The Art and Science of Child Protection

Thursday, October 1st, 2009 by Chris Durkin

I have had a very interesting and at times very challenging year. My new job has proved both demanding and fascinating in equal measure, requiring me, on occasions, to use completely different skills from anything I have used before. One of the skills that I have had to learn is the art of negotiation. I use the word ‘art’ deliberately to distinguish it from a science. In simplistic terms the latter deals in certainties, facts, truths and objectivity, whereas, the ‘beauty’ of the arts, is their subjectivity and unpredictability. This split, however, is somewhat artificial and if we go back to the Ancient Greeks we can see that they “…did not distinguish between the two notions and called them by a single word (in Greek techne), meaning ’skill’, ‘art’, ‘craft’, and ‘refinement’ (hence ‘technology’).”[i]

In my current role my focus is on communities and how we develop and maintain them. In looking at this whole area we can see the blurring of the distinction between the art and the science. Within this context we can say without contradiction that we know how to build houses, we know what materials to use and where to build them, but where we struggle is how to turn a collection of houses into a community.

What Ponomarev’s interesting article points out is that in science you need to understand the basic laws, but how they come together is the skill. As he says:

“The creative aspect of all arts and sciences is the same. It is determined by one’s intuitive capacity to group facts and impressions of the surrounding world so as to satisfy our emotional need for harmony, a feeling one experiences when out of the chaos of external impressions one has worked up something simple and consummate, e.g., a statue out of a block of marble, a poem out of a collection of words, or a formula out of numbers.”

The discussion so far seems to be merely an academic discourse that has no bearing on reality. Yet, this debate in some way may get to the core of child protection. What I have found limiting about the debate after the tragic death of baby Peter is once again the concentration has largely been on procedures. The latter is perhaps understandable, given people’s desires for certainty and the belief that if we finesse procedures we will be able to prevent future tragedies. Procedures and laws are important because they provide structure to professional practice. However, the skill comes in how the practitioner draws on knowledge to make professional judgements.

I have to admit that it is a long time since I was a practitioner, but I still remember the cases that I found to be the most difficult. It was the cases in which I struggled to work with the carers who were devious and on many occasions  were ‘potentially violent’, including on one occasion a step-father placing a very large python on my lap to see what my reaction was.

One of the central questions of many of the tragedies has been how practitioners work with potentially violent people, and yet in my reading of these cases there has been little attention given to this factor. From my experience most social workers work by themselves, rather than in pairs; contrast that with the Police and you are likely to find a situation that is completely different. In the latter organisation, if there is concern, at least two officers would visit and yet in social work operating as a singleton practitioner seems to remain the norm.

I am not advocating that all families require two practitioners. However, there are a small but significant number that need the input of two people. Working with another practitioner gives an additional perspective and ensures the social worker is given support. Such an approach cannot prevent all tragedies but it should with good supervision ensure that the focus remains on the child.

As Harry Ferguson has pointed out, getting beyond the ‘deception’ of the adults is, on occasions, very difficult “…and it depends on much more than the oft-mentioned ‘talking to and listening children’ and has to involve touching and examining them to ensure they are safe. This requires the skill to negotiate and use good authority with parents and carers to ensure they do not prevent the child being properly engaged with”[ii].  In sum, it combines the knowledge of the scientist with the skills of the artist.



[i]. Ponomarev L., I Science and Art  http://www.physlink.com/Education/essay_ponomarev.cfm .(accessed 22/9/2009)[ii] Ferguson, H. Laming report: can we really put proposals into practice?http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/joepublic/2009/mar/13/laming-review-child-protection(accessed 22/9/2009)

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