Named Person debate highlights widespread ignorance about child protection

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Not a social worker

SO the verdict is in, and named persons are out – at least for the time being. The scheme will not be introduced next month as originally planned, and the clock is ticking on a 42-day redrafting period.

If the policy has taken a battering over the past two years, it is now lying unconscious in hospital. John Swinney’s team may be able to administer life-saving amendments, but it will never be quite the same again. It will bear the scars of being slashed and re-stitched, and be stigmatised accordingly.

The fundamental objection to this scheme is not that the Scottish Government’s guidance for named persons is too limited, as the judges have found, or that the rules for information-sharing have to be pieced together from various different documents. Those leading the well-resourced campaigns against “state snoopers” quite simply believe that this sort of intervention is not for the likes of them. It’s for those other parents – the poor ones, the scruffy-looking ones, the one from “broken homes” – not the middle-class ones, the Christian ones, the ones who go to “good schools”. It’s for those who call their children Jayden and Demi, not Oscar and Freya.

The basic principle behind named persons – that information-sharing is key to early and effective information – is backed up by every major child protection inquiry of the past 20 years

Yes, the Scottish Government failed to communicate effectively how the scheme would operate, and was naïve not to anticipate the backlash against it. Yes, the existing legislation is inadequate. But the basic principle behind named persons – that information-sharing is key to early and effective information – is backed up by every major child protection inquiry of the past 20 years. This isn’t the finding that tends to make the headlines, though. Lord Laming’s inquiry into the 2000 death of Victoria Climbie also found that workers involved with the eight-year-old’s family were overwhelmed and suffered low morale. Individual social workers make much more convenient targets for tabloid outrage than boring old administrative arrangements.

Those behind the No2NP campaign claim they are worried resources will be stretched too thinly if every child has a state guardian, and those at highest risk will fall through the net. But this presumes there currently is a net, rather than a series of small fragments of netting, and that neglectful or abusive parenting always easy to spot. It also overlooks the fact that early intervention is cheaper and more effective than trying to pick up the pieces once a family has, in the all-too-familiar language, “come to the attention of social work”.

Children have a right to privacy, as do their parents, but this right is not absolute

Children have a right to privacy, as do their parents, but this right is not absolute. Let’s be clear: if a child under 16 has contracted a sexually transmitted infection, an offence has been committed. If a child suffers a non-accidental injury, someone has carried out an assault. The right to privacy must always be balanced against the right to protection. Opponents of named persons will argue that such children already come to the attention of social services, so another layer of intervention is not required, but most cases are not nearly so clear-cut. What if a child makes a worrying disclosure for which there is no physical evidence? What if a child comes to school looking tired and unkempt a few days a week, or is implicated in a bullying campaign, or flinches every time a fellow pupil scrapes a chair across the floor? Early intervention means someone taking these warning signs seriously, and cross-checking with other agencies to build up a fuller picture.

Having a named person is not the same as having a social worker – regardless of how many times David Dimbleby may repeat that fallacy on Question Time – but discussion of the new scheme has highlighted widespread ignorance of how social work involvement actually operates, and what “voluntary” engagement actually means. The majority of families in Scotland with an allocated social worker are helped on a voluntary basis to make changes that serve the best interests of their children. This might include accepting help getting them ready for school in the morning, or perhaps accessing a befriending scheme, bereavement counselling or early nursery placement. This day-to-day work doesn’t make headlines, and the decision that do – like accommodating children away from home – are not actually made by social workers at all, but by sheriffs granting Child Protection Orders and children’s panels making Compulsory Supervision Orders. This mundane reality of checks and balances has been almost completely absent in discussion of how named persons would fit into the existing child protection landscape.

If it takes a village to raise a child, why is social work involvement so heavily stigmatised and so strongly associated with children being removed from their parents – something that in fact only happens in the most serious of cases?

If social workers are to be respected as highly-trained professionals trying their best to help, what’s needed is a cultural shift in how we view parenting. These days every aspect of raising a child is endlessly scrutinised and judged, from co-sleeping and bottle-feeding to time out on the naughty step, so it’s little wonder many parents are over-sensitive to criticism. But if it takes a village to raise a child, why is social work involvement so heavily stigmatised and so strongly associated with children being removed from their parents – something that in fact only happens in the most serious of cases? No-one is suggesting every parent needs to be bullied and coerced into doing things differently, but if a gentle suggestion from a health visitor or teacher is met with anger or even aggression, that in itself is cause for concern.

The Scottish Government must not be bullied into abandoning a scheme that is evidence-based, proportionate and compatible with human rights. It’s time to put that safety net in place.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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