Looking back on the Revisiting Child Protection in Scotland project: A View from the Field

In this blog, Trisha Hall, Scottish Association of Social Workers’ manager, talks about what the Revisiting Child Protection in Scotland project – and the TLC resources within it – have meant for her …

The Talking & Listening to Children (TLC) resources are a great set of tools and approaches which are of immeasurable value to social work, but also other professionals working with children and families.

For social workers to engage in the training sessions means such a welcome change from training in yet another system or procedure, assessment process, measuring tool, impact analysis or familiarisation of yet other professional framework, which at present appears to be the only training available to social work. We are operating within increasingly bureaucratic and procedural cultures, where there is little time for reflection and learning. This project takes practitioners back to why they wanted to be a social worker in the first place. It allows them to reconnect with the passion to make a real difference, through making the relationships with children and their families that build trust, that are non-threatening, but that may prevent an escalation from a child being in need to a child becoming at risk of harm.

The project’s overall impact has evidenced the need for a different culture, which allows for social workers to learn from academics but crucially also from each other, and the people they work with and for. We need to review CP practice in Scotland, not the systems which currently shape practice. We have so much evidence in the form of theories and in depth research, but very little sustainable practitioner based and informed activity.

The sessions have also shown us as the professional SW association how it is vital that we keep campaigning for the systemisation of evidence-based practice and associated tools. It is already evident that despite the very positive response to the workshops, the participants are not able to continue the activity as we had hoped if they have to do so in their own time. There is such an urgency in the day to day work and the frequently large caseloads that it is unlikely any continuation is possible in worktime. Yet this may be false economy. Children and families social workers, particularly those working in child protection, last an average of nine years before they seek another direction. We have to truly reimagine and revisit our child protection practice in order to make sustainable changes that will really “get it right for every child” as well as their families and communities.

Trisha Hall, SASW, Edinburgh
24th May 2017

A view from the inside: feedback on the training workshops

When I signed up for the ‘Communicating with Children’ training workshops, I was barely six months into my social work career. Having qualified back in 2016, I expected a course structured much like any other; provision of information by experts to the comparatively uninitiated, perhaps with some slideshows, group exercises and activities to stave off “death by Powerpoint”. Even for particularly good training courses I had enrolled on previously, it felt like my lack of experience could at times cause difficulty connecting to the source material and applying it to my own practice, meaning that while I could appreciate and make use of most information provided sometimes the best I could hope for was an epiphanic “so that’s what they were talking about” when I was finally confronted with certain scenarios in practice.

After just one session with the “Communicating with Children” group, I felt that they had managed to create something which transcended this potentially dry and impersonal structure and instead provided an experience which was informative, targeted and relevant, made all the more impressive by the fact that each session was merely two hours in length (coffee break included). I feel that this was less about trying to mastermind something earth-shattering, ground-breaking and likely to change the face of practice as we knew it forever, but rather taking things back to basics and allowing workers access to something that should be uncomplicated and readily available; a safe space to share thoughts, experiences, academic sources and (perhaps most importantly) fears, worries and past failures.

During a number of group sessions, I waxed lyrical about all manner of challenging circumstances, dilemmas and hardships I faced during my short time on the job, while colleagues and trainers alike listened patiently. Often, these exchanges did not yield solutions to problems or any sense of feeling any further forward in a practical sense, but inevitably in having talked them through and shared my journey with my fellows I felt lighter, happier and even enriched. Sharing those feelings with other people who could appreciate what I was going through was immensely powerful, and each time I did it I became more confident and more emboldened. Equally, the opportunity to share positive practice and outcomes provided a real sense of worth in the work that we have done and will continue to do with children moving forward, outside of the hustle and bustle of a busy and sometimes stifling office environment.

The articles and video materials were interesting, the conversation was thought-provoking and the provision of biscuits and muffins during sessions did a lot to enhance the experience! However, what these sessions achieved quite simply and effectively was bringing together a whole host of workers from different backgrounds, experience levels and personalities under a clear and common goal: making lives better for children. The simplicity of the interactions between professionals and the trust and respect that was shown highlighted for me an ultimate truth: with service users and professionals alike, the importance of being listened to and acknowledged cannot be overstated and it is through such interactions that the real work can be done.

