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I’ve been reading a book by Eric Schlosser recently, called “Command and Control”  – it is primarily about the history of incidents and accidents in America with nuclear weapons, Schlosser’s research turning up an eye-watering number of hushed-up accidents with nuclear bombs and missiles in America, including the centrepiece of his story a fire in a nuclear missile silo where workers battled to stop the fire detonating the warheads.

It is a great book, with there being something good on every page (following the Raymond Chandler edict of “put a diamond on every page”) – whether that be Fermi’s calculations about the possibility of the first nuclear explosion potentially going wrong and setting fire to every atom of oxygen in earth’s atmosphere (that would be a bad thing), the fact that in the early days of the Cold War whilst US media politicians and military spoke about how the US military stockpile of nukes could wipe Russia off the map they actually had just one functioning nuclear weapon (“for all the talk about the stockpile, there was no stock, and there was not even a pile”), the naming of the early computer system to plan nuclear conflict being called M.A.N.I.A.C, the British nuclear bunker to plan for life after the apocalypse having a pub called “The Rose and Crown” in it, and much more.

But the bit that struck me, and is applicable to this blog generally, is the battle that the US had over this dilemma, “Always/Never”.  They wanted to make nuclear weapons that would ALWAYS detonate and work when they wanted them to, but would NEVER go off when they weren’t intended to. That means that they had to be reliable and ALWAYS detonate when fired, but had to be sturdy and strong enough to survive maintenance, fires, the planes they were in crashing or being shot down, even accidents with testing.

And that was a goal on paper, but the reality was that the show was being run by the military, and thus the “ALWAYS” part had priority. For them, it was more important that they knew that if the Russian planes or missiles went up, they could launch and hit their own targets and get the job done; than the risk that an accident might occur. Whilst the calculations on “NEVER” seemed pretty good – a one in ten million chance that any individual nuke would go off accidentally, when multiplied by the number that they ended up with, the risk ended up feeling pretty unpalatable. (And as Schlosser identifies, there ended up being hundreds of incidents where things went wrong with nukes, sometimes quite badly wrong)


Now, in child protection, we also run an “ALWAYS/NEVER” ideal.  Children who are going to be seriously hurt or killed by their parents should ALWAYS be protected and kept safe, and children who ought to be at home with their parents should NEVER be removed.  As Munro and others have identified, this ideal is never going to actually work 100% of the time in practice. The myth for a long time was that with more information, more assessment, more structure, more procedures, more rigour, we could get very very close to that 100% figure, but that’s only a myth.

At the moment, like the US military in the Fifties and Sixties, we are more focussed on the “ALWAYS” portion of the equation – we strive for ALWAYS/NEVER but the ALWAYS bit is more important. I can’t really think of a time when the fear of getting another child death has been higher, post Baby P, but as you can see, even with that heavy focus on child rescue, individual tragedies still occur.  Looking at the Looked after Children statistics recently published by the Department for Education  in amongst the (imho wrongly triumphalist) boasting about the increase in number of adoptive placements found for children, is the incredible statistic that the numbers of children currently the subject of Placement Orders   (the legal order which sanctions an adoptive placement being found for the child) has gone up by 95% since 2009.   Ninety-five per cent.


Even against that backdrop, the Serious Case Reviews and child deaths continue to happen. Even when everyone is very heavily focussed on ALWAYS, the truth is that you can’t keep all children safe.


And of course, whilst a mistake in the ALWAYS part of the equation is easy to detect – the child dies, there is an inquest, a criminal trial, a serious case review – everyone knows that something went badly wrong;  any mistake in the NEVER part of the equation is harder to pick up. You can tell if you took too much of a risk with a child, because something awful happens. But you can’t tell if you were far too cautious with a child, because that child doesn’t go home, the family is broken up and you never know whether that was the right call or not.

Our legal system is intended to be the check and balance on the NEVER part of the equation – we have laws and case law which makes it plain how important family preservation is, and a forensic process that gives parents free legal advice, the opportunity to present their own evidence and to test the evidence against them, with independent judges to make decisions, and an appeal process as a safeguard for those individual judgments getting it wrong.


