"Research shows that the most dangerous families are skilled at evading the attentions of child protection services. This should not blind us to the tens of thousands of cases each year where children are protected because engagement between families and professionals succeeds.. . . The task facing us is to work out how we can improve the capacity of our practitioners to tolerate ‘thinking the unthinkable’ and so have a better chance of interrupting the unthinkable things to which some children are subjected. (Cooper 2008, 30)"
This quote cited in a new article Akister to be published in the journal Practice is part of an elegant review on the central role of knowledge in child protection practice. An interesting question that arises in this article is that the actions of a social worker may be focused on the question or task (investigating abuse; preserving the family; managing services) and this affects the knowledge that is gathered. This may mean that crucial data then gets missed.
Akister notes research on the Baby P case and other serious case reviews in the UK that the central lesson for social workers is that they must challenge parents more. Critics of child protection will not find that suggestion comforting but one has to wonder how knowledge in a case can get developed more thoroughly without doing so. As he states, what we observe is also influenced by what we see as well as what we expect to see as well as what we think is possible.
On the other side of the equation is the social worker faced with the angry, aggressive or uncooperative client who then restricts what the social worker becomes knowledgeable about as the safety of the worker becomes the focus.
This article challenges social workers to also learn from allied professions. They have a wealth of data on issues related to child protection that should be used. But silo thinking keeps such information compartmentalized. How often does a social worker read material from psychology, psychiatry, medicine, nursing and so on? Regrettably, the answer is not often. But there are many altering services that can open up pathways to these allied resources. A very good example is Information for Practice . Another example is Science Daily .
There is also competing challenges in child protection of protecting children and trying to rebuild families. This means that there is a dual role and thus a broad set of knowledge and skills to be obtained and applied. Although Akister does not raise this, I wonder if social work students are receiving a broad enough education.
In a report from Washington, DC in the USA, DC Citizens Review Panel noted that they are concerned about the number of cases where children are brought into care and then returned to parental care in a short time. They question whether the apprehension was required in the first place. They identify the competing challenges stating, "On one hand, removal represents a dramatic ␣ often traumatic ␣ event for any family. These separations can impose an emotional toll on children or parents. On the other hand, very real safety concerns are at stake. Some children do suffer serious abuse and neglect at the hands of their parents;; in some cases the only available response is to separate the child from the parent because the emotional harm of that separation is less than the harm inflicted .High quality investigations and removal decisions are essential because these competing concerns are both so important." (p.2).
The panel goes on to state, "The Panel concludes that CFSA generally was right to have significant concerns about the families on an emergency basis was necessary to address those concerns. In contrast decisions to return children to their families were virtually always right ␣ children rarely faced either significant safety concerns in those homes at the time of their exit from foster care or had documented cases of further maltreatment in that home. Taken together, these findings attest to the need for significant reforms to prevent unnecessary removals ␣ and to prevent the unnecessary harm they cause to children and families. " (p.4)
This goes to the heart of Akister's arguments that workers require comprehensive knowledge to better assess what risks amy or may not be present. They need training on how to not only assess risk but to also better determine what information really matters and when the situation is adversely impacting their perceptions. This will help reduce risks on both sides - necessary and unnecessary apprehensions of children.