Judge’s comments hurt efforts to protect all children from abuse

Clouds of confusion hanging over the Royal Courts of Justice. sjiong/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

A high court judge has ruled that social workers should make “proper allowance” for different cultural contexts, while presiding over a case in which an Indian man was alleged to have beaten his wife and seven-year-old son.

By concluding that social workers should make some form of allowance for child abuse in immigrant communities, Justice Anna Pauffley has further clouded one of the most challenging and important ethical dilemmas faced by social workers in the UK.

Across the UK, social workers are grappling with issues such as female genital mutilation, the sexual exploitation of children for money, witchcraft, emotional, physical, sexual abuse and neglect. All of this occurs within some “cultural context”: but it must never be justified on this basis.

To suggest that social workers should apply different standards when working with immigrant communities, or be more accepting of abusive parenting, sticks a blade through the heart of social work values and evidence-based practice. It ignores all of the lessons learnt through critical reflection, serious case review and public enquiry, which have been enacted in law.

In 2004 the Children Act made it illegal for parents in England and Wales to chastise children if blows led to bruising, swelling, cuts, grazes or scratches. It did not mention that these conditions do not apply to children who are newly arrived in the UK. Every child has the right to be safe and protected from physical abuse, and the rulings of the courts must reflect – not undermine – this right.

The law has established that the welfare of the child must be paramount. But Pauffley’s comments that children in newly arrived communities are slapped and hit in a way that “excites the interest of child protection professionals” have the potential to seriously destabilise current policy and practice.

History repeats itself

Whether or not to act in cases of child protection is arguably the hardest decision any social worker will have to make. A number of serious case reviews and public enquiries have cited inaction on the part of social workers as the cause of unnecessary or prolonged abuse and suffering. Because of this, social workers are under increased social pressure to protect the welfare of children.

For example, 12 years ago Lord Laming blamed the death of Victoria Climbié on child protection practices, which made too much allowance for the cultural context of parenting. Unlike Pauffley, he called for less tolerance of cultural approaches to parenting, rather than more.

Since 2003, child protection practice has swung from one extreme to another. Under the government’s Prevent strategy, assessments of the “risk” to children are heightened against cultural or religious stereotypes. But there have also been shocking examples of overly optimistic assessments, which fail to respond effectively the child’s needs.

Divided practice

By advocating for social work practice that makes allowances for cultural complexities, Pauffley is clearly advocating for “divided practice”. This suggests that, for example, while physical and emotional abusive might be “culturally contextual” in one family, it might not be culturally contextual in another.

But who would then be accountable for making the decision about whether the cultural context of behaviour is valid or not? This point is not easily answered – and Pauffley did not address it in her ruling, either.

Assessing the welfare of a child through the lens of cultural relativism – as Pauffley’s ruling implies – can only lead to a “rule of optimism”, which requires social workers to think the best of parents. But as evidence from the Victoria Climbié and Daniel Pelka serious case reviews have shown, the risks to children can be increased by any kind of positive discrimination.

This ruling raises a further concern: that social workers could be justified in having low expectations of newly arrived communities in the UK. This implies that social workers should approach their responsibilities to child protection within immigrant communities differently.

But either the duty to enforce child protection legislation exists, or it does not. While it does exist, there must be no grey areas caused by subjective interpretation.

These comments have once again shown that there is no other profession like social work, where indecision and contrary opinion can impact so heavily on the welfare of those who are most vulnerable – and those seeking to protect them.