All of that isn’t foolproof though. It would be hard to devise a foolproof system – I know that some of my regulars believe that the threshold for child protection intervention ought to be more like criminal offences, and that cases should be decided by juries not judges. That may or may not help, but we only have to look at criminal trials to realise that things go wrong with those – the wrong people do get convicted; and undoubtedly a criminal definition of threshold, a criminal standard of proof, a jury system would be moving much more towards the NEVER side of the equation.  ( In our criminal justice system we accept the possibility that guilty people may go free as an acceptable price for ensuring that innocent people are not punished – and even then sometimes it still goes wrong and innocent people go to prison)


I don’t have any solutions – I think really my point is that there isn’t a solution that will deliver ALWAYS/NEVER in child protection – you’ll make mistakes on both sides of that equation, and lurching too much to either side produces more mistakes on the other.  It is important to remember that you are trying to balance family preservation and child rescue, and that this is a difficult task and there’s no easy shortcut to getting it right, and that sometimes with all the best intentions, individual mistakes will happen and get past the system. Each of those individual mistakes is life-destroying for families and for children.

About suesspiciousminds

Law geek, local authority care hack, fascinated by words and quirky information; deeply committed to cheesecake and beer.

14 responses

  1. Pingback: Always/never | Children In Law |

  2. The biggest flaws in the child protection system are bad social workers (and there are quite a few) and court experts, most of whom will side with the LA.
    That alone will make it difficult for any solicitor, on behalf of the parents and any Judge to make the right decision.
    If anyone was really interested in child protection they would review cases by cross reference.
    Sort the wheat from the chaff, who is lying and who is telling the truth.
    Make perverting the course of justice as a route to criminal court, whether its a parent, social worker, gal or court expert.
    Of course this would take time and money and lose a few their jobs.
    But what price can you put on the head of a murdered child and what price can you put on the child’s life who has lost his entire birth family.
    As you say Always/Never and there is a urgent need to get much closer to that ideal. In the best interests of children.

  3. I don’t think the approach should be to “Fix” the ALWAYS/NEVER genre, what we must strive to achieve the best outcome for all children in this situation,

    That outcome can only be reached when the due process has been frank and fair, a lot of the problems with the NEVER is that once the case enters the rooms of a court the parents of the Never Child are in almost all cases sidelined while those who want the ALWAYS, the “Professional” opinion will squash any if not all the thoughts, facts and evidence from a parents perspective.

    To achieve what is said to be the best outcome for the child this can only happen when focus is not cemented in completing assessment after assessment, report after report, it can only be achieved through hands on and robust social work,

    I would like to see Trials set up where Court action is in the Minority and not the Majority as we face today,

    From my point for what its worth I cannot see why this could not be achieved through the mechanics of Case Conference, these multi agency avenues should be profoundly used more rather than the occasional 3 to 6 months periods like we see today,

    I have been to many Case Conferences and LAC Reviews where at the conclusion I, the parent (s) and the professionals leave the rooms thinking “What just went on there” one particular one I remember strikingly was when there was a young runaway child, the FSU Officer from the Police was blowing steam due to the issues at hand, the serious problems the child was facing, not being addressed, the girl in question was very very vulnerable, the focus of the review was more about time scales for the conclusion of the court proceedings and not the seriousness of the child running away, that and the usual “Holiday issues” I spoke in depth to that particular officer at the end and she was astounded to be in a potion I find myself in time and time again is that the importance of what was needed for the child was sidelined for the needs of the professionals to conclude the reports and assessments on time.

    Working around the mechanics of a Case Conference these can work very very well, only if all the chess pieces are playing on the same playing board, the “Chair” has to be fully trusted by all including parents, the “Chair” should USE the powers they have, (In 8 years I have never seen an IRO use the powers they have), the Parents SHOULD be represented by a legal expert of some kind, I often find that when a parent has been lacking in legal assistance in these conferences many major problems have arisen and no avenue for redress is available, and fundamentally the Children’s Guardian (if in court proceedings) should be in attendance,

    You will be so surprised at the difference in parents mannerisms and character, from when they attend these reviews/ conferences, I know it is something completely different from their mannerisms and character in the court arena, no one but the Social Worker would see this, I feel the around the desk approach is more than a comfortable environment for parents et al, Courts are scary places even for the hardest of Lawyers.

