Elaine Farmer and Morag Owen
As practitioners and managers in social services departments struggle to find a new balance between child protection and family support in the wake of the Department of Health research on child protection (Department of Health 1995) an important issue has been absent from the debates. That issue is the way in which gender affects the current operation of the child protection system. An official summary of Inquiry Reports (Department of Health 1991) concluded that inquiries into child abuse gave too little consideration to structural issues, in particular those relating to race and gender. None the less, the overview of recent Department of Health (1995) research on child protection did not highlight those messages which had emerged from the research programme in both these areas (for example Owen and Farmer 1996).
This article will draw on that programme of research to show that, at each stage of its operation, the child protection system shows a significant gender bias. The implications of this bias for child protection will be demonstrated. We will draw in particular on the study of decision-making, intervention and outcome in child protection work which we conducted as part of the Department of Health programme (Farmer and Owen 1995). Our study gathered data on forty-four children whose names had been placed on the child protection register. The sample was drawn from seventy-three newly registered cases, after attendance at 120 initial child protection case conferences in two local authorities. The parents, older children and key workers were interviewed after the initial case conference and again twenty months later. Since the research was undertaken, there have of course been practice developments in the participating authorities, such as the increased involvement of non-abusing mothers in investigations. However, the broad messages from the findings continue to require attention.
The children in the study represent a fairly typical cross-section of cases registered by social services departments. Concerns centred on physical abuse in a third of cases, on sexual abuse in another third, and neglect and emotional abuse in the remainder. Two fifths of the children were under five, a quarter were aged five to ten, and a third were aged ten or over at the time of the case conference.