Book Review: Protecting Children: A Social Model by Brid Featherstone, Anna Gupta, Kate Morris and Sue White (2018)

By Richard Devine (05.06.20)

Introduction: 

Featherstone et al (2018) published this book just under 2 years ago. In my opinion, it constitutes one of the most important social work texts of the decade.  The ideas presented in the book seem more relevant and applicable now than ever, and I think should be at the forefront of our thinking during and post COVID-19. 

I found it a difficult book to read and I think this reflects the way in which the book challenged some of my fundamental views of child protection. At times when I was reading the book I noticed I was becoming defensive, questioning the utility of the authors critique of a system in which I, and many others have devoted so much of our working lives working within attempting to improve the lives of children and families. Towards the end of the first chapter there is a quote by Maria Popova, ‘Critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naivety’ (Solnit 2016: xi/ii cited Featherstone et al 2018, 25). This quote repeatedly humbled my defensiveness and facilitated my ongoing journey into understanding the change that is persuasively argued in this book as ethically and morally necessary. A change that by the end I was fully convinced by.

Protecting Children: A Social Model; An Overview  

The first chapter sets the scene for the book. Featherstone et al (2018) argue that children’s rights have become increasingly and problematically individualized and this tacitly encourages ‘a ‘child rescue’ approach which can fail to engage with the complexity of needs and identities over the life course’ (Featherstone et al 2018, 20). The authors set out their concern that the current child protection system works with families in a manner that divorces them from their social context, and such an approach pathologies’ the difficulties that families often experience when brought to the attention of child protection services. The consequence of locating the difficulties on the individual family has resulted in individual ‘evidence based’ programmes which target individual issues, such as substance misuse, domestic abuse, mental health and parenting. This approach has limited effectiveness and ignores the structural and systemic issues that contribute to the emergence and maintenance of these social issues. Featherstone et al (2018) identify the following deep rooted issues that are ‘core to the child protection story’: 

  • The harms children and young people need protecting from are normally located within individual families and are caused by actions of omission or commission by parents and/or other adult caretakers;
  • These actions/inactions are due to factors ranging from poor attachment patterns, dysfunctional family patterns, parenting capacity, faulty learning styles to poor/dangerous lifestyle choices;
  • The assessment of risk and parenting capacity is ‘core business’ and interventions are focused on effecting change in family functioning; 
  • Developing procedures, expert risk assessment, and multi-agency working are central to protecting children (Featherstone et al 2008: 4). 

Such an approach, it is argued, fails to consider that difficulties with inter and intra personal functioning are typical experiences of being human, albeit that exist on a spectrum and are directly correlated, if not caused, or at least exacerbated by disadvantaged, unequal and deprived social environments (Featherstone et al 2016). The distinct lack of discourse around the issue of poverty is identified as a key concern, particularly given the evidential relationship between deprivation and increased likelihood of  children being subject to child protection plans or being placed into Local Authority care (Featherstone et al 2018, Bywaters et al  2018, ADCS 2018). Featherstone et al (2008) propose that a radically different approach is required if we are to meaningful and ethically address some of the fundamental problems that children and young people who are considered by children services to be at risk experience, and identify the following four key areas that need to be considered: ‘Understand and tackle root causes; Rethink the role of the state; Develop relationship(s) based practice and co-production; and Embed a dialogic approach to ethics and human rights in policy and practice’ (Featherstone et al 2018, 84). The four key areas will be expanded on below. 

