FERRET INVESTIGATION: Child protection investigations rose by a third

Beth Culshaw, chief officer of West Dunbartonshire HSCP, and Professor Andy Bilson, emeritus professor of social work at University of Central Lancashire.

But despite a sharp rise of 33 per cent in a short period of time the number of children placed on the child protection register changed very little, prompting fears that some investigations should not have been conducted in the first place.

Child protection investigations are instigated in response to concerns that a child has been hurt, abused or neglected within the family or in the care of others.

Fears are now being raised by researcher Andy Bilson, emeritus professor of social work at University of Central Lancashire, that some investigations – which he says can be traumatic for families – maybe carried out without due cause.

He also claims differences in rates across the country mean families and children are facing “justice by geography”.

Internationally, Professor Bilson is known for his work on developing social work to combat the institutionalisation of children which in Scotland has a dire record, which is being revealed at the Child Abuse Inquiry being conducted in Edinburgh by High Court judge Lady Smith.

Professor Bilson has carried out advocacy and research in a wide range of countries and writes on the concept of gate-keeping and system reform as well as research into child protection and services for children and families.

His analysis of unpublished Scottish Government data, collated over a five year period from 2012-13, suggests that by 2017-18 one in every 75 children in Scotland was investigated by authorities on child protection grounds.

Yet with almost three quarters of investigations not being upheld, Bilson claims the figures suggest that the higher number of investigations do not correlate with better identification of children at risk.

He is calling for better scrutiny of child protection practices and improvements in support to at-risk families.

Parents investigated by authorities due to fears for their children – claims later dismissed as unfounded – also told The Ferret the process “was not benign” and called for policy and practice to be reviewed.

The data, obtained by Bilson, shows a wide variation of rates of child protection investigations across different local authorities which he said raised “important issues of human rights and equity”.

His findings, due to be published in coming weeks, show that rates of investigations between 2015-16 and 2017-18 increased by 33 per cent across Scotland.

In some local authorities the increase was far higher, with a 119 per cent increase and rises of over 70 per cent in West Dunbartonshire.

While local authorities stressed it was important that all investigations were carried out in the best interests of the child, Bilson claimed to have found evidence of poor practice.

He said: “They can only be justified if there is strong evidence that a child is at risk”.

Reform should be carried out in line with the Promise – Scotland’s care review, published in Feburary 2020 – which called for a “fundamental shift of thinking” about when a child should be removed from their family, he added.

The review based this call on the “overwhelming evidence of the lasting pain that removal has caused children, families and communities”.

Bilson added: “The increase in investigations wasn’t accompanied by an increase in child protection registrations.

“So what this means is that more families have been put through the pain and humiliation of being accused of harming a child without increasing the number of children found to be harmed. This represents bad and ineffective social work practice.

“Where children are investigated and no harm is found parents are unlikely to accept or ask for help for their child even if they need it. A better way to protect children is to provide help and support that is not based on accusations that children are being harmed.”

Beth Culshaw, chief officer of West Dunbartonshire HSCP, said: “Referrals for child protection concerns are always investigated however do not always require formal child protection measures.

“As such, cases are not ‘dropped’ however regular reviews, involving families and a range of other professional partners provide ongoing oversight.”

She claimed any increase would also reflect referral rates from other agencies and insisted the approach of social work services was “always from the position of supporting families”.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said that it was revising Scotland’s National Child Protection Guidance “which will support greater consistency in how statutory measures are used across the country”.

They said that where Child Protection Orders were not deemed necessary, cases went through “getting it right for every child (GIRFEC) processes which are in line with the Promise”.

The full investigation can be found at The Ferret website.

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