The death of Chloe Valentine: the future of professional social work in child protection

In January 2012, four year old Chloe Valentine died in appalling circumstances at the hands of her mother and her mother’s partner. Both were found guilty of manslaughter and jailed. During her short life Chloe was the subject of many notifications to Families South Australia, and her family received considerable support from Families SA social workers.

The public were understandably horrified and sickened by the manner of the Chloe’s death. These strong emotions unleashed a powerful impulse to allocate blame. The mother and the social workers involved were in the front line of a flood of righteous rage.

Sometimes when children die in these circumstances qualified social workers are justifiably annoyed at being blamed since the workers involved do not always have a social work degree. But in this case there was no place to hide….Families South Australia hire qualified social workers as a matter of policy.

After a long running inquest, Mark Johns, the South Australian Coroner handed down his findings in April this year. I have always felt a strong empathy for any social worker caught up in this kind of enquiry. No matter what their personal accountability, they are usually caught in a web of bureaucracy, inadequate supervision, and high workloads. Add to this a sensationalist media, and these workers will feel besieged and persecuted.

The extended inquest fuelled the outrage led by the local media. And far from providing the balanced or thoughtful analysis that this tragedy deserved, the Coroner weighed in with his own simple remedies to tackle the root causes of child abuse, including the holus-bolus application of income management, trampling on privacy, mandatory drug testing and fast-tracking the adoption of foster children. Whilst these measures played well to popular sentiment, they are solutions that have all been tried- and failed- the USA being the favored testing ground for this kind of social engineering.

In its haste to be seen to act, the South Australian government supported all the Coroner’s recommendations. But past experience suggests that few if any will be implemented. In the last 15 years there have been at least 32 child protection enquiries in various parts of Australia, and many more overseas. We are entitled to ask- what has changed?

It is difficult to make any definitive judgments on the Coroner’s views without access to the thousands of pages of statements and transcripts. But on the facts that the Coroner reports, it is hard to disagree with his primary finding- that Families SA should have used its coercive powers against Chloe’s mother to stipulate a range of conditions that had to be met in order for Chloe to remain with her mother. If she had not complied, Families SA would then have been justified in removing Chloe from her care.

In effect, Families SA were being berated for simply not following their own rules. What went wrong? The Coroner blamed it on a departmental culture that sought to downplay the actual risks of abuse, together with a reluctance to use its coercive powers. It is noteworthy too, that from top to bottom in Families SA no one broke ranks, from the department head to the most junior caseworker. If there was debate or disagreement on the conduct of this case, it seems to have been kept in house. Unusual, as this kind of enquiry often offers up a scapegoat on the altar of blame.

What is lacking (at least in the Coroner’s report) is evidence of any critical reflection or analysis from the senior social workers involved in this case. Social work is an independent profession with a core commitment to child protection and social justice. The Coroner could have called on a range of highly qualified social work experts, but he seems to have relied on one expert with a particular view that suited his own. This is no substitute for a robust root cause analysis. If Families SA conducted an internal analysis we are not privy to it. Nor did the Coroner (or Families SA) as far as I know, call upon the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) who could have provided high quality informed comment. (What a lost opportunity!)

The Coroner also recommended that social workers be registered. These days professional registration is a national process oversighted by Health Ministers from all the states and territories through the Council of Australian Governments. COAG does not have a mechanism for family and community service minsters to get together, and South Australia is the only state that prefers to employ qualified social workers in statutory child protection. And so what might the remedy be to ensure the practice standards of the thousands of child protection workers who are not social workers? Health Ministers agreeing on social worker’s registration is extremely unlikely for reasons I have covered elsewhere, and child protection concerns will not add to the argument.

More importantly, registration may define the lowest acceptable practice standards, but it will not create an environment where the highest practice standards can flourish in a challenging and complex work setting. Indeed in countries where social work is registered, the process has been used to scapegoat individual social workers, rather than address the systemic issues of inadequate supervision, poor training and excessive workloads. (See the case of baby Peter Connelly in England). The registration recommendation sends a message that the social work profession cannot be trusted, even within a tightly controlled environment, to maintain quality practice standards.

