How do we best protect our children?

Welcome to the first blog of Revisiting Child protection in Scotland. The project emerges out of academic research – out of the findings from a UK-wide study of how social workers communicate with children and young people in child and family social work settings. The Talking & Listening to Children (TLC) study will produce lots of scholarly articles and tools for practitioners which, we hope, will help our social workers and their managers to do their jobs better. But our blogs will be different to this. They will be a space for invited individuals to express their views about the current state of child protection social work in Scotland. And of course, they will inevitably talk about Liam Fee.

The death of two-year-old Liam at the hands of his mother Nyomi and her partner Rachel Fee hit the headlines on Tuesday 31 May, the day before our new project began. Since then, there has been an avalanche of anguished writing – all of it keen to ask what went wrong – again – to a child in our care. The terms “off the radar” and “slipped through the net” have been used again, prompting echoes of previous tragedies. And it is clear already that there were a number of failings along the way, institutional and otherwise. The highly respected paediatrician, Jacqueline Mok, will chair a Serious Case Review that will explore the case in detail. I have no doubt that she will bring to this the attention to detail that characterised all her previous work in the fields of child sexual abuse and HIV positive children.

So what might our project add to this shocking and distressing story?

What we have found in our research is that social workers work with children and their families in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. They care deeply about the children whom they work with, but are often trying to hold too many cases, and the new world of ‘hot-desking’ and ‘agile working’ means that the opportunities they have for debriefing and informal support after a stressful meeting are severely limited. Institutional performance targets for report-writing get in the way of the necessary time it takes to build relationships with children and their families. And it is those trusting relationships that are at the heart of good social work. Is it any wonder that staff go off sick, or that social work has an ongoing problem with retention?

But there is another, equally important message in all this. Soon after the ‘guilty’ verdict was reached in Liam’s murder trial, Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister for Scotland rightly called for lessons to be learned. But in a press interview, she also said, “It’s a ‘hard fact’ that there is no system which can ‘absolutely guarantee’ the protection of every child.”* This was a brave and extremely honest statement to make, and it is one that we will foreground in our work over the next year on this project. What Sturgeon was reminding us is that the state cannot prevent children – and indeed other vulnerable people – from being harmed. We can put in place as many supports and systems of protection as citizens are prepared to accept. But it is impossible to know fully what happens behind closed doors when we (social workers, police officers, health visitors) are not present. And it is extraordinarily difficult for children to tell us what is really happening in their lives. These are indeed “hard facts” to take, and ones that we hope to explore more fully over the next year, in discussion with policy makers, practitioners and the general public.

Viviene Cree

Professor of Social Work Studies,

The University of Edinburgh

2nd June 2016


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