Rethinking child protection strategy: evaluating research findings and numeric data to challenge whether current intervention strategy is justified.

Lead Research Organisation: University of the West of England
Department Name: Faculty of Business and Law


Conventional thinking in relation to child protection and safeguarding takes as an axiom that child abuse can be detected and treated, and largely eradicated through robust assessment. Conclusions from public inquiries and serious case reviews set up in light of child fatalities are treated as an authoritative statement of what should be done to 'strengthen' the system to prevent further fatalities and eradicate child abuse. The recommendations cascade through practice and affect families who become the subjects of social work assessment. Importantly, the vast majority of these families have not abused their children and many are simply requesting support services. This policy has proved not only ineffective in preventing further fatalities but has caused a flood of data and bureaucracy. It has enmeshed a large number of families into the system who turn to third sector organisations for help in to cope with the adverse consequences of assessment practices. Despite this, increasingly intrusive and prolonged assessment is considered in academic research and government policy to be best practice. This project questions the paradigm that current assessment practice is appropriate or fit for purpose.

This project builds on work already completed in a doctorate, a smaller funded project peer reviewed articles (in progress) and a monograph (in progress) to produce analysis that draws offers a creative and novel analysis that challenges accepted thinking. The groundwork for this project has already been completed by the PI including identifying and sourcing sample data. The project considers four, linked under-researched areas of investigation, all of which are transformative in challenging accepted thinking and practice in the area:

(1) A meta-analysis of public inquiry and serious case review findings to assess trends in recommendations and their uptake. Analysis of the consequences of uptake will be undertaken together with a critique of the use of hindsight conclusions extrapolated from statistically rare cases as a basis for policy applied to all social work assessment;
(2) A trend analysis to ascertain the current state of knowledge in relation to the outcome of social work assessment;
(3) An impact assessment of the outcome of assessment; and
(4) A statistical evaluation to question the use of risk assessment as a predictive and a diagnostic aid in social work assessment given the high prevalence of false positives and false negatives inherent in this approach.

None of these elements have been examined in detail before, and not together. In short this is an important and unconventional critique. This analysis will provide the only comprehensive analysis of the data and will radically and critically question whether the paradigm can objectively be demonstrated to justify the financial and resource cost involved in the industry.

The project is transformative as it proposes a unique approach and analysis which could radically change accepted thinking across several areas of social science. The thinking behind the project and its critical approach in questioning aspects of an entrenched policy will create new insights and questions that have the potential to radically alter policy. The project is designed to utilise sound methodologies that are triangulated and are not, in themselves, risky in terms of whether they will be accepted as methodologically valid. The transformative element and risk occurs in the novel research question and challenge to the paradigm. Given the controversial nature of the project and the intention that the results will be ground breaking in relation to thinking and debate in the area the project is designed to use available data, thereby minimising methodological issues (such as negotiating access) that could cause problems for successful completion of the project. This aspect of the project is considered paramount and will ensure the project is achievable.

Planned Impact

The dissemination for a project of this kind will be wide in the UK and internationally. It will have impact on the large number of private and public agencies involved with child protection (in education, health, social care and government), practitioners in law and social work, academics, parents, children and families.
The project seeks to make a meaningful impact in relation to future policy in this area and the planned impact is therefore wide. There is potential for large government and societal savings as a result of the part of the project that provides the economic cost/benefit analysis of current policy. The societal impact is potentially very large as there is currently no official acknowledgement or concession in policy of the harm caused by the current approach. This project seeks to raise the profile of this issue and question the argument that if the system is largely successful such harm is an inevitable by-product. The project's transformative approach to considering whether the system is successful brings into question whether this approach is justifiable. Once debate is opened in this area the potential for impact in relation to change is large. The approach taken in this project will produce scientific impact in the sense that this is the first analysis of its kind in this area using methodology from the social sciences (and is thus 'scientific' in the sense that the results can be quantified).
The beneficiaries of the project will include:

- Government bodies including:
o Policy makers responsible for writing and implementing social welfare policies;
o Policy makers responsible for writing and implementing economic policies. The project will provide a unique way of interfacing these two potentially competing policy areas;

- Service users including:
o Families who are affected by assessment. This is approximately 5% per annum of the total number of all families in the UK;
o Children who are at risk of suffering significant harm or death which under the current system are at risk of being missed as a priority despite assessment;
o Children who are not at risk of suffering significant harm or death but who are at risk of harm caused by assessment and have no legal right to stop the process;
o Individual family members involved with social work assessment including parents, siblings, grandparents, wider family and friends. It is known from existing research the impact on them and on children of such families is potentially devastating. Such cases form a significant number of the 5% per annum;

- Service providers including:
o Social work practitioners and managers;
o Local authority policy makers and legal departments;
o Practitioners concerned with social work assessment from a social welfare and a legal perspective;
o Others concerned with child protection and safeguarding including inter alia LEAs, academies, teachers, sports clubs, the police, doctors and health providers.

