sanitation and malnutrition. This focus on neglect was to remain the main area of concern until about the 1960s when concerns shifted, influenced by the work of Henry Kempe in the United States, who started talking about ‘battered child syndrome’. This shifted the emphasis away from neglect to a widespread recognition that abuse is largely about power, power by one person (generally an adult) to inflict pain on a child – a deliberate act.

Two students asked me a couple of interesting questions. The first student appeared to be surprised by my analysis, as he seemed to feel that my observations had been skewed and that the U.K. system was on the whole a success. Although my analysis had been critical of the U.K. system I had acknowledged that we were living in a period when children had never been better protected. I had pointed that one of the ironies was that despite a successful system in which historically speaking children have never been safer, people remained concerned and fearful of abuse.

I would suggest that part of the part of the problem lies in our perception of risk, and in particular our desire to try and abolish risk by putting in place more and more procedures to cover all eventualities. When something goes wrong, therefore, (as, sadly, it inevitably will) we are surprised and react by imposing even more rules and regulations. Throughout society we are becoming increasingly risk-averse.

The Media and Blame

The second student asked a question which focused on the media reactions to child protection enquiries. In answering the last question I gave a rather complicated answer about the media’s response to stories and how politicians then respond, each feeding off each other and each in turn trying to respond to perceived public opinion- a cycle of media frenzy.

At the end of the session I spoke to the last student and explained that there is one word to describe the media and public response, which is a desire to find somebody to blame – we live in a culture of blame, in which we look for scapegoats. Harry Ferguson talks about ‘scandal politics’, which he feels have dominated the child protection discourse since the tragic death of Maria Colwell in the early 1970s.

Every Child Matters

Although the policy shift brought on by Every Child Matters had its origins in the tragic death of Victoria Climbie, the genesis of this change can be found in the publication in 1995 of Child Protection: Messages from Research, which began a debate about the narrowness of the focus of the work and the need for children to be seen in a much wider context. The report also suggested the need to develop a holistic system that is not just reacting to events but is also providing family support to those in need.
Every Child Matters presents an inclusive agenda for all child care professions. At this point it is worth restating the aims and objectives of this positive initiative which was to develop:

    “…a new approach to the well-being of children and young people from birth to age 19”.

In this document the Government goes on to state that its aim is for every child, whatever their background or their circumstances, to have the support they need to:

    • Be healthy
    • Stay safe
    • Enjoy and achieve
    • Make a positive contribution
    • Achieve economic well-being (Every Child Matters)

Although nobody can fault the laudable aims of the policy and the desire to provide integrated services for children, I wonder what this means in reality. From my observations, the main priority of poorly funded local authority social work departments remains child protection, for the simple reason that if something were to go wrong, questions would be asked about priorities. Likewise the main focus of schools is to educate. Bringing together these professionals together in integrated services was always going to be a leap of faith, given the difficulties of working in multi-disciplinary teams compounded at times by different professional agendas and language.


Every Child Matters – Change for Children (accessed 22/10/2008)

Ferguson, H. (2004) Protecting Children in Time: Child Abuse, Child Protection and the Consequences of Modernity. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Stewart, J. (2007) The Mixed Economy of Welfare in Historical Context pp.26- 40 in Powell, M. (ed.) (2007) Understanding the Mixed Economy of Welfare, Bristol: Policy Press

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