The role of a child protection social worker

10th February 2017

There are many reasons why one may want to become a child protection social worker, but what many people in the profession find is that working in child protection tends to make you. It is certainly not without its challenges and rivals most professions for complexity, but it is a rewarding job that presents people with many interesting and fulfilling future career opportunities.

At its core, child protection social work is about helping children to feel safe and to be safe in their family of origin. This is never a simple matter: there are multiple issues simultaneously at play in every case that require focus and attention, emotional sensitivity and resilience, intuitive thought and rigorous analysis. All these skills contribute to what is essential in every good child protection social worker: the ability to create and maintain a helpful relationship with children, families and professionals that prioritises the need of the child or young person.

At any one time, you can manage a case load where you encounter a full spectrum of personalities, cultural values, beliefs, narratives and identities. At the same time as working with a range of personal differences, you work with many sectors in institutional public life, which includes the courts, the police, health, education, immigration, housing and community and voluntary organisations. 

In this sense, it is a good job for getting to know diverse population groups and many arenas in public life. But most importantly, its specialism comes in the form of learning how to co-ordinate resources and mobilise interventions in conjunction with families living in acute distress in order to best protect vulnerable children at risk of harm.

Within the varied landscape of child protection, there is space to accommodate a range of personal and professional motivations. You may for example feel particularly strongly about the need to challenge social justice, improve the life chances of looked after children, or work with young people involved with the criminal justice system. You may have a particular interest in improving the lives of people experiencing mental health needs, domestic violence, substance misuse or learning disabilities. What I have found and many of my colleagues share is that curiosity about human relationships and a commitment to improving people’s situations tends to be enhanced as a child protection social worker.

What is however essential for anybody thinking about coming into the profession is to have a profound respect for the wellbeing and safety of children and young people in the context of their private family life and wider community. It is equally important that as a child protection social worker, you have the determination to learn practical therapeutic skills to help families make necessary adjustments that allows them to keep children safe and live without statutory state intervention. This is ultimately a problem solving and ethical task: what to do when you intervene into private family life to protect children and how to find a way to exit in the knowledge that you have kept a child safe. You can’t move in to a family, you have to make enough of a difference to help a family live without statutory intervention.

But unlike many other highly skilled and technical jobs, who you are as a person, your capacity to listen and empathise, make ethical and intelligent decisions, and your ability to make helpful lasting relationships is at the heart of the job. Social work is not likely I would suggest to become automated any time soon. You trade on human and social capital which one hopes is largely irreplaceable by technological advancement. In other words, you will need to show the ability to reflect on all different aspects of yourself to make positive differences with clients and colleagues. In child protection, you learn a great deal about who you are and how other people see you, which is a unique experience and sometimes a bit of a surprise!

As a social work training programme, Frontline is particularly well designed to help participants learn how to create meaningful change in families. Frontline teaches evidence-based theories on attachment and parenting, intervention models such as motivational interviewing and promotes core elements of systemic family therapy, such as self-reflexivity and curiosity. 

But crucially Frontline provides a firm grounding in the everyday reality of child protection social work. As you learn based within local authority statutory child protection teams under the supervision of an experienced consultant social worker, you are presented with ample opportunities to get to grips with what it takes to do the job. From the start, you are given proportionate opportunities to make a positive contribution to the lives of young people and become familiar with statutory processes and guidelines. Given the unit model design and the chance to complete 200 days in practice, as a student you integrate into the workplace culture and organisation from the get-go with the added assurance that the local authority in which you are located will offer you employment as a social worker upon successful completion of the first year. 

In this sense, participants have the opportunity to start the learning process within the same organisational context that they are likely to remain post-qualification. Other training providers are not designed with this kind of focus on practice, while Frontline participants are also supported financially to live as a student in such a way that they can focus on learning to work in a busy child protection system.

Jamie Evans completed the Frontline Programme in 2016 and is now a Fellow. He is currently leading a pilot scheme for the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham Early Help Team and training to become a Systemic Family Therapist and Psychotherapist at the Institute of Family Therapy, London.