Education Committee - Children first: the child protection system in EnglandWritten evidence submitted by Dr Liz Davies, Reader in Child Protection, London Metropolitan University


The Children Acts 1989 and 2004 remain the legislative framework for child protection policy and practice in England with Section 47 as the cornerstone. Section 47 is the investigative duty required of local authorities when there is reasonable cause to suspect actual or likely significant harm to a child.

The 2006 and 2010 editions of the statutory guidance Working Together to Safeguard Children, have undermined the effective implementation of this law by confusing the very different professional tasks of the assessment of children’s needs and the investigation of child abuse.

Since the mid-90s, policy and practice moved away from proactive child protection. This development led to the demise of child protection systems and structures which had previously enabled children to seek justice and gain effective protection. This shift also led to a reduced focus on the targeting of perpetrators as an integral aspect of multi-agency child protection practice.

Neither The Victoria Climbié Inquiry (Laming 2003), The Protection of Children in England (Laming 2009) nor The Munro Review of Child Protection (Munro 2011) addressed these issues.

The recent Multi Agency Safeguarding Hubs (Golden et al 2011), provide an example of good practice and present an innovative return to multi agency joint investigation work.


Liz Davies is a registered social worker. As a team manager in the 1990s, she exposed child abuse within the care system in the London Borough of Islington and subsequently, as a child protection manager, she developed her specialism in child interview skills and the investigation of organised abuse networks. Since 2002, she has taught social work at London Metropolitan University and has co-authored child protection training manuals and a key text Proactive Child Protection in Social Work (2008). Her PhD thesis (2010) was entitled Protecting children; a critical contribution to policy and practice development. Liz Davies contributes regularly to media coverage of child protection issues, provides consultancy and acts as expert witness for social workers.

Whether the child protection system allows for effective identification of, and early help to, children at risk of different forms of abuse and exploitation

1.0 The need to address child abuse and crimes against children

Child abuse occurs within families and this context provided the focus of the Laming and Munro reviews (2009 and 2011). However, there is a vast international child abuse industry that exploits children and includes trafficking for commercial, domestic and sexual exploitation, online abuse, the illegal adoption trade, the illegal organ trade and the trade in abusive images. These are not marginal issues but are addressed by child protection professionals on a regular basis and yet the Laming and Munro reviews were narrow in focus relating only to abuse within the family. There is therefore a risk that models of practice recommended in these reviews omit examination of the intense joint investigative work required to identify and target perpetrators and protect numbers of children in the context of organised crime.

1.1 A critique of current statutory guidance

Working Together to Safeguard Children (2010) states that, “the core assessment is the means by which a Section 47 enquiry is carried out” (5.62). This is not the case. Section 47 involves an investigative process implemented by social workers, police and other agencies to protect children from harm. Following a referral which raises, “suspicion of actual or likely significant harm” to a child, this process must begin immediately and not await the outcome of an initial or core assessment. The process will include decisions about the need for recorded child interviews according to the guidance Achieving Best Evidence in Criminal Proceedings (CJS 2007). It will also include decision making about the need for medical examinations and forensic retrieval of evidence. Legal safeguards to provide immediate protection may be agreed as well as strategies to identify and target alleged or known perpetrators. The process is conducted through professional only strategy meetings and the work demands the highest level of skill from all involved.


When a Section 47 investigation has been agreed between police and social workers there is no requirement to gain parental or carer consent to child interviews or medical examinations if to do so may place the child at risk of harm. The work may be conducted in partnership with families and often results in a family support approach. However, it may involve challenging and confronting parents and carers about the detail of the alleged or known abuse of child/ren and/or intervention to protect the child by removing the alleged or known perpetrator from the family or removing the child from the family. The Section 47 process may also involve large scale, national and international investigations of institutional and organised crime against children. Sometimes the family may be involved as perpetrators or be in collusion with the abuse.


