The author of this post is a child protection social worker, who writes under a pseudonym, including in the Guardian. He previously wrote this post for TP.

Are hundreds of thousands of families being put through unnecessary investigations by unchecked social workers? That’s the suggestion made by a succession of recent news stories, some prompted by the first report of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care. Services are ‘too focused on investigating families’, went the BBC; ‘innocent families have been traumatised by groundless investigations’, said The Times as part of a series on the issue, elsewhere reporting that ‘councils … launch abuse investigations based on a single unexplained mark’, and asserting ‘social workers too quick to wade in’, quoting the Review’s chair, Josh Macalister, as saying that social workers are ‘investigating first when [they] should be helping’.

Much of the unease about the numbers of investigations is that so many apparently end with ‘no further action’. If 135,000 of 201,000 child protection investigations in a year do not lead to a child protection plan, can they be justified? The answer, as ever, is: it’s complicated. And the first step in drawing any conclusions is to understand exactly what a child protection investigation is, and what ‘no further action’ really means.

Note, to begin with, that those working in the system are more likely to describe this process as a ‘section 47 enquiry’, because it is grounded in that bit of the 1989 Children Act. The Act places a duty on local authorities (who employ social workers) to make ‘such enquiries as they consider necessary to enable them to decide whether they should take any action to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare’ where they ‘have reasonable cause to suspect that a child who lives, or is found, in their area is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm’. They are under the same duty if they are informed that a child in their area is subject to an emergency protection order or is in police protection.

But the steps towards initiating an investigation are convoluted and the recorded outcomes rarely reflect the nuance inherent to real life. The process is set out in the statutory guidance, Working Together which must be followed by local authorities (or else they are likely to be acting unlawfully).

It usually goes something like this:

  1. Information about a child is sent to a social worker, either by another professional agency or by a member of the public. The social worker may or may not already be working with the child and their family (what follows is broadly the same either way);
  2. Following an assessment of the information (which may be very brief), the social worker and their manager decide there is evidence the child is likely to suffer significant harm. This decision is based on a combination of their professional judgement and local guidance. At every stage that follows, parents’ consent will be sought unless that would put the child at greater risk;
  3. The social worker and manager discuss the information with a specialist police sergeant and an appropriate health professional. This is called a ‘strategy discussion’, because it is an opportunity for all agencies to share relevant information and agree a strategy to understand what is happening and take appropriate action to help the child and family. It is entirely possible for the process to end here: this stage might provide sufficient detail about the child’s life, and the identified risk, for the social work team to be satisfied no higher level of intervention is required; 
  4. If the professionals contributing to the discussion believe further enquiries are required, however, a child protection investigation will begin. Importantly, the social worker does not begin their enquiries until the strategy discussion has been held and it is agreed that an investigation is necessary. That means the process could also be ended here if, for example, the police do not agree to have a strategy discussion or for a section 47 enquiry to be initiated. (In my experience this is surprisingly common.) The investigation, if it happens, is always led by a social worker, but they should be assisted by any other relevant professional agency, and the police may lead a criminal investigation in parallel;
  5. In practice, it means the social worker will meet with the family to talk about the information initially received. They will aim to meet the child alone, although can only do so (other than, as above, where this would in itself create a risk to the child) with parents’ agreement;
  6. They will also seek information from other professionals who might be able to assist in explaining the original incident. Where pertinent, that would include medical advice from an appropriately senior doctor. All this feeds into the social worker’s final analysis. Further detail on when and how strategy discussions and section 47 enquiries are undertaken is provided in local procedures manuals, all of which are available online (the London-wide page is here, for example);
  7. If, at any point, the social worker feels the child is at such risk that immediate protective action must be taken, the local authority can either apply for a court order which would allow it to make decisions about the child, or can ask the police to use their emergency powers of protection.
  8. If, however, the investigation runs its course, the social worker is generally presented with three possible outcomes. They are that:
    • concerns about the child are not substantiated (but the child may still be ‘in need’, according to section 17 of the 1989 Children Act);
    • concerns are substantiated and the child is likely to suffer significant harm; or
    • concerns are substantiated but the child is not likely to suffer significant harm.

They are then asked to select the action taken following their enquiries. This includes, but is not limited to, some variations on ‘no further action’, normally along the lines of ‘no further action because the child is already being supported as a child in need’; ‘no further action because the child is looked after by the local authority’; ‘no further action for another reason’ which could relate to existing court proceedings; as well as something amounting to ‘no further action because the case will close’.

Here’s where it gets confusing: even where a social worker selects outcome ‘b’ (i.e. concerns are substantiated and the child is likely to suffer significant harm), there might not then be a child protection plan. That might be because the child is

  • already on a child protection plan, or
  • the local authority is providing services to meet their needs in some other way, or
  • the social work team might convene a child protection conference but the majority vote is against a child protection plan.

In fact, whether or not an investigation leads to a child protection plan is a poor measure of the merit of the original enquiry, given the diversity of available outcomes.

Even if local authorities later use other parts of the law – care proceedings, for example – their involvement in a child’s life might start with a section 47 enquiry. And, crucially, social workers also carry out child protection investigations when they are already working with families under other parts of the law (including where a child is subject to a care order). That’s because section 47 is the legal mechanism for social workers and other professionals to work together to respond to new information that suggests a child is at risk. So some enquiries end with no further action simply because the social worker decides the work they are already doing with the child and their family remains the correct course of action.

Another important piece of context is that these outcomes are literally buttons the social worker has to press on a computer system. We aren’t able to complete our formal enquiry until we have clicked one of those buttons. All of us know that life is often opaque and occasionally messy; it’s a deeply imperfect way to represent a child and family’s experience, but the Department for Education demands this data for reporting purposes.

Moreover, regardless of the outcome, these investigations follow the principles of any assessment; they are completed, wherever possible, in partnership with the child’s family to understand what the child needs and identify how their carers might be supported to meet those needs. It is entirely possible for a section 47 enquiry to conclude with recommendations for support services to be provided to the adults and children (like a short break for the child, financial support for the parents, or therapeutic input.) It would be impossible to identify how to help a family without first understanding what they need.

Where concerns are not substantiated, and no further action is taken, that does not necessarily invalidate the original decision to begin a child protection investigation. It is, of course, conceivable that professionals in the child protection system are too risk averse and too quick to agree to using section 47. But examining the data alone, or a handful of reported cases, is a poor way of testing that hypothesis. And the process is designed to carefully balance the duties of local authorities to investigate with the need to scrutinise social workers’ judgement. Perhaps this data suggests we should reconsider whether we have the balance quite right, but that requires nuance, sensitivity and a sound understanding of law, guidance, and practice.

It’s hard to overstate how important this is, and not just because there’s a review of the whole system right now. (There is already much comment on the broad themes of that exercise, including thorough in-depth analysis on this site). No, because families’ expectations of the system are partly shaped by media coverage. When I next call a parent and introduce myself as a social worker, are they more likely as a result of these stories to assume I’m simply there to investigate them, rather than help them? Possibly, and none of us went into this job to interrogate families’ lives. We do the job to help people.

That’s been more difficult than ever over the last year because of the impact of covid and lockdowns. It’s been utterly relentless – I’ve never experienced anything like it in my professional career. It’s all the more critical that we avoid sensationalism.

Feature pic : seeing eye by Valerie Everett on Flickr (creative commons – thanks!)