    One needs to look at these Case Conferences more thoroughly, they should play a high importance in to the decision making for the Child, “REVIEWS” however do not achieve this, there are on average a dozen people who in their professional capacity attend these Case Conferences, however, and strikingly only one of those professionals attends Court Hearings, and that is the Social Worker, does the Social Worker speak on behalf of the other 11 or so professionals, in one of my cases I had sought the IRO should be in attendance in Court due to the nature of the issue at hand, the Judge and the whole court room were aghast, they sucked out every last bit of air available in the court room, I was frowned upon at such a request, however persistence pursued by me and the IRO was eventually in attendance, following their attendance the Judge became more clear to the situations, the IRO had flicked the indicator on and turned left the direction the proceedings were taking, I was thanked for my persistence, but that was not the point, it can be achieved.

    If what I have procrastinated on above can see the light of day, compiled with Social Work that has been robust then the ALWAYS/NEVER can be directed in the right direction, Hell even El Presidente Munby would get his wish too.

    • There is the weak spot, the social worker. How many decent parents have ended up losing their children because either the social worker was weak to management (perhaps permiscuous) and promotion hungry. Or that the parents face just did not fit or the social worker was just too bad at her job.
      Very hard for a decent parent who does not smoke, drink or take drugs when living just down the road is a heroine addict jacking up in front the children, ignoring them, not feeding them and in no way parents them, yet the social worker will work with the drug addict parent and bring gifts and free holidays, but not assist the decent parent.
      While the decent parent may be struggling to find work, money may be tight, but the children are loved and well cared for.
      I dont think that social workers in any way deserve the trust and protection of a professional. The reason being that a social worker will have the attitude of dammed if you do and dammed if you dont. Such a flippant and nonsensical statement heard over and over again when a child is murdered or a innocent family destroyed on the back of
      their mistakes.
      I think I have also seen it all from social services. And if you get one bad apple in a cart, the rot can spread very quickly.

    • Jerry, I also wonder how many decent parents have lost their children because the IRO saw angry parents at these meetings. Then gone on to make the decision that the parents are too ’emotive’ or ‘unstable’ to parent. How many at the IROs have preferred to see their social workers opinions over that of the parents? How many IROs have bothered to check the facts and seen beyond the parents distress. In my experience of these meetings the social worker holds all the cards and can manipulate every outcome and often regardless of whether the parents have a legal representation.
      These powerful people with immunity are not frightened of the dont drink, dont smoke, dont take drugs people, They are not frightened of the low income, sometimes jobseeker or not so bright people or the mother teresa types or those facing relationship problems. They are frightened of the drug addicts, the educated, the equally powerful, the truthful or the violent.
      They deal with the latter by agreeing with the educated (even when its wrong), helping the drug addicts, stroking the educated, staying away from the violent and call the truthful mad. While the rest have their lives interfered with and have to suffer their constant reviews, meetings and family courts

  4. Did Tony Blair realise that he had opened a can of worms with cash incentives. Does David Cameron really believe you can fix a broken model by offering cash to those content with drawing their pay and working within it without complaint.
    And what about the children in all this?
    Where is the money for the ‘Think Family’, those decent parents whose only ‘crime’ is being out of work, ill, disabled or in crisis.
    Will those kids who have lost their parents in forced adoptions or spent their young years in foster care and children’s homes thank the politicians.
    I can say not, most are damaged by the LAs could not care attitude. Most in the end find their birth families, most end up questioning the past. And most come to the conclusion that its a sick and cruel world where only the cunning win.
    If Britain is to end its ‘broken Britain’ title, it would be far wiser to go back to basics. Fix the root cause and put the money where its needed.
    Drug/drink problem – rehap, Worklessness – create jobs, free adult education. Lack of
    parenting skills – courses and key worker to family. Housing problems – create housing, Anti social neighbourhood, – move familes to better housing. Specially trained foster carers

  5. On this heavily personally researched subject of which I have freely given my time I have found the following.
    Young drug addicts – many are from the care system having been abused within it emotionally, physically and sometimes sexually.
    Drug dealers. – Many are desperate parents trying to put food on the table when they cant find work and some continue when they find the work just to give their children what other better off families take for granted.
    Crime – theft, burglery. Some do the crime to feed their addictive habit from their earlier days of abuse from care system or are teenagers who are fed up and dismayed at the unequal and cruel uncaring world. others to put food on the table for their kids.
    Anti social behaviour is not always the parents fault. It comes with the lack of opportunity and support for making anything of their lives.
    And while the politicians rant on about solving the housing crisis, they are allowing social housing prices to rocket. In this area alone social housing on one new build is £160 per week. Beyond the income of the lower paid. Aah but you can say, the lower paid get housing benefit. But in reality, who wants to live on benefits of any kind. And to highlight a serious problem, the councils on average can take 3 months or more to pay that. The courts can evict for 2 months rent arrears and often do. Its a slippery slope. So while the better off and often removed from reality play Judge and Jury on a parents fitness to parent, one should perhaps consider the fittness of the people who have such powers (and often immunities) over the struggling British working or desperate to work British people.