The current error in Working Together guidance which defines the process as a core assessment confuses two processes. Assessment is relevant to the needs of the child and family within the legislative context of Section 17 (Children Act 1989). In assessment processes parental and carer consent is required for any contact with the child and the work is conducted throughout in partnership with the family. The process is procedural and largely dictated by standardised questionnaires to which timescales apply. However, there can be no time limitation for an investigation of child abuse—the investigation continues until the child is made safe. The impact of this confusion may lead to a delay in immediate intervention to protect a child and a delay in the sharing of information across key agencies. Section 47 is the threshold which determines whether or not certain information may be shared without parental agreement. Also, as Section 47 investigations currently require a core assessment of every child in the family, the resource implications may lead managers to maintain cases wherever possible at the level of Section 17 thus placing children at possible risk.


Recommendation 13 of the Victoria Climbié Inquiry Report (Laming 2003) suggested the need for a step by step guide on how to manage a case through either a Section 17 (child in need) or a Section 47 (child in need of protection) track as separate and distinct processes. This recommendation was not developed in The Protection of Children in England (Laming 2009) or in The Munro Review of Child Protection (Munro 2011). It was Munro who expressed concerns at where the language of child protection had gone (Munro and Calder 2005), yet some key child protection terms and protocols were not evident in her review. As in Laming (2009) the title of the Munro review (2011) was a misnomer as both restated the case for family centred prevention services, and failed to address fundamental protection protocols in relation to children abused both within their families but also as a result of the global industry of child abuse.

Factors affecting the quality of decision making in referral and assessment, and variations across the country

2.0 A decline in police involvement in the investigation of significant harm

Lord Laming recommended that, the Working Together arrangements must be amended to ensure the police carry out completely and exclusively, any criminal investigation elements in a case of suspected injury or harm to a child’ (Laming 2003:14.57). This recommendation was interpreted by police as limiting their role in child protection cases to the investigation of crime resulting in less police involvement in the investigation of significant harm. It is now difficult for social workers to engage police in child protection matters that do not clearly constitute a potential or actual crime. The impact of this change is that social workers are now often isolated in undertaking single agency investigations whereas in the past this would have been a joint process from the point of referral. The close working that there used to be between police child protection officers and social work specialists in protecting children has therefore been minimised. An exception is seen in the MASH model where police are co-located with social workers and health professionals in intake teams.

2.1 Impact of the changed police role on joint investigation and joint investigative interview training

The Achieving Best Evidence guidance requires a child-centred interview to be conducted collaboratively (CJS 2010:2.22). However, there has also been a reduction in the provision and availability of joint child protection training at advanced level between police and social workers in Section 47 investigation and investigative interviewing of children. With few social workers now trained in these skills, it is not uncommon for police to conduct child interviews without social work involvement. The Chair of the House of Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee, Barry Sheerman MP commented on the author’s evidence that, ‘it was important to get on record that you are saying that something quite dramatic changed in terms of how the police pursued the possibility of a child being at risk’ (2009:76).


It is important to note that government commissioned research, cited in Working Together (DfE 2010:112), omitted to include this aspect of child protection training (Carpenter 2009). The author was informed that this was because it did not fall within the remit of Local Safeguarding Children Board responsibilities as it involved just two agencies—police and social work. Working Together (2010:127) does specify Group 4 level training in Section 47 enquiries including investigative interviewing and yet this important aspect of training is not addressed by Laming (2009) or Munro (2011). Joint training should be available to all police working with children, not solely those in the Child Abuse Investigation teams. It is of significance that neither Lisa Arthurworrey (social worker for Victoria Climbié) nor Maria Ward (social worker for Peter Connolly) had undertaken this specialist advanced level joint training with police. In the absence of specialist joint training, practitioners will make errors of judgement through lack of expert knowledge, the risk of false positives and false negatives will be high and the quality of information available to child protection processes and court proceedings will be poor.

2.3 The abolition of the child protection register removed an effective child protection protocol

The Child Protection Register was abolished in April 2008. The word Register was airbrushed out of policy and prior to that date the protocol had been severely undermined as local authorities reduced the numbers of children whose names were on the register in order to facilitate their compliance with targets. The author’s professional experience of the Child Protection Register is that it was effective in identifying children at high risk of harm and in focusing multi-agency professional resources into protecting the child/ren. It also provided an alarm to the emergency services and triggered a specialist response. A ministerial response to a parliamentary question clarified that the Register had been abolished on the basis of no research findings even though it had been developed from serious case review recommendations and it was known that very few children who died from abuse had been the subject of registration (Dhanda 2007, Reder and Duncan 2001 and Brandon 2009).

