Leading Article: The middle path on child abuse

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Like a new parent, the state has fumbled to discover what is best for children. It has lurched from the ignorance that left Jasmine Beckford dead to the fits of over-anxiety that produced panic in Cleveland and hysteria over ritual abuse. During this 20-year process, official intervention has saved a lot of children from misery. But it has also messed up too many lives. Look in the prisons, among the homeless and in the dole queues, and you will find some of those failed by authorities that promised much but delivered little. Talk to those wrongly accused of abusing their children, who have spent years trying to repair the damage done to their families.

Yesterday, the Department of Health took stock. In a paper that has the tone of an experienced grandparent, it recognises the impossibility of raising children perfectly. Too much time, the paper cautions, is spent investigating suspected child abuse: the vast majority of these inquiries find nothing serious. Social workers would be better off focusing on supporting families that may be heading into difficulties. In short, they should shed their image as childcatchers.

The paper is a sane attempt to find a middle ground on child abuse so that we do not immediately imagine the worst when a child is struck by a parent or shows a precocious sexuality. Yesterday, John Bowis, the health minister, warned against imagining that all child abuse could be eliminated. And he pointed out that the public shares some blame for over-interference by social workers, tempted to intervene excessively for fear of being accused of acting too late.

All this suggests that we are at last gaining a sense of proportion. We have recognised that child abuse is widespread, deeply damaging and cannot be ignored. But we have also realised that the state should be humble. It makes a bad job of taking over parenting and should content itself with assisting within the family home.

These sentiments are welcome, but where do they leave social workers, who are often damned if they act and damned if they don't? Mr Bowis made supportive comments about the profession yesterday. But in the past his colleagues have been only too willing to urge on the mob in the wake of child abuse scandals. There is no guarantee that come the next death of a child, politicians and the media will not once again join the public chorus unthinkingly condemning another failure to spot children at risk.

If Mr Bowis's sentiments are to be taken seriously, he must back up what he has said with the kind of detailed official guidelines that will, inevitably, in some tragic circumstance be used by a social service department to justify its non-intervention in a case that has gone wrong. Only if society acknowledges in this way that it is prepared to share the risk of social workers becoming less intrusive will these professionals feel that it is really safe to change the way that they work. Like parents, social workers need confidence and self-respect if they are to do their best for children.