Why it’s time to change our focus

Imagine you are a parent in a car with your child in the back. You are both happy, singing to the songs on the radio, and making fun plans for what you were about to do.

Out of nowhere you have impact with something, you didn’t see anything coming and it blindsided you. Your car veers off the path you were on and ends up stranded in a ditch. You manage to climb out of the front of the car however, you can see your child is trapped. You run around the car trying to work out how to release them, you can’t open the doors or windows. Your mobile phone has broken so you run to the emergency phone and call for help.

You feel so pleased when you see vehicles arrive with flashing lights and people looking official step out. You feel a sense of relief that they will help release your child and take you both to safety.

What happens next is an analogy of how parents can feel when they find out their child has been abused by offenders outside of the home and they try to seek help from the police and children’s social care services

Whilst there are so many professionals who genuinely want to help, so often they are held back by the punitive systems and procedures we have in place.

Instead of going to the car and the ditch where the car and your child is, you are told to wait in the distance with them as they need to assess what happened. You start shouting at them to go to your child and where the incident is happening, not sure how hurt your child is or what will happen if they are left in the car any longer. You are met with a reply, “we need to assess what happened first, there is a process to follow.”

“Are you insured?”

“Do you have evidence of your insurance?”

“Do you have a driving licence?” “Can you prove this?”

“Were you driving irresponsibly?”

“Had you been drinking alcohol?”  “Let’s check this, blow in here.”

They start to make arrangements for you to attend a driving safety course, to be a better and safer driver in the future. They ask why you had chosen that route, and did you think it was the safest way to your destination? It feels like they are looking for reasons that you crashed the car and were responsible for the harm that has been inflicted on your child.

You are distressed, you are wanting your child to be the focus, you are insistent they go to them. They are advising that they will need to take you to a formal environment if you do not calm down. You are not calm, you are anxious as you are looking at your child trapped in the car, panicked, frustrated and angry that time is being wasted asking you questions and assessing you when the harm is elsewhere and your child remains trapped with potential more harm to come.

Eventually they go to the car. They check tyre tracks where the car came off and trace it back to a very large and deep pothole that was filled with rain water. This had caused the car to crash, services cut the child free from the car, and provide roadside care to patch up the child. The delay caused some injuries to worsen and cause longer term consequences for the child. You are now able to join your child and go to the medical centre to be checked over. Once there, and now it’s clear the accident was not your fault, they leave you. The medical staff take over and you have to give the details of what has happened over again. You are not sure how you will make your way home after your child has been treated.

If we go back and think how this accident is similar to parents’ experience when asking for support; they ask for help, they often go through numerous assessments that look for risks in the home.  Often interpreted by families as looking at what they have done that has ‘pushed’ their child into contact with the offenders. Parenting classes are often suggested to improve their parenting, and other changes are instructed to make in the home and family life to improve the safety of their child whilst no focus on the harm and risk outside of the home is being measured or assessed.

This is draining valuable resources of parents, who are then focussing on responding to the professionals who are asking for them to prove they have not caused the harm, when all they want to do is focus all their resources on supporting and responding to the risks their child is experiencing from others outside of the family.

The exploitation is damaging, draining and takes everything from families. Services can build resilience in families or they can further drain those resources by having the wrong focus

If we went back to the car accident and thought about how different the response and outcomes would be for the family if we applied a contextual, relational approach. Contextual safeguarding means we take into account the context and environment where the harm took place and remove the assumption that the parents and their actions are responsible for the harm. Relational safeguarding puts relationships front and centre, strengthening family bonds and engagement with services and ultimately weakening the grip of the offender.

The flashing lights arrive, out of the car comes help. They immediately speak to the mum who says her child is trapped, one stays with the mum and gets details of what happened, the others go straight to the car to focus on the child and the place the incident occurred. They quickly see tyre tracks leading to the main road, seeing a large deep pothole that has been filled with rain water. This caused the car to blow a tyre on impact and led to it hitting the ditch. The child was removed from the car and taken for treatment. The mum was taken with the child. A report was written up and the professionals contacted their road maintenance partners to ask them to drain the water and fill the hole to make it safe for others who will travel that road. Signs were temporarily placed around the pothole, with a flashing light to alert others. The professionals support the mum to arrange a courtesy car, and not long after they are back on their way, a little shaken but back on their travels.

When people are experiencing trauma, our responses have a significant impact.

In communities where we have adopted a new approach to harm outside of the home, we see genuine change. When parents are empowered and safeguarding is held in an equal partnership – this strengthens the child’s whole supportive network and ultimately improves our capacity to keep them safe.

Written by Lindsay Dalton, CEO at Pace

Find out how you can start making a change in your community with our Commitment to Family Friendly Practice.