Alex Gunn, April 2017


One of the most challenging questions I asked myself in coming into my current role was, what could I contribute to help build a stronger future for the social work/social care sector in Scotland during my time as Chief Social Work Adviser? Could I help build some cohesion, common purpose and direction to a sector of incredible diversity and complexity? This at a time of probably the greatest challenges and changes we have seen in public sector services for more than a generation. I don`t need to remind you of what these challenges are in terms of resourcing, demographics and the potential impact of governance arrangements on the delivery of services.

I wish I had an easy solution to some of the challenges we all face at this time. But I am absolutely convinced Scotland needs to have a strong, competent and well trained staff to face the future. Scotland`s citizens will depend on the 200,000 workforce, social workers, social care officers, occupational therapists and Chief Social Work Officers for high quality care and protection of our most vulnerable children, adults and older people.

To help further strengthen the sector, the Social Work Services Strategic Forum was established in late 2013, bringing together Scotland`s most senior figures from across the social services sector. It was from this Forum that a shared Vision and Social Services Strategy 2015 – 2020 emerged, tackling four key areas:

  • Supporting the workforce
  • Understanding service quality and performance
  • Improving use of evidence
  • Promoting public understanding

However, the purpose of this blog is not to familiarise you with the detail, as I am sure you are now well aware of it. The Strategy is about creating a focus through which the sector can begin to see links and connections either to existing work or emerging thinking. One such example is ‘Talking, Listening to Children’ (TLC) which forms part of a four-nation research UK project funded by ESRC. It is exploring how social workers communicate with children in their everyday practice and how social workers and children involved in these encounters experience and understand them. Over the past year, Scottish Government, in particular my own office and child protection policy colleagues, have supported the work of Professor Viv Cree and Dr Fiona Morrison by joining the impact project`s Steering Group and hosting three related child protection seminars last summer. As a result, a number of important connections began to emerge, which I hope will help strengthen the current work at the University of Edinburgh.

The ‘Pride in Practice’ conference last year brought practitioners together where a combination of speakers and workshops not only identified and shared evidence based practice in Scotland and beyond, but also connected to the Communities of Practice being developed by Trisha Hall from SASW – Trisha is also a member of the Social Work Services Strategic Forum. SASW and TLC project staff are now working together to run a series of training workshops for social workers over the next few months in two local authorities in Scotland as a pilot towards developing Communities of Practice in children and families’ social work across Scotland.

Focus on practice has been a key feature during my visits to local authorities and third sector organisations, as well as frontline engagement events with practitioners over the past three years. There is a great deal to be proud of in the direct work being undertaken with children and their families, both in terms of early intervention and also with those already engaged in the formal child protection system. However a number of themes emerge:

  • In current circumstances it is not surprising that social workers do not believe they have adequate time to spend in direct work with children – believing too much of their time is spent on computers and paperwork.
  • Effective Supervision. The importance of reflective practice through regular good quality supervision is paramount.
  • Good Practice. I would add a further observation to those of frontline staff which is that we do not share our good practice as effectively as we might.

Going back to the Vision and Strategy for Social Services and the significance of connections, I hope you can begin to see the significance of the four work-strands the sector identified as critical to strengthening and professionalising the sector in Scotland. None of these stand alone. You cannot have actions aimed at supporting the workforce without having an eye on the improved use of evidence and best practice or better public understanding without taking cognisance of quality and performance. What is fundamental to all that we do is to acknowledge, value and reward best practice in Scotland. I am therefore delighted that the Forum has announced the new Scottish Social Services Awards to take place on 13 June 2017 at Crieff Hydro. In launching the new awards, Mark McDonald, Minister for Childcare and Early Years said:

“The life changing and challenging work undertaken by the people who work across our social services should not, be underestimated. This valuable work is crucial to creating a more equal and socially just Scotland. The people in this sector should be justifiably proud of the work they do.”