- Support providers including:
o Lawyers concerned with the data protection, data governance, civil liberties aspects of this area who are not generally included as beneficiaries of child protection research;
o Third sector organisations who are currently working to support families affected by assessment without official acknowledgment that there is a need for such support and/or who have a high level of spend each year to support policies without the necessary tools to understand why they are ineffective and problematic;

- Academics in the field who will benefit from the generation of debate in this area.

- The general public who will benefit from any policy change with an associated cost reduction. The project challenges the public perception that any scaling back of child protection and safeguarding assessment can be done without endangering children. Challenging the evidence base for this is a central plank of the research.


10 25 50
Description Law, policy and data findings

The project aimed to generate a valid and statistically reliable way of challenging the paradigm. Our data findings in relation to the areas of investigation are:

1. Evaluation of the relevant legislation and policy: matching key developments against the trends identified in 2. (below). We found that despite the separation between ss.17 and 47 in the Children Act 1989 the secondary legislation and policy has progressively merged the manner of referral and delivery of assessment. We considered the merging to be a consequence of early intervention policies based on risk evaluation and were able to create a timeline against our data in order to see how the sustained rise in early intervention has not caused a reduction in the prevalence of child abuse and has led to a reduction in system efficiency (measured as a ratio of child abuse detection);

2. An longitudinal evaluation of the outcome of referrals and assessments: Despite a 311% increase in referrals over the period investigated there was a drop in child abuse detection when measured against referrals from 24% to 7%;

3. A meta-analysis of public inquiry and serious case review findings: We found the range of recommendations to be narrow and formulaic. The restrictions of the single case micro-analysis and the methodology of the SCRs were found to be inadequate to provide a meaningful evidence base for application in future cases.

4. A statistical evaluation to question the use of risk assessment: We found that risk prediction creates a quadrant of possible outcomes characterised by true positives, true negatives, false positives and false negatives. In our analysis sample of 10,000 cases (previously risk assessed by another research team) we found a false positive rate in excess of 97% and a false negative rate of in excess of 17%.

Generation of new theories

A major benefit of this funding scheme was the ability to take risks in terms of our thinking and approach as well as generating new data and its associated analysis. We did not specifically set out to generate new theories but as the project progressed the possibility for theory generation became evident. We therefore prioritised this element of work during the later stages of the project, with the intention that they could be tested and developed in a future project.

The following figure sets out the areas of theory generation and the parts of the project to which they are linked.

1. The theory of child protection circuit was identified from our contextual review of the relevant law and policy, taken together with the other areas of investigation in our methodology. We were able to identify a series of inherent beliefs in relation to policy direction which, taken together, reveal a circuitous justification for the current strategy. However, we observed that this unacknowledged theory-driven circuit has created a framework that results in more, rather than fewer children progressing to the later stages of the system but conversely not in proportion to the number of children referred. Consequently we hypothesise that the theory of child protection circuit is (a) observable in current strategy; and (b) has contributed to a significant drop in efficiency of child abuse detection.

2. The law of diminishing returns ratio was also able to be identified from our trend analysis. It refers to the phenomena whereby the very large increases in referrals yield a progressively less efficient detection of serious child abuse despite the reported continued high prevalence in society.

3. The outlier paradox occurs when 'ideal/typical service user' (a model of ideal service user that we identified from analysis of the statutory guidance Working Together to Safeguard Children (HM Government 2015)) is easily able to be filtered out at the early stages of the system, but that outliers (those who are either deliberately abusing their children, or those who are simply wrongly referred) are more likely to be wrongly categorised creating either false positives or false negatives.

4. The welfare/policing dichotomy was identified from doctrinal analysis of the legislation and policy interpretation of it. It refers to the dual role occupied by social workers, particularly during assessment of simultaneously assessing for need (s.17) and for risk (s.47). We observe that the two processes do not work well together, creating a dichotomy. We hypothesise that this dichotomy is contributing to lack of service user engagement that reverberates through all stages of the system.