From time to time there have been calls to establish a national entity such as a college that would identify the qualifications, attributes and qualities of statutory child protection workers. In our free market world neither the states nor the federal government will join forces to invest in such as body. (Perhaps just as well because it could never be truly independent.)

More salient still- this independent body already exists in the shape of the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW). But the AASW lacks authority simply because its membership is sparse amongst the child protection workforce, even in South Australia. Worse still there are too many eminent child protection experts who are not members.

This must change. We can reduce the number of child deaths and the rate of child abuse. We must reclaim our professional independence and our professional authority. In government bureaucracies individuals who speak truth to power are often scapegoated and marginalised. It is far more effective to speak up with a strong independent professional association at your back. If there were voices inside Families SA demanding better training, higher quality supervision, and adequate staff to cover leave or escalate complex cases- they were not heeded or heard.

The AASW must redouble its efforts to recruit child protection workers. But it cannot do this without the partnership of the industrial unions that cover this workforce. Public sector unions are becoming far more conscious of defending the right of the public to a socially just and high quality service. There must be a partnership between the AASW and public sector unions to advocate for reasonable workloads and adequate supervision. Most vital of all must be a concerted effort to drive a culture which accepts only the highest standards of professional care. The public are entitled to it.

And South Australia is a good place to start.


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7 Responses to The death of Chloe Valentine: the future of professional social work in child protection

  1. David Gould says:

    If we had 100% of social workers as AASW members, we would have the mechanism for self-managed registration. It ought to be compulsory to be a member of the Association from day one of student life. That we now have 9000 members is a tribute to the work of the National Board and branches in recruiting. The intake of student members is noteworthy. While registration is by no means assured yet, it is necessary to protect vulnerable clients. Membership needs to be tied to mandatory levels of ongoing learning and professional development.

    In regard to the South Australian case, even dysfunctional, mentally ill and drug addicted people have choices that they can make, and can be assisted to make, with skilful intervention. In some instances, compulsion, coercion and drug screening, income management and the like can assist in breaking a self-destructive cycle of failure and be a catalyst for positive choices to be made. The problems are complex and massive, but the failure of child protection workers to use the powers that they have and fail to save the life of a vulnerable and defenceless child is appalling.

    • Anonymous says:

      I hold a masters in social work; a masters in law; a graduate diploma in family dispute resolution; and diploma in counseling – and yet I can’t be a member of the AASW. I’ve facilitated in excess of 4000 family law mediations; written many hundreds of child protection social assessment reports and family reports that are accepted in courts across the country; I’m a 12 year member of a group of social scientists who meet every month for peer supervision and ongoing professional development- and yet I can’t be a member of the AASW. My masters in social work focussed on child abuse, child protection, children in society and advanced social work research (because it was always my intention to focus on the ‘forensic’ side of social work involved in Report writing) – and yet, I can’t be a member of the AASW. I have over 40 years experience working with families in child protection and family law matters, in my capacity as a lawyer – and yet, with all of this experience, history and qualifications, I, seemingly, cannot be a member of the AASW. I would join tomorrow and, I believe, be a valuable and contributing member, if I could. The AASW should have a category of membership for forensic social workers, such as myself. There are many of us who do not work in a therapeutic role, but, nevertheless provide valuable service to the wider community, in the forensic role that we undertake in court matters. And yet, a first year graduate with a bachelors degree can be a member. Frankly, it’s frustrating

