The language of child safeguarding: attachment and blame

Some posts you write because they might get people interested in something, others to communicate with a specific group. Sometimes you want a post to be spread widely and approved of by legions of strangers. Then there are posts, like this one, that are like a mental blister being popped. I’ll feel better once it’s out, but I’m not sure about anyone else.
I do about one day a week of child safeguarding, have done for nearly a decade, and I’m concerned that the language and culture of this worthy system often end blaming mothers in a highly counter productive way.
With apologies to specialists, I’ll outline the broad structure. There are three broad tiers of local authority involvement, of increasing intensity if not helpfulness. Firstly there are multiagency teams, who provide family support and other services, and are not my subject for today. Then there are two tiers administered by social workers: child in need and child protection. The latter is clearly more robust and intensive intervention, and so the temptation in highly vulnerable families and children is to put them on child protection plans.
And here’s the first problem: child protection plans require the child to be at risk from the parent. Sometimes this is straightforward- there are some parents who are clearly harmful and we need to safeguard children from them, although if there really is the kind of deliberate abuse which most people will be envisaging, then immediate removal is usually safest, rather than a plan.
Most families caught in the child protection machinery, however, are not deliberately neglectful or unloving. The mothers (and they are usually mothers) are often highly vulnerable, having been victims of domestic violence, poverty, substance misuse, and mental illness. Usually, there is a mismatch between the child’s needs, and the parental capacity. Another child might be fine, but this one exceeds the parent’s current skills and energies.  Does anyone seriously think the situation is helped by telling the mother that they are neglecting their children?
It gets weirder when safeguarding adolescents. Obviously, teenagers are often their worst enemies, and even a very good parent can struggle to contain their behaviour. I was recently at a case conference where it was seriously suggested that the young person go onto a plan under the category of physical abuse, because his mother, who has otherwise coped admirably, had once retaliated in a physical altercation. This was justified because he is so vulnerable (which he is) that he needs the intensity of input implied by a plan. But again, what is the message conveyed to this mother? And what about other mothers who had been less exemplary, but still tried their best, but were still labelled abusers.
You may ask how any of this is justified. One concept is always invoked when social workers are trying to paint a case of family vulnerability as child protection. Attachment.
Attachment is an important concept, a biological, developmental phenomena which occurs in infancy when threat is perceived. The patterns of attachment formed in infancy can be important in conditioning later responses, and inconsistent (or disordered) attachment behaviours are associated with emotional and behavioural problems later on. These facts are used to retrospectively scrutinise the parent’s behaviour, and any deficiencies are then liable to be declared the cause of the child’s attachment difficulties, even though we don’t know, really, what experiences do and do not cause disordered attachment, or when the sensitive periods are. If the child’s difficult behaviour, learning problems and soiling are all attachment-related, then we have a convenient scapegoat: mum.
I wouldn’t be so cross about the misuse of this concept if making a ‘diagnosis’ of attachment difficulties resulted in a distinct intervention strategy, but it does not, partly because no-one has successfully used attachment as a therapeutic strategy beyond infancy.
So, to be clear. Some parents do not love their children, and subject them to harmful maltreatment. Occasionally intervention can keep children safe in these families, but mostly they need removal. My argument is that a lot of the families caught in the child protection machine are just overwhelmed, or struggling with a wayward adolescent, and in need of support, not blame.
I would suggest a new category, extending ‘child in need’ towards ‘intensive need families’, with plans equaling child protection plans in rigour and funding. It may be claimed that this is semantics, but language matters, and a plan which doesn’t start from an inappropriate focus on the mother’s shortcomings is more likely to lead to co-operation, imaginative thinking and, ultimately, better outcomes.
Right. Rant over. Thanks


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