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Hope, change and reconciliation: reflections on child protection post-pandemic

Published: 22/02/2021

Author: Professors Brid Featherstone, Paul Bywaters and Kate Morris

In this blog we discuss the possible futures for child protection post-pandemic, a task we consider particularly pertinent in the context of the Review of Children’s Social Care, commissioned by the Department for Education, due to formally commence in March 2021. We consider loss, gain, and the necessity of change. 

In his book the historian Frank Snowden, examines the ways in which disease outbreaks have shaped politics, crushed revolutions, and entrenched racial and economic discrimination (Snowdon, 2020). His work, and that of other historians, provides a necessary corrective to optimistic assumptions that the exposure of so many of society’s inequalities and frailties, as has occurred throughout this pandemic, will lead to building back fairer or indeed even better. Indeed, it seems while every disaster is different, they always do bring both loss and gain.

Our discussion is informed by our involvement in the Child Welfare Inequalities Project, a five-year research programme, exploring the links between deprivation and a child’s chances of becoming subject to child protection and care interventions. It’s finding that a child in the most deprived decile in England was more than ten times more likely to come into care than a child in the least deprived decile has directed attention to the human rights implications of the inequalities in children’s chances of growing up safely within their families of origin. It also found a steep social gradient. Increasing rates of deprivation went hand in hand with looked after and child protection plan rates, a particularly sobering message today in light of the increase in poverty as a result of the pandemic.

This work has fed into growing national and international concern about child protection systems where the widespread separation of children from their birth parents is seen as an acceptable form of intervention for children in need. Here in England, for example, the research shows that 1 child in 58 in England spends time in care by the age of five (Bilson and Munro, 2019). Moreover, while it is important to acknowledge the perspectives of those who have benefitted from the good work carried out by services and practitioners over the decades, many voices have attested to the stigmatising nature of, and the trauma caused by, many of these systems and practices*.

It is becoming increasingly apparent to us that concerns about child protection processes and practices dovetail with concerns about how pre-existing inequalities have been intensified during the pandemic. Calls to construct a new social settlement, to build back fairer and attend to the ‘causes of the causes’ of so many of our social ills have emerged from across the political spectrum and suggest a degree of optimism about the future may be warranted. But it is vital to confront some of the possible obstacles to the realisation of such possibilities, the implications for child protection, and the messages these contain for the Review of Children’s Social Care.  

Firstly, the very inequalities that have been exposed during the pandemic are undoubtedly leading to compassion and solidarity but can also lead to stigmatisation and othering. People who study disasters – and especially pandemics – have highlighted their tendency to inflame xenophobia and the racial and gendered scapegoating of outsiders and there has, been evidence of this in this pandemic, particularly in relation to those of Chinese origin.

Currently, it is painfully apparent that although ‘we are in the same storm, we are not in the same boat’. The fact that many have sat out the pandemic in relative comfort and have seen their savings accumulate may mean that feelings of empathy and solidarity with those whose precarity has been so intensified may be fragile and easily forgotten.

Furthermore, the very success of our scientific endeavours may mean that the changes called for will not happen. The ability to return to some form of normality, as a result of the vaccines that have been so rapidly developed, may mean there is less incentive or appetite for change than might have been otherwise

So as Arundhati Roy has noted, the pandemic is a portal, and a progressive way forward cannot be assumed but must be fought for (Roy, 2020).

So, what might this all mean for the Review of Children’s Social Care?

Our research on the impact of deprivation obliges us to be cautious about the potential of the review to bring about the necessary changes, if there is insufficient independence from the current government and existing policy directions. For the last decade, these directions have been contradictory and confusing. Thus, policies that increased child poverty and precarity were pursued alongside those that sought to improve child protection through a focus on practice models and leadership capacity (Featherstone, et al. 2018). Lack of attention to the evidence of a social gradient has meant that such policies have failed to engage with vital connections between social and familial harms (Pemberton, 2015).

Placing child protection firmly within broader concerns about ‘building back fairer’ means making a range of policy and practice connections such as those between the safety of children and the poverty of their families, their security and the adequacy of their homes, their physical health and the quality of their environments.

Finally, and most importantly, we note the importance of facilitating an inclusive process throughout. A strength of the Scottish Care Review was the care and attention paid to how people with experience of care systems could engage fully and safely with it throughout. Adopting such an approach, not dissimilar to a truth and reconciliation process, can help to mitigate any risk of stigmatisation and othering and foster the widest possible support for bringing about the changes so many of us wish for. 

* These include organisations involving birth parents as well as those with experience of the care system.

Professors Brid Featherstone, Paul Bywaters and Kate Morris

Professors Brid Featherstone and Paul Bywaters work at the University of Huddersfield. Professor Kate Morris at the University of Sheffield.

Topic Child Neglect 1

Child protection

Protecting and promoting the welfare of children, including making arrangements to identify and support those at risk of harm, is fundamental to social work practice. View learning resources and upcoming events to support child protection.
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Bilson, A. and Munro, E. H. (2019). Adoption and child protection trends for children aged under five in England: Increasing investigations and hidden separation of children from their parents. Children and Youth Services Review. Elsevier, 96(November 2018), pp. 204–211.

Featherstone, B. et al. (2018). Protecting Children: A Social Model. Policy Press.

Pemberton, S. (2015). Harmful Societies: Understanding Social Harm. Bristol: Policy Press.

Roy, A. (2020). Azadi, Penguin.

Snowden, F. (2020). Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present. Yale University Press.