The second chapter offers a broad historical and politically informed perspective on how current child protection policies and practices have been shaped and defined since their inception in the 19th Century. I note that the brief historical overview seems to be presented with a bias towards the legislative developments that support the authors overall narrative and primary contentions.  For example the authors refer to the a framework published by the Department of Health in 1988 called Protecting Children: A Guide for Social Workers Undertaking a Comprehensive Assessment, often referred to by practitioners as ‘the orange book’. They claim that the framework involved unnecessary and intrusive questions that were allegedly predicated upon the misleading assumption that checklists could identify and predict abusive parenting (Featherstone et al 2018). It has been argued however that this framework has helped many social workers to identify and protect children who have been placed at risk of harm (Fowler 2003). Therefore, whilst I agree with most the claims in this chapter, I am unclear as to what the positive benefits, if any, have arisen out of the historical, social and political developments in the last century. There must be some, unless our historical and current children protection system is entirely marred with well-intentioned but ultimately ill-informed, dysfunctional systems. Perhaps this argument could be made.

In the third chapter Featherstone et al (2018, 65) argue that ‘complex and abstract vocabularies of risk, science, evidence and economics have been melded together’. These have a misleading yet persuasive quality because frameworks underpinned by genetic, biological and neuro-scientific research claim to identify underlying causes to human suffering. These frameworks are compelling and enticing to commissioning services. Such an approach locates the problem with the individual, and solutions involve targeted interventions that will address problematic behaviors, faulty biology or particularly areas of brain functioning that needs fixing (For a fascinating insight into how this approach has unfolded with anxiety and depression I would highly recommend reading Johann Hari’s book, Lost Connections). This approach, alongside an emphasis of ‘critical periods’ in early childhood appears to have contributed to a proliferation of early intervention ‘evidenced based’ programmes that aim to improve children’s outcomes in a variety of ways, despite the lack of evidence supporting sustained positive change for children and families in the medium to long term (Featherstone et al 2018). Further, interventions targeting specific issues have contributed to the fragmentation of family support, as families are expected to attend a variety of different courses, in different places, with different agencies, within pre-determined timeframes. As highlighted in a report by the Early Intervention Foundation (2018, 28) ‘we need to recognise that supporting children and families with complex problems require a resource intensive long term response’. Featherstone et al (2018, 45-46) recognize that harmful experiences during a child’s formative years as well as the fact that trauma has long lasting effects on an individual’s functioning ‘has a common sense truth to it’, however they are concerned that the ‘the adaptive nature of many of the behavioral traits of the poor… are being pathologised’.

In the next chapter the authors describe the ‘good, bad and hopeful’ experiences offered to families who encounter the child protection system (Featherstone et al 2018, 67). A slightly depressing but sadly unsurprising insight into families experiences of child protection services. In summary the issues relate to families; (1) being stigmatized, judged and responded to punitively if they asked for the help; (2) feeling frustrated with fragmented roles and services, with some services not seeming relevant and/or useful or being placed on long waiting lists; (3) lack of practical and financial assistance: (4) practitioners lacking basic empathy and compassion, despite a recognition of the fundamental importance of a positive working relationship and; (5) a risk focused approach with non-compliance being construed as further risk without consideration being given to the underlying factors of their unwillingness to engage. 

In chapter five Featherstone et al (2018) begin to map out the theoretical and conceptual frameworks to support their attempt at offering an alternative approach, under the four key areas mentioned previously. 

1. In ‘understanding and tackling the root causes’ the authors argue that ‘social and economic circumstances of children matter enormously’ (Featherstone at al 2018, 89). They refer to Bywaters (2016) research that concluded that there is a strong association between deprived socio-economic circumstances and the chances of experiencing child abuse and neglect (CAN). It is recognized that poverty is not necessary nor a sufficient factor in CAN and as such many children who experience poverty don’t experience CAN, and many children who experience CAN don’t live in poverty (Bywaters et al 2016). Feathertsone et al (2018, 91) quote Freidli (2009: III) who argues that;

 ‘levels of mental distress among communities need to be understood less in terms of individual pathology and more as a response to relative deprivation and social injustice, which erode the emotional, spiritual and intellectual resources essential to psychological wellbeing’. 