The ten award categories, grouped under the work-strands of the strategy, include `Bright Spark`, `Silo Buster` and `The untold story`. I hope they will inspire some of the 200,000 workforce to nominate themselves, teams or organisations. Applications close on 28 February with further details at www.sssa.scot or follow progress of nominations @SSSAwards and #SSSA17.

The awards are one of the first outcomes from the 5-year Social Services Strategy and whilst it has an action plan to take the sector up to 2020, it is also a catalyst for wider change. This includes the work by Viviene Cree and Fiona Morrison which will enhance the quality of practice in those staff working with individual children and families and sits well with the `Improving use of Evidence` strand of the Strategy.

I wish Viv and Fiona continued success with TLC.

Alan Baird,

Chief Social Work Adviser, Scottish Government

January 2017


Making the case for Rethinking Child Protection Strategy: Findings from a large-scale study in England

We have just completed our two year, data collection and analysis of child protection and safeguarding referrals and assessment outcomes for the project ‘Rethinking Child Protection Strategy’, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (Grant number ES/M000990/1). The large-scale, secondary data analysis covers data from the past 25 years in England, giving a picture of what has happened since the implementation of the Children Act 1989.  Although this study was located in England, its findings are relevant to all parts of the UK.

Since the passing of the 1989 Act, various strategies have been adopted by successive governments in England with the aim of reducing child abuse and improving children’s welfare. These approaches have attempted to reconcile the local authorities’ dual aims: to ‘safeguard and promote the welfare of children who are in need’ (s.47) and to investigate whether action needs to be taken ‘to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare’ (s.17).

Our data findings indicate that the current intervention strategy does not meet either aim.  On the contrary, it is found that the amount of detected child abuse as a proportion of referrals has fallen from 24% to 7%. This suggests that either many abused children are failing to be referred, or that abused referred children are not being correctly assessed. Moreover, the findings suggest that a large number of families who require support services are needlessly ‘risk assessed’, potentially without their consent, causing resourcing issues for the social work profession and contributing to a fear of the consequence of missing a serious case of abuse. This scenario may be deterring families seeking services and damaging those who do.

Our data analysis concludes that the current strategy of treating need and abuse as a linear continuum is producing an outcome counter to the intention of policy, and also counter to the interests of children, families and society.

In addition to the data findings, another objective of ‘Rethinking Child Protection Strategy’ was to investigate the explicit and implicit theory underpinning child protection and safeguarding strategy.  We established four new theoretical findings that can be widely applied to contribute to understanding the system:

  • The ‘Theory of Child Protection’;
  • The ‘Law of Diminishing Returns Ratio’;
  • The ‘Welfare/Policing Dichotomy; and
  • The ‘Outlier Paradox’.

We firstly identified a number of paradigms that, taken together, inform child protection and safeguarding strategy.  This resulted in identification of the Theory of Child Protection circuit.  Much of our data analysis involved investigating these individual elements to look at the strength of the evidential basis for these paradigms.  We concluded that the impact of basing strategy around the Theory of Child Protection decreases the efficiency ratio of the system in relation to child abuse, which is directly at odds with its aim.  We identified this phenomenon as the Law of Diminishing Returns Ratio. We investigated the reasons for this, which led to the identification of a fundamental problem at the heart of child protection and safeguarding strategy; the Welfare/Policing Dichotomy’ (Devine, 2015).  In addition, we observed a phenomenon we term the Outlier Paradox in relation to risk characteristics and the likelihood of effective social work for certain categories of the population.  This paradox refers to families at the extreme ends of the referral spectrum where we found that those who are incorrectly referred and resist social work interaction exhibit similar characteristics to those who are correctly referred because they are deliberately and systematically abusing their children.

These theoretical insights enable suggestions to be made for future strategic direction. In order to address the problems we have identified, we suggest a revised framework that respects the separation in the Children Act 1989 between s.17 in Part III and s.47 in Part V.  This new ethico-legal framework prioritises consensual work for s.17 referrals and a more robust and controlled forensic examination framework where the threshold for s.47 is met.