Summary of impact and opportunities

The transformative nature of the finding enabled experimental design and analysis that may not otherwise have been possible. This resulted in significant new data and theory generation. We consider the project has been successful in enabling this significant new work to take place. This project has generated important new research questions focussing on testing of the theoretical hypothesis, on further data generation and analysis and on the linkage of our existing data with an evaluation of other stages of the child protection and safeguarding framework. In future projects we can develop our methodology and approach to considering this field as we have tested our approach during this experimental project. The project has enabled us, the Principal and Co-Investigator, to develop new research capability and skills via a number of training and CPD courses that we attended during the project period.

The Principal and Co-Investigator took the ESRC's media training course during the project and used this to publicise findings from the project at a number of key stages. The project has received coverage from Channel 4 News, BBC 1, The Times, The Telegraph and The Guardian as well as a range of practitioner and professional journals.

The project has enabled new research networks to be established by the research team across the academic, practitioner and service user community. New opportunities are being discussed by the team in relation to collaborations and future projects, dissemination and impact activities.
Exploitation Route The findings: future use

We are currently exploring ways in which to take our findings forward and to enable them to be put to use by others. We have several approaches to this covering academic and non-academic development:

• We are actively bidding for new funding to develop our work;
• We have generated data which we have made available for use by others via the UK Data Archive;
• We are writing up our findings for publication in refereed journals;
• We are working directly with a number of academics who may be future collaborators and/or may wish to take our findings further;
• We have created a fully open access website funded by HEFCE and have translated our findings into a social enterprise initiative in order to work directly with service users;
• We have organised a conference to be hosted at the University of the West of England in 2017 to disseminate the results and network with academic and non-academic stakeholders who can take various elements of our results forward.

In addition we are working to take our findings forward via conference papers, media work and direct stakeholder events, for example with policy makers. The project seeks to make a meaningful impact in relation to future policy in this area. There is potential for large government and societal savings as a result of the part of the project that provides the economic cost/benefit analysis of current policy.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Healthcare,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy,Other

Description The project is still in progress so we are at an early stage of implementing our impact strategy. Our activities are laying the groundwork for long term policy, practice and legislative change. Emerging evidence of impact, or the potential for it is as follows: • 1st of 4 planned Ministerial evidence briefings issued to promote interest and awareness of our work; • Invitations to present keynote speeches at national multi-disciplinary conference;s • Key figures in child protection have read and publicly commented on our work; • Our research quoted by BASW and used to underpin the theme of their national conference 2016; • Working paper published, commented on by Chief Social Worker for England; • 1st published article relation to the project is the most read article in the journal's records (Devine, 2015, JSWFL); • Public lectures (held at London South Bank University and UWE); • Media engagement (BBC, Guardian, social media & online); • Formation of the SAFER Initiative, and Safeguarding Solutions CIC with national roll-out & media launch to coincide with our symposia; • New multi-disciplinary collaborations formed.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Other
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

Description Evidence briefing
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Implementation circular/rapid advice/letter to e.g. Ministry of Health
Description Evidence presented to the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Children: Inquiry into children's social care
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Gave evidence to a government review
Description Open call: The Care Cases Crisis
Amount £354,000 (GBP)
Funding ID JUS/43090 
Organisation Nuffield Foundation 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2017 
End 11/2019
Description Conference paper, Transparency Project Conference 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Invited keynote address to deliver a paper presenting findings from 'Rethinking Child Protection Strategy'.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Invited paper in Critical Perspectives on Child Protection Seminars, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Paper delivered to the University of Edinburgh's Critical Perspectives on Child Protection Seminars series. Intended to be followed up by a second visit with a larger forum for a second paper and a longer discussion after the talk.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Media comment 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Our trend analysis research findings have been quoted in the Guardian and the Times. Expert comment on child protection and related issues is being regularly sought from the PI.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Public Lecture 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A public lecture was organised to present the interim project findings at London South Bank University. There was discussion afterwards, and questions.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Public Lecture 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact We gave an invited public lecture at London South Bank University. We presented our research findings and invited questions and discussions
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Public debate 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Our research team (myself and co-Investigator Stephen Parker) formed the expert panel for the public debate organised by HHJ Wildblood QC in the Bristol Civil and Family Justice Centre concerning risk and child protection. We presented expert evidence on this issue citing findings from our research on 'Rethinking Child Protection Strategy'.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016