Negative impact of ‘blame culture’ on child protection system

A detailed, sector-led review into the rising number of care applications (and the number of children in care) has highlighted the harmful impact of…

A detailed, sector-led review into the rising number of care applications (and the number of children in care) has highlighted the harmful impact of “a culture of blame, shame and fear” on professionals working in the child welfare system.

The Care Crisis Review, facilitated by the Family Rights Group, was prompted by applications for care proceedings in England and Wales reaching record levels in 2017. It is an impressive piece of work and essential reading for all professionals and stakeholders in this area. It is also important to note that the key aim of the review was to identify specific areas of improvement designed to safely stem the increase in the number of care cases coming before the family courts and the number of children in the care system. In this regard it sets out 20 ‘options for change’ and inevitably there is a focus on the lack of funding and resources available for early intervention to assist in preventing problems within families from escalating.

An important issue, and the focus of this article, is the reference to a blame culture and the role this plays in the overall picture. At paragraph 3.13 the report reads:-

A recurring theme in contributions to Review meetings and in written submissions about policy and practice was about an increasingly risk-averse and blame culture that pervades public work. The Review was told that fear of being vilified publicly and judged to have failed to prevent a child’s injury or death haunts many professionals. The culture affects decision making throughout the system, influencing the actions and behaviour of leaders of partner agencies, of the family justice system, and of local and national politicians. It undermines the partnership work between agencies, as well as between families and professionals, that is vital in promoting the short and long-term well-being of children and young people. Contributors to the Review were open about the frustrations of acting in risk-averse ways in their work and were keen to be supported in working differently. There was broad support for the call from contributors for a society-wide conversation about what is wanted for children and families and a re-emphasis on the clear message from the Munro Review that taking risks is inherent in children’s social care and child protection work.

The potential for unnecessarily defensive and risk-averse practices was identified by the House of Lords in X (Minors) v Bedfordshire CC [1995] as one of the key public policy reasons why it would be wrong to impose a civil liability in negligence on social workers in relation to their child protection functions. However, after JD v East Berkshire [2003] it was widely accepted that such a liability could arise. This remained the position until the important case of CN & GN v Poole BC [2017] in December last year when the Court of Appeal reasserted the correctness of the public policy considerations set out in X (Minors) and the fact that it was unjust for social workers to owe a duty of care in a child protection context when other key agencies did not (e.g. housing providers and the police).

The CN & GN case will be heard by the Supreme Court in July and the outcome is awaited with interest. In the meantime it is clearly significant that a sector-led review has identified the negative impact of risk-averse social work practice on all the parties involved in this vital safeguarding process, a point expressed clearly by the House of Lords in X (Minors) over 20 years ago.

Of course, the priority must always be the safety and welfare of those children who require protection. If care proceedings to remove a child are the best form of protection then this is what must happen. But the system cannot be perfect and there are inherent and unavoidable risks. Ultimately it will be counter productive if child protection decisions are made out of fear of making a mistake rather than based on the professional judgment of social workers with the requisite experience and expertise to make them. Allowing such decisions to be made without the fear of them being second guessed (often many years later) in a civil liability context would surely assist. It may allow for a greater focus on supporting families and could also play some part in addressing the ongoing rise in care applications that has, in the words of the outgoing President of the Family Court, Sir James Munby, created “a crisis” in the family courts.

For further information about Weightmans LLP or to discuss any of the issues in this update, please contact Peter Wake, Head of Local Government Litigation (0151 242 6866, peter.wake@weightmans.com).

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