Rebecca Brown is a Research Associate at the Centre for Child and Family Research, UK.

Together with Harriet Ward and David Westlake, she’s co-written the latest book in the Safeguarding Children Across Services series called Safeguarding Babies and Very Young Children from Abuse and Neglect, which explores key issues surrounding the safeguarding process and coincides with NSPCC’s All Babies Count campaign, highlighting the abuse and neglect of very young children.

In this interview she discusses some of the findings of the research study upon which the book is based, and the affect of the “Baby P” scandal on this research.

Can you talk a bit about your research study, and what you intended to discover in carrying out the research?

The study explored the decision making processes that influenced the life pathways and development progress of these very young children. Research tells us that the first three years of a child’s life are key in their emotional, social, psychological, behavioral and physical development, and as such, the decisions made by professionals about these children, are also likely to be key. Therefore, the study aimed to: trace the decisions made on behalf of these very young children; examine the rationale for those decisions, as well as the part played by the parents in that decision making; and understand the consequences of these decisions for the children.

During the period that you were carrying out the research, “Baby P” died of maltreatment and the subject of safeguarding babies and young children became the focus of intense national scrutiny. What kind of additional challenges did you experience trying to produce the research in such a charged environment?

This was a coincidence; we did not know this when we started the research. All of our sample children were born in the same year as Peter Connelly, and many of them experienced very similar circumstances to him. Peter Connelly died about half-way through our data collection, and we noticed a difference in the type of data we were collecting as a consequence. Firstly, local authorities became wary of giving us access to case files and to practitioners to interview due to the intense media scrutiny social workers were under at around this time; secondly, there was an increase in case activity in the months that immediately followed his death; and thirdly, we suspect there was an increase in the use of expert witnesses by the courts.

What are some of the key findings that arose from the research?

Much of the decision-making for these very young children was of high quality, showed evidence of extreme care and was based on hard evidence. However the study also raised a number of concerns: firstly about the level of inter-agency working, and in particular considerable tensions were identified between adult and children’s services; secondly, the findings revealed a number of gaps in social worker knowledge and understanding, especially in areas of attachment theory and child development; thirdly, there was evidence that delayed decision-making had detrimental consequences for the outcomes of these children – practitioners need to be fully aware of these consequences and the importance of taking swift action when babies are suffering significant harm; fourthly, there was a focus on the birth parents to the exclusion of the child; and fifthly, the study raised concerns about the quality of some kinship care placements.

The study also found that some parents can overcome many adversities to provide a loving and nurturing home for their children within an appropriate timescale, and found factors which were indicative of parents’ ability to do so. However, it also highlighted that where parents are able to overcome adversities, there is a need for careful monitoring in the long-term to ensure these changes are sustained.

Identifying the problem of neglect seems to be a key issue. Why do you think it is so difficult for professionals to recognise this type of abuse and to act on it?

The findings from this study add to a wealth of evidence showing that, despite a growing body of knowledge of its adverse impact on early development, children are often left with inadequate support in grossly neglectful homes. There were a number of reasons why, for these babies, neglect was so difficult to recognise and respond to, which includes an over-identification by practitioners with their families. This meant that they occasionally lacked professional objectivity and their constant exposure to these families meant that they sometimes became inured to the evidence of neglect. Evidence of neglect was also often difficult to act upon unless a crisis occurred, such as a baby found home alone overnight, or a toddler found alone wondering the streets.

What changes do you think professionals and policymakers need to make to improve the protection of babies and young children at risk of harm?

We make a number of recommendations in the book for improvements to both policy and practice, all of which emphasise the importance of minimising delay where babies are identified to be suffering significant harm. Our study showed that often practitioners waited fruitlessly for parents to change their abusive behaviour, which ultimately did not happen and had severe consequences for the welfare and long-term outcomes of these very vulnerable children.

What do you hope that the readers will take away, having read the book?

Unlike Peter Connelly, none of the children in our study died. However the sample did include children who were not fed for so long that they stopped crying, and were severely underweight as a consequence; who were allowed to taste amphetamines from a spoon; who could describe how to prepare heroin for consumption; and who were left to forage in the bin for food. The future life chances for these children were substantially compromised as a result of their experiences of abuse and neglect, which continued to occur for many of them whilst their cases were open to children’s social care.

I hope that the readers will ask much more stringent questions of what constitutes an acceptable and unacceptable level of care and parenting in a civilised society.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

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