Dr Lauren Devine and Mr Stephen Parker, Senior Lecturers in Law at the University of the West of England, Bristol, and Principal and Co-Investigator of ‘Rethinking Child Protection Strategy’.  Correspondence to Lauren.devine@uwe.ac.uk/

Further reading: http://www.esrc.ac.uk/news-events-and-publications/evidence-briefings/child-protection-and-assessment/


The ‘Named Persons’ Supreme Court Ruling – what does this mean?

Yesterday (28th July), the UK Supreme Court published its judgment on the so-called ‘Named Persons scheme’ provisions of the Children & Young People (Scotland) Act 2014, which is due to come on stream across Scotland on 31st August.  Following a legal challenge to the policy, the Court made three important judgements. Firstly, it stated that the policy intention behind the 2014 Act was ‘unquestionably legitimate and benign’ and does not breach human rights. It also ruled that it was indeed within the Scottish government’s purview to legislate in this area without Westminster approval. At the same time, however, it ruled that information-sharing provisions included in the Act may result in a ‘disproportionate interference with the rights of children, young people and their parents under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)’. In light of this finding, the Scottish Government was invited to introduce amendments to the Supreme Court within the next 42 days. These amendments will have to make clearer how the competing demands of privacy, consent and information-sharing will be respected in practice.

The judgement was hailed as a victory by those for and against the provisions in the new legislation. Many of the children’s charities support the Scottish government, seeing the named person as “central to making sure that we get it right for every child in Scotland” (Martin Crew, Director of Barnardo’s Scotland, in a 28/07/16 press release)[1]. They were therefore delighted that the scheme had not been rejected outright by the Supreme Court. At the same time, the alliance of groups that has opposed the new legislation was ecstatic that the new provisions had (at least) been paused. In the words of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative Party leader in Scotland, “the scheme is illiberal, invasive, and deeply flawed” (Conservative Party website, 29/07/16)[2].

It is enormously difficult for all of us, whether inside or outside the child protection field, to express a view about any of this. Who would want to suggest that the protection of children isn’t our primary concern?  Who doesn’t agree that early intervention – uncovering neglect or abuse before it develops – isn’t a good thing? And who would disagree that we need to coordinate services better? So, if we are all on the same side (and it seems at least possible to argue that we are), what might be done to take this forward?

I’d like to suggest that there needs to be much more detailed work undertaken to examine how this scheme is going to work in practice. So, for example, let’s imagine that you, as a member of the public, hear a child screaming or see a child being hurt by an adult outside the home. What do you do? Presumably, you call the police or emergency social work services. Where is the named person in all of this? And what if this is July, when the schools are on holiday? How does the named person scheme function then? What if the child is a toddler – how many health visitors will it take to be ‘named persons’ for all of Scotland’s under-5s? And what about 16-18 year olds, who can, of course, leave school and even marry in Scotland? Is this the best way of supporting them? My biggest concern in the new world of the named person that, rather than speeding up help and making protection easier, we create uncertainty and confusion, and yet another bureaucratic obstacle – something that gets in the way of helping children and undermines the work of social workers who, under current legislation, are the ‘lead professional’ in child protection cases. There is also a risk of net-widening; as teachers and health visitors are faced with the responsibility of making decisions about the safety of increasing numbers of children, so more children and young people may be drawn into a child protection system that is already creaking under the weight of heavy workloads and financial cutbacks.

Our research on Talking & Listening to Children[3] has demonstrated that social workers do extraordinarily difficult and complex work. They manage to hold in mind and heart children and families who have multiple problems and massive needs – poverty and deprivation, domestic abuse, drug and alcohol problems, and a range of other social, economic and personal challenges. They do so, on the whole, very well – they build on strengths and help children, young people and adults to deal with all kinds of adversities. Moving forward, I would like to hope that we can find ways of giving credit to the ‘life-changing work’ that social workers do.[4] Let’s stop vilifying social workers and blaming parents and young people, and instead, see if we can truly create the more cohesive, compassionate, caring Scotland we want to be part of – with or without a Named Person scheme.

