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Health, Sports & Psychology

Protecting our children through tough decisions

Updated Tuesday 24th January 2012
This article is a part of our Mind, Body, Media collection, and is filed under
Topic: Mental Health

Working on a series looking at the lives of social workers reminded Lucy Rai of the challenges of doing the "right" thing.

As a senior lecturer in social work at The Open University, I have contributed to Protecting our Children as an educator, but my interest in the series stems back to when I also worked as a child protection social worker in Bristol over 15 years ago. One of the reasons that I moved from social work practice into education was my disillusionment with the cycle of disadvantage, neglect and abuse that I witnessed in so many families.

As a social worker attempting to bring about change it is tough to see third generations of families, still experiencing harm and needing intervention from social services. Protecting our children provides viewers with a fascinating case study in the resilience and positivity required of social workers to persist in offering support to families, even when their history illustrates patterns of neglect or harm and the chances of change appear remote.

Protecting Our Children witnesses moments of truly inspiring hope as well as chilling stabs of a very cold reality. It's very difficult to motivate change, but it is even harder to sustain it both for social workers and for the parents who are striving, against momentous odds, to "do the right thing" for their children.

One of the huge challenges for social workers is deciding what constitutes the "right thing" - the eternal debate over whether a child is better off with their birth parents or removed. The timing of this is particularly crucial for babies and very young children. In each of the programmes, social workers are seen making great efforts to enable parents to demonstrate their ability to change - to overcome addictions and deeply entrenched harmful behaviours.

When the welfare of babies are concerned the clock ticks very fast and there is little time for such momentous changes to be achieved. The decision-making may appear harsh at times, particularly when it is preceded by a period of apparently positive change fuelled by great determination. The agony of a final decision to let a baby go to a new home is all the more acute when it is made by one of the parents.

One of the purposes of The Open University being involved in series such as Protecting Our Children is so that we can identify learning that is valuable to trainee social workers or indeed anyone interested in safeguarding children.

One of the themes that was apparent throughout the making of this series was the relationship between children's developmental needs and decision making. Child development is an essential area of study for social workers and one of the key lessons from research is that there is a very small window of opportunity in the lives of babies where the attachments that they make can be changed without serious harm.

A baby under the age of six months has physical and emotional needs, as all children do, but is able to cope with some flexibility in who offers this care. As long as very young babies are fed, warm, cuddled, clean and interacted with it does not appear to cause them harm if the carer changes.

This changes dramatically at between six and nine months, and from this point onwards stability in the person caring for a child becomes extremely important. Young children can accommodate more than one carer (mother, father, grandparent, child minder) but they do need consistency and the opportunity to create strong, lasting emotional bonds.

You may have observed yourself that it is from about nine months old that babies typically become shy of strangers and cling to familiar carers. Although there are ways of minimising such harm, it is well accepted by professionals working with children that instability of parental care after the age six months causes serious, long term emotional damage.

Social workers are faced, therefore, with balancing on the one hand the challenge of supporting parents through making immense life changes, which take time, and on the other making timely decisions before babies reach six months old. This provides a very time limited opportunity for change which could potentially reverse damaging family cycles.

The stakes are enormously high for parents, social workers and for the child. Social workers need to be very sure that a baby remaining in a family where there have been significant concerns will not be subjected to the re-occurrence of such damaging family circumstances.

Failure to remove a child poses the risk of very great emotional and developmental harm arising from children remaining living with parents who suffer depression, are chaotic drug or alcohol users or where there is family violence or abuse. Evidence - such as that in Mowder, Rubison and Yasik's handbook Evidence-Based Practice in Infant and Early Childhood Psychology - suggests that the greatest harm is experienced by children who remain in the care of parental figures with whom in many ways they have positive attachments but can behave in violent, neglectful or abusive ways

Reflecting on the parents in Protecting Our Children, it would be hard to argue that any of them did not have strong feelings for their children, the desire to do the best for them or a complete inability to offer a loving relationship.

Equally the series illustrates the complexity of issues which can get in the way of creating and maintaining positive parental relationships, including drug and alcohol misuse, poverty, depression and the long term impact of damaging parenting experiences.

Further reading

Evidence-Based Practice in Infant and Early Childhood Psychology
Edited by Barbara A. Mowder, Florence Rubinson, Anastasia E. Yasik, published by John Wiley & Sons.

Protecting Our Children: Professional Voices

 

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