  6. And just to blow the idea that all social workers and managers are clean living perfect souls with only goodness in their hearts. While some of these people are acting as puritans before other professionals, their clients and Judges they can often be spotted out on a drinking binge, smoking their fags, and/or being generally promiscuous and lo and behold smoking spliffs or snorting cocaine.
    And while I dont wish to justify the bad habits or unexceptable behaviour of some parents, it should also be seen that the social worker with good job, immunities, decent pay should be a lessor case for any mitigating circumstances. Dammed if you do, or dammed if you dont……perhaps the job does not suit.

  7. Over to you all those goodhearted and decent social workers that I know exist and in fact I talk to frequently. Get the courage and blow the whistle, we all know who the bad ones are.

    • Whilst my response is slightly off the Always/Never equation, I have to say that to locate the main issue on some bad social workers is to miss the larger picture….of organised service failure, where all social workers good and bad are under the cosh to conform and comply to an orthodoxy created at the top, by our service leaders and politicians.

      One organisation that I worked in and blew the whistle about… no avail or effect apart from precipitating me into penury….puts out public statements about valuing the independence of their practitioners whilst these practitioners cannot fart without permission from a manager.

      They are able to manipulate disciplinary procedures so that they can either oppress an individual worker into compliance or get rid of them, altogether.

      This selfsame organisation exploits the shortcomings of the employment tribunal process, by settling before the hearings, often with the support of the trades unions, thereby preventing their oppressive practices becoming known to the public.

      In these environments pressure is brought to bear on the individual worker to only make “safe”, decisions, which the executive, through line management define, and one of the ways in which they do this is to limit risk to themselves by limiting the work they do with service users. It is not just a crime of commission but a crime of omission, which serves no-one apart from the hierarchy and executives of these organisations by image and impression management. There are signs that the Judiciary are getting wise to these strategies by criticising social workers for sloppy and inadequate work….See Re B-S, but whether it will produce the amount of change necessary to regain service integrity is open to question, and it is service integrity that needs attention.

      There are good and bad individuals in every human enterprise, and social work is no different but when organisations go wrong, and mobilise resources to suppress the truth of their failings, no frontline worker can rectify this….believe me I tried and failed….David and Goliath is a myth…so it goes

      • Boxerdog, thank you for your honesty. I know there is a huge problem at the middle and top and including the politicians.
        I have known social workers leave the job rather than carry on in a workplace where they were treated and expected to work as puppets for the managers. Those ones joined social work because they did care and wanted to make a difference to people’s lives.
        Sadly social work lost them.
        But like you say even the good ones that stay are left in the mix with the ones that dont give a dam and its families that suffer and worst of all the children.
        I have worked in a care environment and was sickened to see abuse to elderly in many forms. I complained to managers and always told the relatives as well so they could speak to their elderly relative and complain also. The result was in one instance it got one home shut down but its the tip of the iceberg.
        As for me I also felt forced to leave or eventually get pushed out and no doubt if I wasnt retired and was looking for work, I would no doubt have problems getting work in that environment.

  8. Boxerdog. I dont think you failed. It failed only because no-one else would take the risk of complaining. They are the ones that failed.
    Sometimes I look at the faces in these offices and study them. I can see a sea of blank expressions while others look pleased with themselves for being such loyal servants of a gross management.
    It makes me think back to my childhood, where I could see the sea of faces under the rule of Hitler. I wasnt there but my father was an ex-pow when he served as a British soldier and at night I remember him screaming out while having nightmares. Later on I saw all the horror pictures and it summed it all up.
    My father was tortured many times for speaking out while in the POW. On one occasion Nazi soldiers raped and tortured a Jewish woman right outside the barbed wire of the camp. My father shouted abuse at the Nazis and run towards the wire. He was obviously tortured again. But it didnt stop him and thats why I cannot stand by and do nothing whenever I see abuse or something that just isnt right.
    And I will never change and dont wish to. And it makes my day to know of someone likewise. I hope you carry on in the hope of bringing change. In the real interests of children.

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