Developments in child protection in England

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


This paper presents a review of developments in child protection law, policy and practice in England over the past few decades, with particular focus on approaches to balancing the rights of children and parents, through the provision of protective and preventive services. This review forms part of the Hestia research project – a comparative study of policies and responses with regard to child abuse and neglect in England, Germany and the Netherlands.

The authors undertook a review of legislation, statutory guidance and research literature on child protection in England. This material was analysed according to a conceptual framework developed for the wider comparative study. Changes in child protection practice over time were examined through the analysis of official statistics on referrals and admissions to care, for reasons of abuse or neglect.

The past few decades have seen shifts between preventive approaches to child protection that place an emphasis on the preservation of family autonomy, and more interventionist approaches oriented towards the needs of children and their rights to protection. These shifts have in part been driven by high profile public inquiries into child deaths due to abuse and neglect, which have led to changes intended to improve the effectiveness of the child protection system. The Children Act 1989 aimed to achieve a balance between protecting children and supporting families. It set a clearly defined threshold for compulsory intervention in family life and introduced the key principle that the child’s welfare is paramount. It also gave local authorities the power to provide family support for ‘children in need’ to promote their development and their upbringing by their families. This emphasis on family support was reflected in a fall in the number of children entering care from the early 2000s. A higher proportion of children were instead being supported at home through family support interventions and ‘child protection plans’. However, there was a rise in the total number in care at any time, as the children who were placed in care tended to be those with more serious problems and therefore remained in care longer. Subsequent legislation and policy has aimed to strengthen protection while placing further emphasis on prevention, through early intervention, integration of children’s services, use of professional judgement and a focus on child outcomes. Over the past 15 years or so there have also been policy developments regarding the placement of children in care, with increased attention to permanency planning and timely decision-making. This has been prompted by research highlighting a lack of long-term planning and the detrimental impact of repeated exposure to abuse or neglect on children’s psycho-social development. Changes to court processes have also been made in attempt to prevent delays in decision-making and reduce costs associated with the rise in referrals that followed the high profile death of a baby in 2007. However, in the context of austerity, it is as yet unclear whether sufficient support is being provided to parents to help them to make the changes needed to avoid compulsory intervention.

This review identifies several key features of the child protection system in England, and highlights shifts in policy and practice that reflect changing political ideologies, as well as financial and media pressures. It provides important insights into the changing roles of families and the state, and forms the basis for comparisons with child protection systems in other developed countries.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 16 Sept 2016
EventEUSARF 2016: Shaping the Future - Oviedo, Spain
Duration: 13 Sept 201616 Sept 2016


ConferenceEUSARF 2016


  • Child Protection
  • England

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