Death knell sounds on child abuse inquiries

Social workers call for guidance as old tactics are condemned. Rosie Waterhouse reports
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Social workers last night called on the Government to issue new guidance on their role after research concluded that too many innocent families are being drawn into child abuse investigations.

Although John Bowis, the junior health minister, denied he was instructing social services department to cut the number of child abuse investigations, the clear implication of the research is there are too many such inquiries.

The balance of child care should be shifted away from "rescue" work and investigations towards prevention, inquiry and providing support services for families, Mr Bowis said launching the overview of more than 20 research reports commissioned by the Department of Health after the Cleveland child abuse panic in 1987.

Mr Bowis said there should be "a focus on families rather than a narrow concentration on the alleged incident of abuse. The immediate response to `rescue' children from their families may be easy in the short term, but it is not necessarily a safe option. It may cause greater harm by weakening ties with the family."Warning that child abuse and occasionally deaths at the hands of parents could never be eliminated, he said social workers should try "to stop today's problems becoming tomorrow's crises".

The research reveals there are about 160,000 child protection investigations a year, but in only 15 per cent of cases are the children considered sufficiently at risk to be placed on a child protection register.

Jane Gibbons, author of one of the reports, Operating the Child Protection System, said it was undesirable that many children "were sucked into the child protection system to no apparent purpose". This "unproductive" work was a waste of social workers' time, she said, and too many families were exposed to investigative interviews.

But David Niven, chairman of the British Association of Social Workers, said the Department of Health's response to the research was inadequate and new guidance was needed.

"Social workers don't want to be police officers. We want to do preventative work which is at the core of our training. But the number of investigations is driven by the present guidance, Working Together," he said.

"We are effectively being told to do less investigations but I don't think it's feasible unless we get more resources to tackle the root causes of the problem. We are already overstretched responding to child abuse referrals from other agencies."

The research was welcomed by Parents Against Injustice, a self-help group which supports families who claim they have been wrongly accused of child abuse. But Sue Amphlett, its director, warned that shifting the balance from investigation to support did not address the fact that some families were not deprived or in need of social services and were coping until the social workers intervened.

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