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About this book

For decades, child protection systems have striven to provide responsive services to vulnerable children and families in the face of the constant change and instability caused by the bureaucratization of child protection. This book lends a strident voice to the argument for a shift beyond the current risk paradigm, towards genuine cultural change.

Table of Contents

Notions of Risk in Child Protection


1. Concerns About Risk as a Major Driver of Professional Practice

Introduction An increased awareness about risk seems to constitute one of the key defining dimensions of our contemporary experience and is present in most areas of our social, economic, political and cultural lives (Mythen & Walklate, 2006; Petersen & Wilkinson, 2008; Taylor-Gooby & Zinn, 2006). Nowhere is this more evident than in the area of child protection (see for example Parton, Thorpe & Wattam, 1997; Swift & Callahan, 2009). It is, however, the central proposition of this chapter that concerns about risk in the area of child protection, and child welfare more generally, have taken a particularly narrow, negative and defensive form and that this has had an enormous impact on the priorities and nature of day-to-day policy and practice. Risk assessment, risk management and the monitoring of risk have become key issues for both practitioners and managers, and certain notions of risk have increasingly become embedded in organizational rationales and procedures for both the delivery of services and relationships with users and clients. Ideas about risk have, similarly, become central in making judgements about the quality of performance and what should be the primary focus for professional activities. A central part of my argument is that particular ideas about risk have taken on a strategic significance for rationing services and holding professionals and others to account in a changing political and economic context where potential need and demand is increasing but where there are insufficient resources.
Nigel Parton

2. The Risk Paradigm and the Media in Child Protection

In Chapter 1, Nigel Parton explored some of the concerns about risk that have influenced child protection practice in particular ways. This chapter extends this conversation by examining the influence of the media and both the way it has shaped public perceptions about child abuse and neglect and the way it has influenced professional practice with children and families. Drawing on international literature in media analysis, social identities and representation, as well as the social work and social policy scholarship, we will examine how the media frames child abuse as a significant feature of child welfare and the risk paradigm. Cases will be utilized to demonstrate the potential and real impact on policy and practice. Links will be made to moral panics, addressing cases in various international contexts. Finally, the chapter will briefly describe opportunities to develop a more positive engagement with the press via working with journalists and presenting contrasting ideas in the media through blogs and writing for newspapers. In some respects it is difficult to know where to begin in writing this chapter, because the media (in all its forms) has had such a significant part to play in the creation and maintenance of both everyday and professional ideas of risk and child protection, historically and in the present day.
Liz Beddoe, Viviene Cree

3. Anticipating Risk: Predictive Risk Modelling as a Signal of Adversity

In Chapter 1, Nigel Parton discussed the ways in which notions of risk and danger in child protection have reinforced the idea that we may be able to predict risk and then avert danger for children. This idea of being able to predict future harm has been challenged in the literature, particularly given the complex environment within which services are delivered and indeed the multifaceted difficulties that families face. The issues are certainly complex. This chapter nevertheless explores whether developments in predictive risk modelling might provide opportunities to better support vulnerable families – signalling a need when families experience adversity, rather than functioning as a mechanism that labels and stigmatizes them. In the past, families experiencing chronic adversity were referred to as ‘dysfunctional’ or ‘problem families’. Sometimes people still use these terms, although less often these days. The terminology suggests a sense of intractability and inevitability about some families’ difficulties and a pessimistic attitude towards working with them that lingers more recently in the language used: for example, ‘marginalized’, ‘excluded’, ‘at-risk’, ‘hard-to-reach’ or ‘vulnerable’. Whatever the words used, the situation of the families remains more or less the same – over time their difficulties tend to get worse rather than better. One problem leads to another, multiplying and compounding in ‘risk chains’ (Rutter, 1999) or ‘cascade effects’ (Masten & Powell, 2003), to the point of crisis.
Irene de Haan, Marie Connolly