Professor Viviene Cree


[1] http://www.barnardos.org.uk/what_we_do/barnardos_today/scotland/scotland_news.htm?ref=111580

[2] http://www.conservativehome.com/thetorydiary/2016/07/named-person-how-has-it-come-to-this.html

[3] http://www.socialwork.ed.ac.uk/research/grants_and_projects/current_projects/revisiting_child_protection_in_scotland

[4] http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2006/02/02094408/16http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2006/02/02094408/16

A strong, independent voice

At SASW we are excited about being a lead partner in the Revisiting Child Protection in Scotland research project. We know that there are some real challenges around for social workers today. We also know that there are things that are working and helping to improve children’s lives, as well as those of their families and communities.  This is an opportunity to work with academics and practitioners to actively support social workers and ultimately improve outcomes. Our key contribution to this research study will be the establishment of Communities of Practice for children and families social workers across Scotland. The communities will be an opportunity to share knowledge, research and practice, to focus on what works, what we can do better and how. They will be a forum for critical reflection about child protection, with academic input. Our focus will not be on implementing or reviewing systems, but on what can be done to support improvements in practice in what are challenging times of austerity. We will look at better contact and meaningful co-production with people who use the services. We will talk about the impact of this complex work on social workers; how can we support you, and what can you do to keep yourself well and safe and maintain the enthusiasm that led you to this area of practice?  SASW already has access to a wealth of knowledge and research, and the communities of practice will enable us to further open this up to the social work community. SASW is part of BASW, the UK wide organization, and we are a member of IFSW, the International Federation of Social Workers, so part of a global network.

In the course of our work at SASW we are often met with the question “Why should I join a professional association? What’s in it for me? I’m in a Union, surely that’s all I need?’ However SASW is so much more than just a Union. Yes, we do have the Social Workers Union which provides expert employment representation from fully trained trade union officials who are also registered social workers. SASW membership also provides social workers with £5 million Professional Indemnity Insurance, a Code of Ethics, a monthly magazine, access to e-bulletins and online materials, discounts on books, journals and events, and access to special interest groups and branches.

And there’s more. Did you know we are the only independent and member-led organisation for social workers in Scotland? We are a campaigning organisation – we lobby the Scottish government on your behalf. Our remit is to protect, maintain, develop and promote the profession. We are passionate about the code of ethics and our code of practice, and will not stand for any dilution of our professional identity.   Run and governed by our members, we are independent of any other social work establishment stakeholders – this allows us to deal squarely and honestly with all of them on behalf of our members and in the sole interest of the profession. We work with partners within the Social Services Strategy for Scotland, where we reflect your views and interests. We have a steadily growing voice in the media, and we actively campaign to raise the public profile of social work.

We have been invited to be part of the current review of the child protection system announced by the Education Secretary in February.  We will represent what our members tell us about what works and what needs to change, how it feels to work within this context, and what can enable and empower social workers.

SASW is the professional organisation for social workers in Scotland. Being part of SASW means being part of a collective voice, a voice that grows in strength as our membership increases. A voice which shouts out for the profession and what it needs to grow and flourish. This is a time of real flux, change and uncertainty for social workers. Increasingly we hear about a climate of fear, where the focus is on risk rather than need. We need to join together and speak up about how we feel and what we need to do our jobs effectively, so we can improve outcomes for vulnerable children and adults.

Individual professionals are as strong as their professional association. Professional associations are as strong as their membership. SASW will continue to grow. The more it grows, the more it can do for social work practice. Our profession has protection of title, and we stand up for that and will not see it eroded. We have to ensure that striving for social justice is not jargon, but an ambition we work towards in partnership with the people we work with and for. We must be proud to call ourselves social workers.

Sarah McMillan

Professional Officer, Scottish Association of Social Workers

20th July 2016


Follow us on Facebook:  Scottish Association of Social Workers

Twitter:  @ScotsSW

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

* http://stv.tv/news/east-central/1356020-first-minister-describes-revulsion-at-liam-fee-murder/