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

There has been significant press coverage of the work of child protection social workers over the last few months. At times I have found this coverage to be misleading and unnecessarily critical. It is clearly right, however, that abuses of power and injustices are exposed and explored, with lessons learnt for the benefit of families and professionals working in the system. For that reason, it feels important – as someone working inside the system – to write about social workers’ misunderstanding, and resulting misuse, of section 17 of the 1989 Children Act. I have not seen this topic explored before, perhaps because it is not an area of social work practice that is scrutinised through the courts; there is little evidence in the public domain of its prevalence.

Section 17 sits in part three of the Act, which is titled ‘Support for Children and Families Provided by Local Authorities in England’. Section 20 (the misuse of which has been discussed elsewhere at length) is also contained in part three. The emphasis in this part of the Act is on providing services to families (including, where necessary, accommodation) to help them. Indeed, the provisions of this part of the Act contrast to those included in part five, through which local authorities can apply to the courts to become involved in a child’s life. Part five also provides the police with powers to protect children. At their most invasive, these powers allow the removal of children from their parents’ care. Crucially, it is part five of the Act, and not part three, which provides a means for the state to intervene in a child’s life without the agreement of the family.

My experience is that, in practice, social workers treat the two parts as if they are interchangeable. I have no doubt that social workers generally intend to do the best by the children with whom they work, often in very challenging circumstances, but observations of a typical local authority children’s service department suggest that social workers routinely intervene in a child’s life under the guise of section 17, where this may be inappropriate and without providing families with adequate information about the voluntary nature of their involvement. They are not working in partnership with families, but operate as if they are working through the powers available in part five of the Act. In this way, they are intervening in families’ lives potentially without justification, without scrutiny and without the agreement and consent from families.

This matters because it is through the provisions of section 17 of the Act that much of our work with families begins: most of the assessments we conduct are, in theory, ‘assessments of children in need’ (i.e. not child protection investigations). Many of the children on our caseloads are, officially, ‘children in need’. Parents may have heard social workers refer to their work with their family as ‘child in need planning’. In 2017 there were almost 400,000 ‘children in need’ in England. I suspect that this number would be smaller if section 17 was used as the Act intends.

This section of the Act places a duty on local authorities to:

‘(a)to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area who are in need; and

(b)so far as is consistent with that duty, to promote the upbringing of such children by their families,

by providing a range and level of services appropriate to those children’s needs.’

There is nothing written about the need to gain parents’ consent and agreement before local authorities can provide services through this section (the same is true of section 20), but this is because the Act is written from the premise that, ordinarily, parents alone hold the right to make decisions about their children’s lives. It is important that social workers are clear of the distinction between the duty to provide services and a right to intervene.

Moreover, this section in particular focuses on working in partnership with children and families, as does the guidance on assessing children who may be ‘in need’. Advice from the Family Rights Group notes that parents do not have to agree to their children being assessed (see p. 28 here). This is the critical point that social workers seem to frequently ignore.

Indeed, in practice social workers rarely ask families being supported through section 17 whether they agree to assessment or intervention. They rarely ask for parents’ consent to become involved in a child’s life. I have heard social workers say that it is not for parents to decide whether social workers should be, or remain, involved in their child’s life where it has been determined that they are ‘in need’. This is dubious practice which is not supported by the law or guidance. In fact, local authority guidance on this issue often refers to the need to gain parents’ consent before beginning any work with a family (see p. 3 here; here; and here), but this guidance is too commonly ignored by some social workers.

As I have noted, part five of the Act allows (in section 43) local authorities to apply for court orders if they are concerned for a child’s welfare and have been refused access. While the child assessment order is rarely used, it exists for those circumstances where local authorities have concerns about a child and have been prevented from completing an assessment to determine whether further action is necessary. Other sections of part five allow for even greater levels of intervention where necessary.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that social workers should seek court orders to intervene in families’ lives more often than they already do. My experience is that families usually agree to being assessed and supported by social workers if they are given the choice. It is important that social workers make the choices and possible consequences for families clear; that is the only honest, fair and just approach.

Where families reject an assessment or support, it should prompt social workers, and the other professionals involved, to thoroughly consider the risks to the child and whether it is necessary to take further action. If it is, social workers should refer to part five of the Act. If it is not, the case should be closed: social workers should not remain involved in families’ lives without sufficient justification.

That sort of discussion rarely occurs where local authorities use section 17 to support families, because social workers can, in effect, make decisions alone. This contrasts to cases where there are court proceedings or where a child protection plan is in place – in those cases, there are extra layers of scrutiny and independent oversight.

My observations from everyday practice suggest that much of social workers’ current use of section 17 may be inappropriate and families – often with few resources and little understanding of the law – are being treated in a way that is potentially unfair, unjust and not in keeping with the principles of the Children Act.