4. New Knowledge in Child Protection: Neuroscience and its Impacts

Scholars, practitioners, courts and policymakers are increasingly drawing on the growing field of neuroscience to inform decisions. Educational experts, for example, are pressing for reforms to the classroom based on neuroscientific research about how students learn (School of Education at Johns Hopkins University, 2015). Doctors and sports medicine experts are using research on the lasting damage to the brain from repeated concussions (Aronson, 2011) and accordingly advocating for changes to the practice of many sports. And courts are using neuroscience to justify changes to settled doctrine, such as a series of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court finding that the sentencing of juveniles should account for their ongoing brain development (Montgomery v. Louisiana, 2016; Miller v. Alabama, 2012; Graham v. Florida, 2010; Roper v. Simmons, 2005). Research into brain development during early childhood and adolescence is equally salient to child protection and perceptions of risk that inform so much policy in this area. It is an area of knowledge that informs decision making. This research holds tremendous potential for the development of child protection policy and is gaining currency in the practice of child protection, particularly in judicial decision making. Yet operationalizing this still emerging science in itself presents considerable dangers. Given its indeterminacy, the research is highly susceptible to political cooptation and can be deployed in support of different, and sometimes incompatible, policies.
Clare Huntington

5. Disproportionality and Risk Decision Making in Child Protection

The fraught question of disproportionality in child welfare has challenged practitioners, policy makers and managers across the world. On the one hand, there is no doubt that children from indigenous and ethnic minority groups are overrepresented in the child protection system (CPS), including reports to the CPS, substantiations of maltreatment and numbers of children in out-of-home care. Although parenting behaviour differs between different social groups, no culture or social group condones the abuse of children. Historical disadvantage, alienation and injustice impact on indigenous and ethnic minority families, and child protection practice responds to these families by over- or under-reacting to perceived risks to these children. Frontline practitioners are left to manage risk and make decisions within an environment where resources are constrained, and anxieties surrounding race have the potential to impact on decision making around risk and protection. This chapter explores the nature of disproportionality, including the theories that have sought to explain why children from different ethnic, cultural and racial backgrounds appear to elicit different responses from the child protection system. The chapter teases out the multiple causes of disproportionality and then explores what this means for child protection decision making and service delivery. Disproportionality refers to the fact that children from indigenous and minority ethnic communities are overrepresented in the child protection system compared to their numbers in the general population.
Ilan Katz, Marie Connolly

6. Service Users as Receivers of Risk-Dominated Practice

Earlier chapters in this volume have outlined the development of the risk paradigm in many aspects of public life and have illustrated how child protection systems have evolved as a consequence. This chapter will also dip into that history, albeit from a slightly different perspective, in order to illustrate how the various shifts over the past three decades have directly impacted on the experience of children and families who have found themselves involved with the child welfare and protection services. While the focus of this discussion is intended to be international, the author acknowledges that the perspective is primarily Anglophone, based on research conducted in mostly English-speaking countries. Service user perspectives of child protection work will be explored, including the extent to which it is possible to reconcile traditional values about client-centred, relationship-based practice with the demands of managerial systems which are aimed at defining and responding to risk to children. This chapter contends that a number of parallel processes, some of which are contradictory in both orientation and effect, have wittingly or unwittingly modified the experience of service users. It will argue that attempts to moderate the system and promote family participation and engagement have been losing the battle with simultaneous efforts to streamline and will also highlight how methods for quality ensure that the services have rendered the experiences of service users in the recasting of child protection as a technical process.
Helen Buckley

7. Engaging Families and Managing Risk in Practice

As we can see from the preceding chapters, child protection decision making exists within an uncertain and complex environment where risk permeates the concerns of child protection professionals, managers and anyone who is charged with keeping children safe. As Jones (2008, slide 2) notes, ‘whether we like it or not, management doesn’t care about security. … They care about risk’. Given the organizational messaging about risk, which creates a dominant organizational risk culture (Levy et al., 2010), it would be surprising if risk concerns did not sit at the heart of daily child protection activities. The problem within child protection organizations is that risk concern is focused not only on the child but also on the organizational risk of acting or not acting. Within a dominant risk culture, child protection systems determine who will be involved in decision making, invariably confining it to the professional system. This can mean that the potential for families, and particularly extended families, to be engaged in decision making – and thus meaningfully invested as partners in those decisions – is lost. This chapter explores the ways in which families, and the contributions they make, are framed in the context of child protection. Building on the ideas presented by Buckley in Chapter 6, and in particular the issue of service user participation, it examines how engaging with the wider family within the decision-making processes and practices of state care and protection interventions attends to child safety and well-being and helps shape a positive view of public service providers.
Kate Morris, Gale Burford

