Sue Woolmore qualified as a social worker, having previously trained as a nurse, during 25 years in child protection work, Sue has held roles at local authority, regional and national level, in both the statutory and voluntary sectors. Having moved into freelance work, Sue is also an independent Chair of a Local Safeguarding Children Board in Greater Manchester.

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My name’s Sue Woolmore and I’d like to talk a little bit about a dilemma which I find myself in sometimes but also many of the frontline practitioners that I meet share in this dilemma and it’s one of those balancing acts that we often have to deal with.

There are many balancing acts when it comes to child protection, but this particular one I find is particularly challenging.

It’s that balancing act about how long do you wait, how long do you leave a child or a young person in a difficult situation, maybe in a neglectful situation, before you decide, look enough is enough, we’ve actually got to do something very authoritative about this.

One of the reasons that this is challenging is because its undermines sometimes the kind of values which brought me in to social work, because one of those key values that I have is one of optimism.

I really believe that people can change and if I didn’t believe that people can change then much of what I’ve been trying to do over the years would really have fallen on stony ground, but what we do know is that for some families change is either beyond their reach or is perhaps something that they don’t want to embrace.

How do we know which those families are, I wonder how many  cases we’ve worked with, including myself, where you step back and you think well nothings obviously happening to the child, there’s no bruising, there’s no injury, so we’re just going to wait, we’re just going to have to wait until something happens and then we can intervene.

But do you know what, I’ve now discovered particularly with reading a lot of` the current research, is that we don’t have to wait that long until something becomes really obvious, because if we have a really good strong knowledge base to underpin our child protection practice then we can all most see beyond the obvious and that knowledge base is understanding child development and what children’s needs are.

The second is understanding attachment theory and the third thing is understanding the impact of maltreatment on children and we now know is that the impact of this maltreatment massive effect on the child’s brain development for example.

We understand the far better about the implications of attachment theory and what  a child’s experience of attachment will be in terms of the choices they make in later life, how they view themselves, how they view the world how they interact in relationships.

So there is actually a lot of evidence if we’re willing to look for it.

If we just want to take things on face value then maybe we will wait too long, but if we embrace what we can learn from research about the impact of maltreatment of children and particularly neglect on their brain development, on their relationships.

Do we understand fully the impact of fear and stress on the child’s immune system? How many of us understand the fact that stress hormones dismantle the immune system over time, so there may not be an obvious sign which tells us that children need to be in a different place from their very neglectful home.

There may not be an obvious sign but if we have that strong knowledge base, underpinned by current research, then hopefully some of these discussions we can have about cases will lead us down a different path because underpinning all of this we have to focus on the children and even when parents are doing their best to change, doing their very best to change, if it’s not enough for the children’s needs to be met we can’t reward the parents efforts by leaving the child there.

We have to consider the alternatives, but again of course but then we’re stepping in to a political arena because many practitioners say to me that they leave children in difficult circumstances because there’s nowhere else to put them, there’s nothing better to offer, so that’s when we’re stepping in to the realm of politics, but we cannot  as practitioners step back from this very difficult balancing act we have to make and always it needs to  weighted in favour of the child and for us to be able to do that we need a good knowledge base and  we need to underpin all of our discussions and decisions with messages from research

by Alex Bateman