This article by Keith Fletcher first appeared in "Community Care" 9-15 April 1998

How will the Government's consultation paper on child protection affect our local policy and practice?

The more your area has done to respond to "Child Protection - Messages from Research" in the past two years the less it will need to change now to respond to new Government policy on child protection.

"Working together to safeguard children. New government proposals for inter-agency co-operation." outlines a shift from investigation and process towards assessment and support at home for most children. This major review of child protection sets out explicit objectives:-

· to protect and safeguard children;

· to promote and support good outcomes;

· to give clear routes in and out of the system;

· to promote a positive image for the system;

· to ensure that children are listened to;

· to relate to the criminal justice system;

· to enable family members to be as fully involved as the child's welfare will allow;

· to recognise ethnic and cultural diversity;

· to promote community responsibility for welfare;

· and to be cost effective.

The current (1991) edition of "Working Together" contains neither a statement of purpose nor specific objectives.

Since the implementation of the Children Act 1989 the child protection system has stood apart from the services for children in need envisaged in Section 17. Growing professional disquiet caused the Department of Health to commission a series of research studies of child protection. Eight of them and an overview, "Child Protection - Messages from Research" were published at the same time in 1995.

The new policy embodies the research conclusions.

· Formal investigation procedure should be invoked only when there is a serious and still unresolved risk of continued abuse.

· There should be more effective inter-agency collaboration on needs assessment and providing a service.

· And child protection should form a key part of an inter-agency strategy for children in need.

"How will this affect us?"

There is now a huge spread of policy and practice among local authorities. If you work in an area which has pushed ahead to implement "Messages from Research" the new edition of "Working Together" will affect you very little.

Kent Child Protection Committee, for example, issued a revised inter-agency procedure in November 1995 with the active support of all the agencies and invested in training front-line and supervisory staff on its implications. Integration has greatly improved among the key agencies working together to provide services for children in need. Diedre Tonkin, Policy and Standards Manager for Child Protection points to growing inter-agency recognition that the single incident of abuse may be less vital to the child's long term development than ongoing neglect or emotional abuse.
Sarah Whittaker, team leader from Tonbridge highlights the importance of focusing sharply on the needs of the individual child. Threshold judgements remain as difficult as before; especially where there is no single "trigger" but a damaging whole life experience.There was initially a tendency to interpret abuse or neglect as inevitably responsive to family support.

Lancashire social services took the initiative, with the agreement of the rest of the ACPC,. to pilot a research based refocus in two areas, Preston and Colne. There was no revision of the ACPC procedure but social services staff were given licence to interpret it flexibly. They had to carry the staff in the other agencies with them and were able to do so, by and large, successfully. The pilot experience is now being studied by the County ACPC.

In spite of their different approaches the two counties experienced,

· no greater risk to the most vulnerable children;

· less damage to the relationship with families, and better quality of service;

· greater staff satisfaction and a greater sense of professional responsibility;

· and, especially in Kent, much closer integration of services for children in need.

The reverse however is also true: the less your area has responded recently to "Child Protection - Messages from Research" the more it will need to change now. "Child Protection: a Change of Emphasis", a report to be published later this month, explores these changes in greater detail.


1. Working Together to Safeguard Children: Consultation Paper. Social Care Group. Department of Health 1998.

2. Working Together Under the Children Act 1989. Home Office, Department of Health, Department of Education and Science, Welsh Office. HMSO 1991.

3. Children Act 1989 Section 17, Provision of services for children in need, their families and others.

4. Child Protection: Messages from Research. Department of Health HMSO. 1995.

5. Child Protection: a Changing Emphasis. Keith Fletcher. SSSP Publications. April 1998.