Informed by her many years on the frontline and subsequent experience writing serious case reviews, Joanna Nicolas has identified the most common pitfalls in child protection cases in her latest book Practical Guide to Child Protection. In this blog, Joanna explores what kind of issues frontline workers need to focus on when faced with a long list of case reviews.


It feels as though we as a country are at a crossroads as to what we consider to be child protection and how we respond to children we consider need protecting. There has also been seismic change in terms of the increasing recognition of child sexual exploitation and the impact that has on services. Child sexual exploitation usually involves victims who are teenagers – how do we work effectively with teenagers when they can just tell us to get stuffed – and is our child protection system as it stands effective for working with very vulnerable victims of child sexual exploitation? I remember a young person I was working with who would take part in a police video interview in the morning and talk about the abuse but then she would leave and later that day would be back with the gang. No one has all the answers and you cannot just lock these young people up.

There are those who are questioning whether our current system as a whole is fit for purpose. The Government is saying that there is to be an overhaul of how we protect our most vulnerable children. As well as this, at a time of great austerity, more and more children are living in poverty and there are those who are deeply concerned that the child protection system is being used in a wholly inappropriate way to deal with the consequences of austerity. On top of that, we have increasing obesity levels in children and so the debate goes about whether that should be dealt with in the child protection area and so it goes on.

While all of this goes on and cuts become greater and systems change and change again, those on the frontline have to keep their focus on the day-to-day job of protecting our most vulnerable children. In my professional lifetime I do not think there has been a harder time to do that, particularly as social workers can now be named by the media in some court cases, the Government is considering jail terms for professionals who do not report abuse, and almost daily you can read misleading and sometimes erroneous headlines about what social workers and other public sector workers have failed to do and how that has resulted in the death of, or serious injury to, a child.

With all of this in mind I wanted to write a book that focused purely on the practical. What do you do when faced with certain situations and what are the issues we need frontline workers to focus on?

For the last seven years I have been working on serious case reviews. There are common themes that arise from serious case reviews, such as agencies that have not worked well together, information that has not been shared, the parents/carers have issue around unmet mental health needs/substance misuse/domestic abuse, the child has become invisible, etc. I wanted to focus this book on those areas because what we learn from serious case reviews is that those are the areas we struggle with the most.

I am not an academic and this is not a textbook. I am a practitioner who has worked in the field of child protection for 20 years and so I wanted to write a practical guide. The aim of the book is to help frontline professionals with the work they are doing every single day.  My starting point is that when I qualified as a social worker, 20 years ago, no one ever told me what to do when you knock on someone’s door and they tell you to f*** off, and there have been so many situations over the years where I have asked myself ‘what on earth do I do now?’ The father answering the door in his Y-fronts was a dilemma. He insisted I come in and explained his near-nakedness by saying it was so hot, but I resisted and stood firmly on the doorstep. I had to make it very clear I was not going to enter the home until he was dressed – but you don’t learn that at university! I hope that is what this book will do, help you think about the practicalities.

We all need all the help we can get but there is never enough time to read everything we should, so I have created a book that you can dip in and out of, to help with the dilemma you are facing at the time. Just don’t make the mistake I did when a patronising father said to me many years ago, “Well how old are you, Missy?” and I heard myself reply, “I’m nearly 32…”

If this book helps one person it will be worth every hour I have worked on it and I hope that person will be you.

Joanna Nicolas has worked in social care for 23 years. She has worked as a residential social worker, a frontline child protection social worker and has been developing and delivering child protection training for her Local Safeguarding Children Board since 2006. She also develops and delivers training in the private and voluntary sector. She now leads on serious case reviews and works as an independent child protection consultant. She is an accredited lead reviewer in the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) Learning Together systems reviews model and has been leading these reviews since 2011, when the Government first piloted the model. Since 2008 Joanna has been a national commentator on issues around social work, child protection and serious case reviews. She is also the author of ‘Conducting The Home Visit In Child Protection’.

Learn more about Practical Guide to Child Protection.

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