Why we need to get back to “Child Protection”…

Being responsive NOT responsible...

In recent years we’ve changed the terminology of child protection. We now call it “safeguarding.”

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/Imgorthand (adapted)

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/Imgorthand (adapted)

There are a number of reasons why I believe this wasn’t a good change.

Why “safeguarding” fudges the issue…

Early attempts to deal with the menace of maltreating children were very formal. And more than a little insensitive – at least by today’s standards.

Image ©NHS Stock Images

Image ©NHS Stock Images

Uniformed, exclusively male workers from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (later the NSPCC) patrolled the slums of London.

Families came to fear being “caught” and the responses were punitive – one in five cases in the 1890s was resolved by a parent going to prison.

You can’t work “with” a parent who’s languishing behind bars. Only much later on did the notion of working in “partnership” with families emerge.

It changed quite quickly and as early as 1906 the prosecution rate had fallen to around 3%.

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The good thing about the recently adopted term “safeguarding” is that it captures the notion of prevention. It can also speak to the ongoing work with a family to keep the children safe and promote good enough parenting.

The problem, for me, is one of nuance. But the term safeguarding doesn’t help. Here’s what I mean:

  • Child protection – does what it says on the tin – professionals working in this field do so in order to protect children because they need it. Simple. We act on information, reports, suspicion, physical or anecdotal evidence and respond to ensure children are protected. Essentially, it’s responsive.
  • Safeguarding – professionals are now tasked with all of the above, just the same; but there’s another aspect. The term infers a mandate on the part of social workers to keep children safe. We have now become responsible.

This is a huge shift.

It is reflected in the fact that we now no longer routinely hear about child deaths.

Image courtesy of ©123rf/Roger Costa Morera

Image courtesy of ©123rf/Roger Costa Morera

Between 1889 and 1914, there were 13,613 child deaths known to the NSPCC – an average of 544 per year.* In 2012 there were 44 deaths of children in the UK between 28 days and 15 years old as a result of assault or undetermined intent.**

Back when child deaths were more common, the incidents were published and publicised. The child protection system of the day even employed such knowledge to show its success in reaching children and highlight the need to continue the quest.

How things have changed!

Image ©The Sun

Image ©The Sun

Nowadays we use such knowledge to vilify social workers and find someone to blame.

In the aftermath of the death of Baby P in Haringey, in 2008, it was the social workers – not just his killers – who were being blamed for his death.

The now infamous Sun headline in November of that year accused social workers of having “Blood on Their Hands.” Nonsense of course. But it shows the shift in perception from being responsive to being held  responsible.

In our sanitised world of conditioned air and filtered water we don’t want to hear about children dying. Yet there are still on average around 50 child deaths per year in the United Kingdom.

None of them die at the hands of social workers or allied professionals…

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“Child Protection”…

Social workers are clearly not responsible for these deaths. They happen at the hands of the children’s family and others.

But there is a clear need for professionals to respond to the needs of children who are evidently still very much at risk.

Whilst we rightly seek to work with families to ensure children are safe, there are always those cases where resistance or extreme circumstances undermine these efforts.

In some such tragic cases children are abused. Not because social workers failed to “guard” them; that’s not our job. But because people harmed them.

Maybe it’s just me, but the term “safeguarding” seems a bit misleading…


  • What are your thoughts about this issue? Does the terminology really matter?

Please add your views in the comments section below, or by clicking here.

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© Jonny Matthew 2015

* Ferguson, H. (2011:23) Child Protection Practice. Basinstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

** Jutte, S.; Bentley, H.; Miller, P. & Jetha, N. (2014) How Safe Are Our Children? London: NSPCC

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Armrget Kaur

    Ok I understand the differences you have supplied which are:-

    A Social workers are clearly not responsible for these deaths. They happen at the hands of the children’s family and others.

    But there is a clear need for professionals to respond to the needs of children who are evidently still very much at risk.

    I am also considering the journey that lead to Safeguarding Agenda that took us away from just using Child Protection term . I also think that registration bodies and chief Officers who lead the changes may have wanted safe guard agenda to have more accountability in it. I think it would be interesting to get a handle on how the word crept in and the then history and were we are now will make sense.
    I also wonder when the policy makers made the shift in words whether they themselves wanted to impress that child deaths will lead to SW needing to understand the full ramifications of the job if child death occurs. Having said that I don`t think there is not one SW who does not know and has it on their back mind with each assessment they do – but for me I accept my responsibility when I fail to follow safeguarding procedures and I knowingly increase risk to the child and serious case review inquiry discovers the errors BUT i also think the management system must be held accountable for failing to monitor through supervision as everyone in the case is responding and responsible to safeguard of child.

    • jonnymatthew

      A point well made, Armrget (several, in fact!). In the end this could be argued away as being a case of semantics. But my point was to try and raise the notion that SWs are NOT responsible for the abuse or even death of a child. Ever. Even where there are shortcomings in the way cases are conducted, ultimately it is someone else who damages the child. This is in NO WAY to condone, minimise or justify slack working practices – not least supervision, as you say – but to make a plea for the public and the government to get things in perspective. The role of language and labels is an interesting one and, in this instance is one which (perhaps) contributes to the problems. The current push to jail “wilfully negligent” SWs, being the pinnacle of the absurdity so far, illustrates how far we’ve gone down the road of blaming those who work hardest to prevent abuse… Thanks for commenting!

      • Armrget Kaur

        I do agree with the absurdity of sending SW to jail it opens up to bad system practice and having a sacrifice does upset me greatly and I feel will increase to staff stress and post Will be hard to fill and that will cause new challenges.
        I don’t want to see the day a SW is jailed for death of a child and I do find hard to believe that a judge would issue such a sentence. Because as you said that is the abuser
        It is my hope that some how this government does not push this through.
        What we need is for every one from all professional bodies to rally to stop this and give research and evidence that explains why this message from the government wrong. It will damage the work being done to build relationships within the community and reinforce hate and non cooperation from high risk cases.