2.4 Munro’s dismissal of the need for a national “signposting” service

It was a remit of the Munro review to look at the need for a national signposting service and to consider the potential value of having a national means of providing a quick and reliable way of identifying whether a child or young person is, or has been, the subject of a child protection plan (Munro, 2011:4.23). As if in denial that the Register had existed for over twenty years, Munro did not mention it at all or consider multi-agency experience of the functioning of the Register to inform her views. Munro referred to there being no compelling case for a national system of identifying whether or not a child is or has been the subject of a child protection plan. She stated that most hospitals and GP surgeries now had, “some kind of system for flagging a child’s electronic record to indicate that he or she is the subject of a child protection plan” (Munro, 2011:149). However, a survey of hospitals by Rose (2009) suggests that this statement is unfounded. Also, Munro referred to research (Brandon et al, 2010) that found that 72% of children who were the subject of serious case reviews between 2007–09 had, “never been the subject of a plan” concluding that, “it has limited value as a predictive factor” (Munro, 2011:150). The important significance of these findings, which echo those of Reder and Duncan (1999), is that intervention processes failed those children who did not receive the benefit of a multi-agency protection plan. These children were either unknown to agencies or had been defined as children in need rather than children in need of protection.


Where child protection planning is in place for children they do in general gain effective protection. It is therefore important to have systems which draw professional attention to this cohort of children and the Register was indeed that system. Munro recommended local authorities providing 24 hour access to concerned ‘others’ who could phone children’s services and make checks (Munro 2011 App.C). However, the register was never dependent on an individual becoming concerned as the alert went to the emergency services routinely without the need for a request. A National Child Protection Register would protect children more effectively than local registers and should include children who are missing. Such a register would be a proportionate response to high risk situations and would assist in the task of keeping children safe from harm across authority boundaries.

Appropriate thresholds for intervention, including arguments for and against removing children from their families


The decision as to whether or not to remove a child from their parents is more likely to be flawed if there is no joint investigative process informing that multi-agency decision. Assessment processes do not adequately inform care proceedings or the decision as to whether to proceed in the direction of legal safeguards. The lack of investigative work leads to faulty decision-making. Children will be removed from families without good reason and will not be removed when they need to be separated from their families as a protection from harm. This fact was all too evident in the Peter Connolly case.

Whether the child protection policies and practices of non-social work agencies and Government departments assist professionals to work together in the interests of children


The promotion of the privatisation of child protection services is of great concern to the author. Protecting children is a highly politicised activity situated at the interface between the power of the state and that of the family and is a measure of societal attitudes towards the rights of children to be protected from all forms of abuse. Child abusers have their own agendas and also promote their interests through political processes. There is much contemporary pressure and action towards outsourcing assessments and even suggestion of outsourcing statutory child protection (Garboden 2011). However, there is a strong argument to retain child protection services within Local Authority democratic control in order to ensure the public scrutiny of service provision, remove the profit motive and self-interest from the provision of services to abused, exploited and vulnerable children and provide strong opposition to those abusing children. Current critique of the extent of bureaucracy and managerialism in social work must be situated in the context of imposed central government demand on local authorities and not used to remove services from a democratic system where political processes can protect children’s rights and the rights of professionals to promote and implement good practice.



The Child Protection Register to be reinstated and form the basis of a National Child Protection Register which would include details of missing children.

Working Together to be amended in order to clarify that Section 47 joint investigation is a process which is distinct from a social work assessment of the child’s needs.

The police to resume their role in child protection in the joint investigation of significant harm.

The provision of Section 47 investigation and investigative interviewing training for police and social workers to be a requirement of the LSCBs.

The development and implementation of the MASH multi agency child protection system to be promoted throughout the UK.

Child protection services to remain situated within Local Authorities.



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Rose D (2009) Hospitals fail to do routine checks on injured children despite Baby P. The Times. 19 February.

October 2011

Prepared 16th November 2012