Dealing with failures in social work practice

Recent high profile sexual abuse cases, including those where survivors who are well known have had the courage to come forward publicly to disclose their story, reminds us that child abuse in all its forms has gone on from time immemorial. It’s important to remember that it’s only relatively recently that the state has introduced child protection legislation, forming the basis of our current system. Previously, child care and any maltreatment was considered to be private family business.

Recent high profile child abuse cases have also drawn attention to instances when child protection systems have failed, for a variety of reasons. Quite rightly, society expects that the most vulnerable in our society are properly protected from harm; the children themselves have a statutory right to this protection in a reasonable exercise of a duty of care by child protection agencies.

The best risk management procedures recognise that things will go wrong in any system. We have inquiries, serious case reviews, procedures and guidance to help minimise risk and learn lessons from mistakes made. All of this is vital to the development of improved practice and systems.

What of the children who have been subject of abuse or a lack of care or negligent practice?

On the one hand children subject of abuse receive nurturing care from social workers, foster carers and others to help overcome the damage caused by the harm they suffered. Some children may be eligible for Criminal Injuries Compensation which can be held in trust to help in future life.

What of those children who have received negligent professional practice? In cases I have dealt with, children have been left at home for many years exposed to significant levels of poor care from parents with chronic mental health and/or drug problems, combined with persistent incidents of domestic violence. Material conditions in these homes varied from excellent to squalid. For example, in one case, children were living in a rat-infested home, from which the RSPCA had previously removed animals and prosecuted their parents for animal neglect offences. Some children were nearly killed, whereas others did not face physical harm. However, the emotional harm followed these children into adulthood, often leading to harmful life choices. In such cases, it was prison or a mental health hospital which ended up offering them respite from their difficult circumstances. Some children carried with them into adulthood the secret of being sexually abused by a family member or a member of staff or a foster carer; because of poor practice they had never had the opportunity to build a trusting relationship with their social worker, or seen them alone, to allow them a possible chance to tell.

Legal immunities for child care work have been gradually removed over the past number of years because of various court rulings. As a result, local authorities are now more likely to face negligence claims.

The solicitors who conduct these cases often need expert social work opinion to determine whether there has been a failure in duty of care and negligent practice. Some professionals may regard this type of action as unjustified and yet another way of attacking the beleaguered profession of social work.

However, it is important to understand the benefits of such claims, quite apart from any financial rewards which may help in rebuilding the lives of children or adults.  Like the recent well known celebrities, these people have carried a burden for some time. Being able to tell their story and having any wrongs they suffered acknowledged is an important part of a healthy resolve and repair of damage. To be heard and understood is important for us all. It's vital such survivors receive assistance to build a new life and repair emotional damage through therapy, which they may not have received in their childhood. Lessons can be learned from these cases.

I do not doubt from my own 37 years of post-qualification practice that these are complex cases.  I know that a decision to remove a child from parents is a difficult judgment to make - often you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. However, the social work profession needs to be able to acknowledge mistakes and ensure that children are provided with a proper service. This is at the heart of social work ethics and standards. Here we are talking about a reasonable standard - not best practice. This is not about the minor mistakes that we have all made, it is about serious errors. These cases need a systemic analysis which looks at where and how negligent practice arose. It is not about spotting mistakes; it is about looking at the practice and commenting on what was reasonable and what was not.

What do we need for a service which provides an expert opinion to claimants and is fair and responsible to the social work profession?

Essentially: -

  • Legal representatives with expertise in this field.
  • Full disclosure of relevant records from the local authority.
  • Professional sifting and analysis of the records which leads to a fair and balanced chronology.
  • Expert social workers
    • who have lengthy post qualification experience within a range of care environments and who have operated within many safeguarding systems both past and present.
    • who have the ability to judge reasonable social work of the time and not through the current day perspective.
  • Good supervision and quality assurance of this complex work.

This is offered by my team at the Child Abuse Litigation Service at WillisPalmer – a product of the recent merger between ISWA and WillisPalmer.

If you would like to discuss this service further or to make a referral contact us on 01206 878178 or email us

Phil King

Philip King, Executive Consultant


Delivering a diverse, reliable range of services to children and their families across the UK
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