I assume there are different forms of poverty or at the very least, it operates on a spectrum and understanding this in more detail may facilitate greater understanding. It may be that different forms of poverty are related to different adverse childhood experiences. In any event, it is becoming increasingly and painfully apparent that poverty is a fundamental concern if we are serious about addressing the issues that plague the lives of those experiencing it. We need to support social workers, myself included, to address this issue politically, socially and individually. It is clear that a multi-layered approach is needed. This will need to involve striving for national and local initiatives that seek to achieve systemic change, whilst identifying ethical and moral ways in which we can practice in innovative ways without compromising our child protection statutory duties.

2. Subsequently they consider the need to ‘rethink the role of the state’ arguing that pyscho-social problems experienced by children and families are a consequence of ‘political and policy directions’ rather than individual choices, actions or limitations (Featherstone et al 2018, 93). Therefore focusing on individuals is likely to be futile and disempowering for those involved (Featherstone et al 2018). 

3. Featherstone et al (2018) identify the need for ‘developing relationships based on practice and co-production’. They welcome relationship based approaches in social work, but consider these to be too narrowly focused, which may risk overemphasizing the utility of individual relationships for achieving change and reify the need to engage the social context in which individuals are situated within. As pointed out by Laird et al (2017, 590), ‘without adequate support, reframing practice can only achieve a particular and limited set of outcomes’. The idea of relationship based practice needs to be significantly broadened to include social, material and community support, all of which have been identified, as factors relevant to reducing the level of difficulties that children and families experience (Featherstone et al 2018). They realize that putting forward such a proposal to social workers is placing additional and perhaps insurmountable challenges upon them, and question the fairness of doing so (Featherstone et al 2018). However, they note that approaches such as Family Group Conference have often eased the burden and increased collaboration between social workers and families.

4. Finally, the authors highlight the importance of a ‘dialogic approach to ethics that places dilemmas and decisions in a broader social, political and cultural context that sees responsibility in a wider more relational sense’ (Featherstone et al 2018). It is important, they argue, that social workers consider the inherent harms manifest from the roles within their particular organization, and recognize that their participation will reinforce and shape current practice. It is important for us to remember;

‘Every time an individual enacts practice in a particularly way, what constitutes social work is constructed in that moment’ (Featherstone et al, 2018: 103) 

In chapter five Featherstone et al (2018) describe some frameworks that reflect the principles underpinning their approach that have already been implemented. They identify three themes; (1) disrupting the paradigm, (2) disrupting the system, and (3) disrupting practice. In considering (1) ‘disrupting the paradigm’ they reflect upon an approach called Community mobilisers (CM) that sought to achieve systemic change in the most deprived areas in Milton Keynes with a number of projects considered to be of benefit to the local community, such as re-asserting a breakfast club for 60 children, and opening a swimming closed to local people during the holidays. This approach apparently led to a reduction of children becoming looked after (Featherstone et al 2018). The authors recognize that this approach is in such contrast to the individualistic risk focused nature of the current child protection system that it would be extremely difficult to obtain support and/or funding for. In describing (2) ’disrupting systems’ the authors describe the difficulties Leeds Council experienced when they attempted to replace ICPC’s with FGC’s in relation to adapting policy and procedures. This, added with many social workers resistance to such a change which involved empowering families to address their issues, illustrate for the authors the;

 ‘fierce hold contemporary child protection systems have on professional practice (and the emotions generated about their practice) and the stark realities of trying to insert alternative models into existing systems’ (Featherstone et al 2018, 116). 

Finally, in considering (3)’disrupting practice’ the authors put forward the proposal that greater attempts could be made to draw upon the strengths, knowledge and wisdom of families. One way would be establish this would be parent peer advocacy. Infleunced by the authors, we have been exploring parental advocacy at Bath and North East Somerset and wrote about the value of such an approach elsewhere. Further, for individual social workers, it is important that we consider the structural disadvantages that families may be experiencing, at least by acknowledging them in our assessments, and then looking beyond individual families for resources and solutions (for example, through use of FGC’s). As pointed out by the authors, ‘there can be recognition that solutions to problems are not only about individual change, but also reflect the impact of social and economic environments on children and families’ (Featherstone et al 2018, 122). 