Innovative Practices in Child Protection


8. Assessment and Decision Making to Improve Outcomes in Child Protection

The decision to place children in out-of-home care is but one of the many decisions made by child protection workers and the systems in which they are embedded. Every day, potential reporters of child maltreatment (mandated or otherwise) are faced with the decision of whether to call child protection services. Phone screeners must decide whether a report is sufficiently severe and meets the legal requirements in their jurisdiction to take further action. Professionals who investigate the report must assess and make numerous decisions about whether children are safe in their homes. And professionals who have an ongoing role with the family must continually assess safety, permanency planning and the services that will best provide for the needs and interests of the child. Within all of these (and other) major decisions are countless smaller decisions that potentially influence outcomes, such as when, where and how to interview children and parents; how much their opinions and preferences should be weighted towards key decisions; how often visits should be made; and what statements and actions are recorded in those visits. These decisions are made in the context of other components of the system that are constantly tasked with making judgements, and their decisions are influenced (but not entirely contingent upon) the determinations of caseworkers. Supervisors and managers in agencies authorize actions based on information provided by caseworkers. Courts make legal decisions about plans, their merit and their enforcement.
Aron Shlonsky, Robyn Mildon

9. Signs of Safety: Reorienting Work With Children, Families and Communities

Introduction: safety and risk assessment as challenging areas of child welfare policy and practice This book began with cautions from Nigel Parton that in many child protection services (CPS) systems, ‘a culture of blame’ dominates where policies and procedures have been introduced to make practice so transparent that ‘any negative outcome can be defended’, thereby shifting the concern ‘from trying to make the right decision to making a defensible decision’ (p. 6). Parton noted some of the important reform perspectives in the 1990s: Rather than simply be concerned with a narrow, forensically-driven focus on child protection, it was argued there needed to be a ‘rebalancing’ or ‘refocusing’ of the work, such that the essential principles of a broader child welfare approach could dominate. Policy and practice should be driven by an emphasis on partnership, participation, prevention and family support. The priority should be on helping parents and children in the community in a supportive way and should keep notions of policing and coercive intervention to a minimum. (p. 9) In Chapter 7 Morris and Burford state that ‘it is time to stop “tinkering around the edges”, with tokenistic efforts that embrace the rhetoric of family engagement but don’t follow through with any meaningful involvement with families in child protection’ (p. 92).
Andrew Turnell, Peter J. Pecora, Yvonne H. Roberts, Mike Caslor, Dan Koziolek

10. Shifting the Focus: Working Differently With Domestic Violence

Risk assessment undertaken with families is often confused in its focus and fails to distinguish clearly where in the family risks reside and which family members pose a threat to other family members. The use of non-specific terms such as ‘parenting’ or ‘family’ can obscure the power relations that underpin and shape levels of risk. There is, however, widespread recognition of the gendered nature of domestic violence. Analyses that have highlighted how risks in families experiencing domestic violence are gendered (Scourfield, 2003; Mandel, 2014) have argued the case for risk assessment and management to differentiate between the risks posed by mothers and fathers to children’s safety and well-being. This chapter describes how a conceptual shift away from the risks located in mothers’ living with domestic violence to address those found in violent fathers has generated new approaches to risk assessment as well as innovations in service provision. The response to domestic violence has been primarily developed by advocates working on behalf of women to secure safety and a greater sense of well-being. The response was closely tied to the women’s movement, which provided active, long-term support. Over many decades it has shone a light on the prevalence, risks and severity of violence experienced by women in their own homes or when separating from violent and abusive partners.
Cathy Humphreys, Nicky Stanley