  2. vittorio1 says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments David
    Of course I agree with you that social workers must always act in the best interests of vulnerable children, including using whatever legislative powers are available, as long as those powers are within scope of our professional ethics. By way of example the AASW has published a very useful policy paper on income management -which for me highlights the dangers of the indiscriminate use of such a tool.
    We must however reserve judgment in this particular case because we know so few of the facts.
    History will be final judge of whether social workers ever achieve registration. Readers of my blog will know that I am not holding my breath waiting for that, and that I am also skeptical of the potential benefits of registration by government. We must press ahead with AASW self managed registration- no matter what.
    But putting that aside, it is worth remembering that government departments have enormous powers to both set and enforce professional standards. In fact many government departments that employ social workers quite sensibly use the AASW code of ethics as their professional standard. It has always been completely within the power of Families South Australia to insist on the highest quality supervision, CPD, tight governance of scope of practice, annual performance appraisal against our code of ethics, and the rigorous investigation and appropriate sanction and remediation of any breach of practice standards.
    And so I frankly don’t see how registration would add value to the powers that Families SA already has? (The coronial findings strongly suggest that it simply failed to use those powers.)
    It is really heartening to see some increase in AASW membership- but this increase is not happening in the government sector- hence my plea to ramp up our efforts in that area in combination with the relevant trade unions.

  3. Frankie Panaia says:

    Mandatory AASW registration would not have saved this child, and the many other children who have perished in similar tragic, but very preventable circumstances. For the simple reason – you cannot enforce and legislate plain common sense.

    Over the years I have reviewed these ‘cases’ identifying a persistent theme common to most. As follows:

    (a) the child was already flagged by local child protective services
    (b) maltreatment of the child increased in intensity and depravity
    (c) the parent, usually the mother, was sighted / supported to the exclusion of the child.

    Above is the typical ‘recipe’ of incompetence and sheer negligence by CP workers when managing cases of suspected physical child abuse. All too often, the benefit of doubt is given to the mother, while the victim child, bruised and starved is concealed in the bathroom or some other such space of concealment.

    In all cases of suspected physical abuse the child should ALWAYS be sighted / interviewed separate from the parent. This cannot be underscored enough. The child should be relocated to a safe space during the interview to ascertain whether abuse has occurred.

    All cases of child physical abuse should be peer reviewed, that is, no one individual should be invested with the massive responsibility of determining whether a child will be or will not be murdered by their ‘caregivers’.

    When serious physical abuse is established, the parent should be prosecuted, while the child should be immediately removed. There should be no exceptions – assault is a crime in or outside the family unit’.

    The above is not ‘rocket science’ neither is it time and resource consuming. However this prescription for intervention is useless if the massive handicap of CP discretion, particularly by graduate social workers is allowed to persist in cases of suspected physical child abuse.

    • vittorio1 says:

      Thanks Frank
      Again- we don’t really know what happened in this case, but your broad comments are borne out by past histories. What you call common sense I call good professional practice… and that can be legislated. You yourself go on to outline some of the elements of how it could be done. Which of course begs the question of why Families SA and other similar statutory authorities do not use the powers they already have in abundance to legislate common sense.
      Anyone familiar with the history of hand washing in hospital infection control will know how many years it took for it to become “legislated”, and how many needless deaths could have been avoided. Ditto our professional practice standards, which hopefully one day will truly be considered common sense.

    • Gorgosity Kate says:

      The issue here is the bottom line and State governments willingness to spend the money that is needed to protect the most vulnerable children in our society. There needs to be a shift in the culture of child protection services leaving the removal of children as the absolute last resort.

      Governments fund child protection services inadequately. Workers are generally new or inexperienced and they last in the job for five minutes so as people become more skilled and find they cannot cope in the job they take the skills away with them to another workplace. Skilled social workers avoid this area of work because of the difficulty in actually protecting children due to systemic structures, poor working conditions, too high caseloads which sets them up for failure, terrible pay and the dangerous nature of the work dealing with depraved parents who see no problem in treating their children so badly.

      Workers need protected and small case loads, no more than 5 active cases at a time. The government should be able to fund child protection workers on a needs basis.

      The culture of using discretion and keeping the child with the family at all costs
      needs to change. Parents who are abusing the children need to be made accountable for their neglect and abuse. Systems are weighted too much in the favour of parents.

      Only experience social workers should be employed in the child protection system.

      Child protection workers need intensive supervision and I agree peer review you should be compulsory.

      I believe that child protection workers need to work more closely with the police if we are to really protect the children.

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