Saturday, 6 March 2010

Should the law be changed to require social workers to see a child alone?

I wonder what on earth the NSPCC is doing in calling for this change in the law? Their representative on the BBC's Today programme this morning didn't really explain which law they want changing or how. Every-one thinks that child protection social workers carrying out Section 47 enquiries should, where appropriate and possible, speak to a child alone and statutory guidance (Working Together, paragraph 5.62) already urges that enquiries should involve "separate interviews" with the child who is the subject of concern. So is a change in the law necessary and is it desirable?

The BBC News website speaks of the NSPCC calling for "... a law making it obligatory for social workers to see children alone..." and quotes an NSPCC source as saying that this would strengthen the hand of social workers who could say to parents "the law requires me to see the child alone".  So it appears that they are thinking of a law which places a duty on a social worker or a local authority. But unless such a duty is hedged with complex caveats and exceptions it will not be workable. In the case of infants, for example, it makes no sense to speak of "separate interviews" and in most cases no purpose would be served in seeing an infant away from her or his carers. This is also true for many toddlers. It is not part of the purpose of section 47 enquiries to alarm and upset small children. Then there are cases where a child is already very distressed and where it is clear that separation from parents would make this worse. And there are cases where older children themselves refuse to be interviewed alone. Surely no-one is suggesting that social workers should be put in a position of forcing children to co-operate with their enquiries?

It seems to me to be quite wrong to seek to place a duty on social workers which they will not always be able to discharge without taking steps which are unreasonable or even uncaring, especially when there seems to be no objective evidence that to do so would actually make children safer. I am surprised that the NSPCC, with its wealth of practice experience, appears to be calling for what seems to be a blunt instrument. And I can't help feeling that this policy initiative is part of the prevailing Zeitgeist in which recourse to law and regulation is seen as the first port of call in improving child protection practice, when what is really required are more experienced and confident practitioners who are properly supported and resourced by their agencies.