Skip to main content

Child protection: Social workers ask, ‘have parents become the enemy?’

When it comes to child protection, have parents been cast as suspects and enemies rather than as partners? The number of families being investigated for child protection concerns has been rising steadily across the UK over the last twenty years, despite recent research showing no real rise in the number of children being killed or those on child protection registers*. The number of children being taken into care is currently also at record levels; in January 2016, in England alone, Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) received a total of 1,040 care applications. This represents a 16% increase compared to those received in January 2015. 

In a unique collaboration, The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) and Making Research Count (MRC) and the Faculties of the former College of Social Work are hosting US social worker David Tobis, author of From Pariahs to Partners: How Parents and Their Allies Changed New York City's Child Welfare System. In the mid-1990s, New York City had one of the worst child-welfare systems in the country, with almost 50,000 children in foster care. In 2013 fewer than 13,000 were in foster care, with many more children remaining safely in their families with additional support to ensure that the children were well cared for, including day care, homemakers to assist with family chores, counselling and anger management for the parents, legal representation and better housing.

David Tobis explains: “The changes in New York City’s child welfare system came as a direct result of mothers whose children had been in foster care pressurising the city administration to change. Parents who had changed their lives and were able to reunite with their children became advocates in helping other parents who were struggling as they had. They led parent-support groups in foster-care agencies, advised commissioners on advisory panels and testified in city-council hearings. And when policymakers wouldn’t listen, they demonstrated in the streets against child-welfare agencies’ practices. Now in New York City, every time there is a decision on whether to remove a child from his or her family, a parent advocate or community member is present to ensure that parents’ needs are met and their rights are respected”.

The conference, Promoting Humane Social Work with Families: Listening To and Learning from Each Other, aims to share ideas from research and practice to support ‘humane’ services and learn from successful examples of system reform such as the experience in New York City. The conference will also hear from families with histories of hurt and trauma about how services can make a difference.

Conference organiser Brid Featherstone, Professor of Social Work at the University of Huddersfield, commented: “This event has been organised in order to support all those working to change how we support families and protect children. It offers a unique opportunity to hear from those who use, research and work in services with families across contemporary service divides.” The event is chaired by Guy Shennan, Chair of BASW UK, and James Blewett from MRC. Guy Shennan said: “How social workers engage with families is very important. Fear and distrust are not helpful to either party, so we are very pleased to be hosting David Tobis, whose report of work with families in partnership to change how the system worked in New York City is inspiring.”

Other speakers include:

  • Safeguarding Survivor (a parent who blogs about experiences of safeguarding and advocacy for parents)
  • Amanda Boorman, Founder of The Open Nest (a charity that offers support to adoptive and foster families)
  • Ruth Allen, Chair of the Mental Health Faculty of the former College of Social Work and next BASW CEO
  • Maggie Mellon, BASW Vice Chair
  • Sue White, Professor of Social Work, University of Birmingham
  • Brid Featherstone, Professor of Social Work, University of Huddersfield
  • Marion Russell, Principal Child and Family Social Worker, Cornwall Council


Note to Editors

*Devine, L. (2015) Policing parents, protecting children? Rethinking Child Protection Strategy: Initial findings from trend data. In: ’Is the Child Protection System fit for purpose?’ The Transparency Project Conference 1st June 2015, NCVO, London,

DATE: The Promoting Humane Social Work with Families: Listening To and Learning from Each Other conference is on Friday 19th February 2016

VENUE: The Gainsford Lecture Theatre

Weston Education Centre

Denmark Hill Campus

King’s College London

10 Cutcombe Road



Further events in Scotland

David Tobis will be speaking at a meeting of social workers and parents in Edinburgh on 22nd February and at a seminar at Edinburgh University on 23rd February from 4pm - 6pm. Places for the seminar are still available. For more information, contact Trisha Hall, Manager of the Scottish Association of Social Work (SASW)