Here are some questions that I developed when reading this chapter: Do we seek to overhaul the current system? Do we change law and/or policy? And what would an alternative look like? Do we seek to change components of the current system? And which components? Does change need to occur by individuals outside the system on a systemic level, or does change need to occur by individuals within the system, including the manner in which they navigate the system? 

The seventh chapter is on domestic abuse and how a social model may be relevant. Featherstone at al (2018) highlight the need to consider the evolving and changing research on domestic abuse, in particular, how to make sense of the underlying mechanisms of interpersonal violent behavior, whilst cautioning against a simplistic and narrow explanatory framework (Featherstone et al 2018). For example they refer to research that found there to ‘be a host of evidence showing vulnerability to domestic abuse to be associated with low income, economic strain and benefit receipt’ and the inability of men to fulfil their role as the male breadwinner may contribute to relational difficulties (Featherstone et al 2018: 127). Despite having read about domestic abuse extensively and worked in child protection for several years where it features in most cases, I haven’t heard an explanation of men’s abusive behavior such as that offered by Featherstone et al (2018). With this understanding, it wouldn’t be difficult to conceive of a ‘child protection intervention’ to address domestic abuse involving helping a man find employment. This would reduce financial strain, and provide the man with a sense of purpose, and self-esteem. Of course, such an approach would require recognition of, and delineation between, different forms of domestic abuse. As pointed out in an excellent (and still highly relevant) paper by Featherstone & Trinder (1997: 157) ’domestic violence is not a unitary phenomenon with a single explanatory framework and with a single prescription for practitioners’.

Featherstone et al (2018) argue that recognition of the harmful effects of domestic abuse on children has led to it being a central focus of child protection, often with problematic consequences. Mothers subject to domestic abuse who remain in such a relationship can be considered as ‘failing to protect’ by a child protection system, or being expected to separate and sustain separation from an abusive partner. The impact of losing a partner, and the demand of caring for her children alone, who are likely to be unsettled by the absence of their father (or step father), is largely ignored (Featherstone et al 2018). Sadly, the response for men seems no more favourable or indeed helpful. If the man is repeatedly abusive he then may eventually be criminalized and coerced into attending a perpetrators programme, that is, ‘an overly reductive social approach which treats them as instances of the general… where there individual life stories rendered irrelevant’ (Featherstone et al 2018: 132).

Statistics by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS, 2018) last year found a 20% increase in incidences of domestic abuse as the primary factor in assessments, and highlighted that it features in 50% of cases with 69% children becoming looked after have experienced domestic abuse whilst living at home. With such high prevalence, and interventions thus far being mostly ineffective, it is increasingly clear that a social model as described by Featherstone et al (2018) is required to facilitate understanding and meaningful dialogue about the cause, meaning and solutions to domestic abuse. This will need to include exploring promising initiatives identified by Featherstone et al (2018) such as restorative practice, FGC’s and ‘strong fathers’. 

In the penultimate chapter Featherstone et al (2018) describe the challenges in achieving change and the importance of public and political discourse in shaping the views of individuals. They highlight that we are not typically persuaded by facts and reason, but by compelling narratives and stories. The authors highlight the need for new stories to be adopted, in particular; the recognition that there are inequalities in children’s opportunities to live with their own families; these inequalities are related to deprivation; and the social detriments of harm needs greater exploration through anti-poverty strategies and a sociologically informed approach (Featherstone et al 2018). In the concluding chapter the authors highlight the need for increased dialogue amongst social workers, with children and their families and with wider member of the public. The authors are right that a greater dialogue is required, and this needs to occur across disciplines drawing upon a diverse range of individuals within and on the receiving end of child protection services. I am concerned that the messages contained within this book may not reach many child protection professionals who are often working excessively long hours in highly stressful and conflictual environments which impairs their capacity to read important books such as this, and also reflect upon its meaning.  

