'Uncertainty principle' key to child protection

Jacky Tiotto
Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Uncertainty is an accepted feature of both Quantum physics and the protection of children from harm or the risk of harm.

In one, it is welcomed and indeed necessary. In the other, we have come to associate it with poor professional practice unless all system watchers understand how it has been handled, disabled and dispatched.

The "uncertainty principle" is one of the most famous ideas in physics, used to explain a fuzziness in nature and a limit of what can ever be known - it is, in short, a good thing. Quite the opposite then of uncertainty in the child protection system, often termed "risk" (used to mean the same thing but somehow carrying with it a sense that it is quantifiable).

Here, many, including policymakers and the media, still seek certain assurance that we will remove children at the right time from families where they are maltreated; that we will always learn from our mistakes; that we will make the lives of the children in our care or leaving our care universally better; and that we will make the right judgments and decisions about the risk of harm to children in complex family situations.

Having served as a director of children's services for almost three years, and in policymaking and inspection before that, I find myself every day asking how our national system can maintain and manage the natural tension that is the two fundamental principles of the 1989 Children Act - our duty to promote the upbringing of children in their families and our duty to protect them from significant harm. My own personal view at this time is that the search for certainty (and the control of its bedfellow, risk), continue to drive our system such that we may too often or too quickly think that vulnerable children fare better in the care of strangers than with their own family or naturally connected networks. That is not to say that care cannot be and isn't right for some children. Nor is it to decry the fantastic work of our carers in foster families, residential units and schools. But it is to suggest that we are not challenging ourselves hard enough on our responsibility to help children grow up with and in their families, where their experiences might not be those we would accept or want for our own children.

In 2016, local authorities spent £3.94bn on the placement of looked-after children - largely with strangers. Most spend, on average, 43 per cent of the children's services budget on looked-after children and about £39,000 per looked-after child per year. Most of the remaining resource is spent on the assessment and investigation of child maltreatment, with relatively little left to spend on keeping families together and strengthening parenting ability.

What will it take and how willing are we, to manage the uncertainty that goes with recalibrating and retuning policy, inspection and the national debate so that we can work confidently alongside parents with a range of parenting styles and challenges, to give children the best chances of success in their families rather than in the public care?

The parents, carers, families, children and young people that I have met and continue to meet, mostly say this is what they want.

Jacky Tiotto is director of children's services at Bexley Council

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