The crisis in the family courts should mean we re-think and change our approach to child protection



Image: Jonathan Cohen

Sir James Munby, President of the Family Court, made a speech earlier this week highlighting the crisis in family courts due to rising numbers of cases and lack of resources.

In an article published in Families, Relationships and Societies, Brid Featherstone, Anna Gupta, Kate Morris and Joanne Warner feed in to current debates by laying out a social model of child protection.

Here, authors Brid Featherstone, Anna Gupta and Kate Morris highlight the relevance of their key points in the article. ‘Let’s stop feeding the risk monster: Towards a social model of ‘child protection’ is currently free to download here.


We welcome the speech by Lord Justice Munby expressing concern about the rise in care cases and the opportunity it offers for a debate about what is happening in relation not only to care proceedings but also child protection investigations.

Alongside other researchers in the UK and internationally we have been asking for some time now whether attention is being focused on the right things in the right way if we want to protect children and ensure their welfare and identity needs are protected throughout their lives.

More investigations do not mean more support

A growing body of research across countries with similar systems (e.g. US, UK, Australia and Canada) suggests that there has been a considerable increase in the numbers of families experiencing investigations for suspected abuse in the last decades. However, the vast majority of such investigations do not appear to uncover actual abuse and/or result in help being offered to families. For example, child protection investigations increased by 79.4% over the period 2009/2010 to 2014/2015 (Bilson and Martin, 2016), but the numbers on child protection plans rose by only 40.5%.

“Investigations do not appear to uncover actual abuse and/or result in help being offered to families.”

The rise in investigations has been attributed to the crisis after the death of Peter Connolly. However, a number of research studies now suggest that this crisis appeared to fuel a pre-existing trend in the increased use of child protection investigations to deal with a range of demands on services (see, Hood et al, 2016). Moreover, because there are no statistics on the numbers who move from investigation to help or support services, it is difficult to assess how any needs that are uncovered in the course of an investigation are dealt with.

The consequences of blame and shame

A key point in the context of Lord Justice Munby’s concerns about the rise in care cases is that the focus on investigations mitigates against co-operative and trusting relationships being established between workers and families. Feelings of acceptance and trust between social workers and families are central for positive engagement. However in a risk-saturated system where time is at a premium, feelings of blame and shame dominate and can lead to avoidance and defensiveness. Moreover, the diminishing availability of services providing family support and early help is leaving many families feeling they have ‘no where to turn to’ (Gupta et al, 2016). Given that the failure to establish co-operative working relationships is a key factor in the instigation of care proceedings, the rise in investigations in the context of austerity merits further interrogation.

Moving towards a social model of child protection

Our research shows that there is a need to locate the focus on what happens in individual families in the economic, social and material contexts within which families are living. Bywaters et al. (2014) found, in a census of children in care on 31st March 2012 in the West Midlands, that 40% of children in care or on a child protection plan lived in communities in the 10th decile of deprivation (i.e. the 10% of the population who are most deprived) and 60% in the 9th and 10th decile. There was a clear gradient between measures of deprivation and being in care or on a child protection plan and those in the 10th decile of deprivation were around 11 times more likely to be on a child protection plan or in care than those in the least deprived decile. These findings are now being explored in a UK wide study which two of us are researchers on.

“There is a need to locate the focus on what happens in individual families in the economic, social and material contexts within which families are living.”

A growing evidence base suggests the need to engage with a framework that has not hitherto been used in child protection; the social model. The social model has challenged thinking across a range of fields, including disability and mental health. It draws attention to the economic, environmental and cultural barriers faced by people with differing levels of (dis)ability.

A social model of child protection prompts the asking of questions such as the following:

On a national level:

  • Who are the children who come into care or are subject to CPP and what are the links to social inequalities?
  • What do phrases such as ‘the last resort’ and ‘nothing else will do’ mean in the context of increasing inequality and reduction of preventative support services?
  • As a society what can a ‘reasonable’ parent ‘reasonably’ expect from the state, and, importantly, how are the range of children’s rights addressed in the process.

On a local level:

  • Do families have sufficient income to meet basic care needs?
  • What are the work opportunities available and is there affordable childcare?
  • Is there adequate and affordable housing?
  • What do families say they need to care adequately for their children?
  • How safe is the environment?
  • What community-based family and youth services are available to support children and families?

On an organizational/individual practitioner level:

  • How can inclusive and non-shaming conversations be held about painful issues?
  • How do personal values and assumptions influence the work with children and families?
  • What impact do wider political discourses have on belief systems and decision-making processes?
  • Are practitioners supported to work relationally and reflect critically on the economic and social circumstances in which families are living ?

We agree with Lord Justice Munby’s assertion that we need to be looking to solve underlying problems. A focus on family dynamics and individual behaviours is necessary but not sufficient we would suggest. We also need solutions that address how we as a society support and treat our most vulnerable and disadvantaged children and their families.

FRS 2013 [FC]


‘Let’s stop feeding the risk monster: Towards a social model of ‘child protection’ is currently free to download here.


Find out more about the Families, Relationships and Societies journal here.




Image credit: Jonathan Cohen, Flickr Creative Commons,

  • Bilson, A., & Martin, K. E. (2016). Referrals and Child Protection in England: One in Five Children Referred to Children’s Services and One in Nineteen Investigated before the Age of Five. British Journal of Social Work, early on-line publication: 24th May 2016
  • Bywaters, P., Bunting, L., Davidson, G., Hanratty, J., Mason, W., McCartan, C., & Steils, N. (2016) The relationship between poverty, child abuse and neglect: an evidence review. Available at:
  • Gupta, A., Blumhardt, H. and ATD Fourth World (2016) ‘Giving Poverty a Voice: Families’ experiences of social work practice in a risk-averse system’, Families, Relationships and Societies, early on-line publication: 1st February 2016.
  • Hood, R., Goldacre, A., Grant, R., & Jones, R. (2016). Exploring demand and provision in English child protection services. British Journal of Social Work, 46 (4): 923-941

2 Responses to “The crisis in the family courts should mean we re-think and change our approach to child protection”

  1. 1 Gary Irwin December 15, 2016 at 5:50 pm

    I couldn’t agree more.I was recently effectively forced to resign because of the lack of appropriate risk taking by my local authority.They, the new senior leadership team,effectively wiped out the corporate memory of children’s services and they proceeded to bring in many interim managers and auditors at extortionate wages to make things better.The result to date… workers leaving in droves.massive increases in caseloads but more importantly many more families drawn in to cp etc and not being given the support they need.The model you put forward is not in fact new,it is the proper response to support vulnerable children and families.Social workers need to revisit their code of ethics and rebalance against being agents of the state to being the enablers they should be.

  1. 1 Intensive intervention and care services: thoughts on the proposed legislative changes | Re-Imagining Social Work in Aotearoa New Zealand Trackback on October 2, 2016 at 11:07 pm

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