Conclusion:

Brid Featherstone, Kate Morris, Anna Gupta and Sue White provide an impressive, coherent and incisive commentary on the child protection system. If you were unaware, you would never guess the book was written by 4 different authors, such is the collobrative lucidity of their writing. I feel tremendously grateful to have Brid, Kate, Anna and Sue working in our field and collaborating to provide us with such a rich, rigorous and challenging, albeit fair, appraisal of our current system as well as provide us with exceeding clarity around ideas and solutions moving forward. I can’t help but feel a sense of obligation, a duty, to act in a way that is more in keeping with the approach[es] promoted in this book.

In concluding, I see the social model for protecting children as a daring invitation to think and act differently. I see it is a plea to humanity – a plea to compassion – a plea to locate the difficulties that children and families experience in their social, economic and political context, where it rightly belongs. The social model is an attempt to encourage practitioners to think more broadly about factors that contribute to the difficulties that family’s experience, as opposed to locating the difficulty within the individual, and from this, meaningful and ethical support that facilitates sustained change may be possible.

On a final but important note, whilst I have tried to outline the basic concepts of the book, this review does not and can not do justice to the original text. Many important ideas in the book have not been included in this blog. It is a book truly worth purchasing and reading; you won’t regret it. It can be found here.

* The next 2 blogs will be a book review of Bronfenbrenner’s classic The Ecology of Human Development (1979) and on ‘Why I became a Social Worker’ which explore my family background of addiction and mental health. Feel free to sign up to receive an e-mail notification. I intend to write one every fortnight (‘intend’ being the key word!).

Bibliography: 

Association of Directors of Children’s Services. 2018. Safeguarding Pressures, Phase 6: Executive summary. Available at: http://adcs.org.uk/assets/documentation/ADCS_SAFEGUARDING_PRESSURES_PHASE_6_EXECUTIVE_SUMMARY_FINAL.pdf (Accessed 08th November 2018).

Bywaters, P., Bunting, L., Davidson, G., Hanratty, J., Mason., McCartan, C. and Steils, N. (2016) The Relationship between poverty and child abuse and neglect: an evidence review, York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.  

Early Intervention Foundation (2018). Realising the Potential for Early Intervention. Available at:https://www.eif.org.uk/files/pdf/realising-the-potential-of-early-intervention.pdf (accessed 05th November 2018)

Featherstone, B., & Trinder, L. (1997). Familiar subjects? Domestic violence and child welfare. Child Family Social Work, 2(3), 147-159

Featherstone, B., & Peckover, S. (2007). Letting them get away with it: Fathers, domestic violence and child welfare. Critical Social Policy, 27(2), 181-202.

Featherstone, B., Gupta, A., Morris, K. & Warner, J (2016) Lets stop feeding the risk monster: towards a social model of child protection. Families, Relationships and Societies. Available at: 

http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/98016/15/Morris%2C%20K%20-%20Lets%20stop%20feeding%20the%20risk%20monster%20-%20acceptance%202015-12-07.pdf  (accessed 03rd November 2018)

Featherstone, B., Gupta, W., Morris, K & White, S. (2018). Protecting children: A social model. Bristol: Policy Press.

Fowler, J. (2003). A practitioners tool for child protection and the assessment of parents. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Hari, J. (2019). Lost Connections: Uncovering the real causes of depression and the unexpected solutions. London: Bloomsbury. 

Laird, E,S., Morris, K., Archard, P. & Clawson, R. Changing Practice: The possibilities and limits for reshaping social work practice. Qualitative social work. 17(4) 577-593

Published by Richard Devine's Social Work Practice Blog

My name is Richard Devine. I am a Social Worker in Bath and North East Somerset Council. After I qualified in 2010 I worked in long term Child Protection Teams. Since 2017 I have been undertaking community based parenting assessments. I obtained a Masters in Attachment Studies 2018.

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