11. Family Risk and Responsive Regulation

Narrowing risk assessment to the judgement of workers closes out the insights of children and their families and local communities. Stories from the US state of North Carolina propose a viable alternative of collectively identifying concerns and determining solutions that safeguard children and their families. To support this enlarged input, child welfare systems have adopted inclusionary decision-making practices such as family group conferencing and, in North Carolina, child and family team meetings. The term ‘child and family teams’ (CFTs) originated in child mental health but in North Carolina is also used in child welfare. Child and family teams are seen as integral to wrapping services around children and their families in a manner that creates a responsive and unified system of care (Burchard & Burchard, 2000). Across types of forums, the intent is to bring together the immediate family with their informal and formal networks to make plans in which all participants can invest their caring and resources to reach resolutions. Two important groups often excluded from these forums are youth and fathers. Workers may worry that young people who are already traumatized will be overloaded by the subject matter under deliberation and that fathers who have committed domestic violence will intimidate their children’s mother and other family group members (Hayden et al., 2014; Ptacek, 2010). It is clear that precautionary steps are warranted so that participation is respectful and productive.
Joan Pennell

12. Responding Differently to Neglect: An Ecological Approach to Prevention, Assessment and Treatment

When we talk about child neglect, we usually link it inextricably to the physical abuse of children. We talk about child physical abuse and neglect as if they are synonymous and inseparable. While subtypes of abuse (for example, physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect) clearly coexist and are rarely seen in isolation, subsuming physical abuse and neglect can create unhelpful assumptions that they have the same aetiology and responsiveness to change (Tsantefski & Connolly 2013). This is important because if we respond to neglect as if it is the same as physical abuse, we lose a potential opportunity to tailor our responses in ways that might result in better outcomes for children. In this chapter, we look at the particular nature of neglect and consider how we might respond in these more nuanced ways. We review the current knowledge on risk factors in child neglect, the contributing factors within the child’s ecology and the implications for community-wide prevention and individualized approaches to assessment and treatment. Child neglect is the most common type of child maltreatment and is also more likely to recur than other forms of maltreatment, even after involvement with child protective services (Connell et al., 2007; Jonson-Reid et al., 2013; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [USDHHS], 2012). In the United States, in the 2012 report on maltreatment, more than 78 per cent of substantiated cases were for children who had experienced child neglect compared to 18 per cent for physical abuse and 9 per cent for sexual abuse (USDHHS, 2012).
Justine Harris, Robyn Mildon

13. Positive Leadership in Child Protection

Child protection work has long been challenged by the social control aspect of the role, the structural context of family disadvantage and the harmful effects of intervention that some children experience. In many English-speaking jurisdictions, a negative perception of child protection has developed, reinforced often by the media. Yet from within child protection systems, a contrary picture emerges of committed, highly motivated practitioners and leaders who seek to reform systems to enhance prevention and early intervention and to meaningfully improve practice for vulnerable children. Talented social workers doing extraordinary work are not often featured in newspapers. The front line, where creative leadership integrates social justice values and anti-oppressive practice in challenging and often traumatic circumstances, is nevertheless alive and well. Using the example of practice reform efforts in Victoria, Australia, this chapter will explore the ongoing attempt to build capacity within a supportive culture that encourages good practice and greater access to expertise for frontline practitioners. Supporting frontline practice has never been more important, as services are challenged by growing demand and increased expectations that workers will provide safety for all vulnerable children. The authorization of the development of practice leadership within the Victorian system, as distinct from management, began in 2006 with the inaugural state-wide Principal Practitioner position. It was situated within the wider legislative and policy reforms over the last decade.
Robyn Miller

14. Concluding Thoughts: Informal and Formal Support for Vulnerable Children and Families

What is clearly evident from the chapters in this book – and what practitioners intrinsically know – is that families are becoming more diverse and are looking after their children in challenging times. Parents from different cultural and social backgrounds have to draw upon increasingly complex support networks to meet the needs of children. It is also clear that the issues are challenging from a broader systems perspective as child welfare systems struggle to meet the needs of vulnerable children. In this book, we have argued that moving beyond the risk paradigm requires a determined shift in focus from the needs of highly bureaucratized systems and the domination of ‘issues management’ (Tingle, 2015, p. 26), towards a renewed focus on the holistic needs of vulnerable children and their families. While this is not necessarily a new idea – indeed it rests at the heart of countless reform strategies – it nevertheless seems difficult to achieve. In this concluding chapter, we will explore whether part of the difficulty lies in the nature of the support that would be more responsive to the needs of vulnerable children. First though, we will say one or two words about issues management. The domination of ‘issues management’ In Chapter 2 Beddoe and Cree talked about the concept of moral panic and its centrality in driving child protection industries internationally.
Marie Connolly
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