The child protection team
Ann Marie Christian managed a 0-5 child protection team for a Local Authority for four years and was based in a children's centre. A social work manager of 17 years experience, she has contributed to Nursery World and other journals.
Children require love and protection
Twenty-four years ago, I qualified with a degree and diploma in social work. A month later I was working in a neighbourhood social services office in the children and families child protection team. I nominated myself for the link worker for the local authority nursery and women's refuge. Instantly I was reminded about how fragile young children and babies are and require constant love and protection. Little ones are so dependent on their carers and loved ones to protect them and keep them safe. Adults stay with unsafe characters for various reasons and we need to be open minded and approachable so they can feel comfortable and not judged and able to find the courage and strength to seek help.
Throughout my career, I've been constantly reminded about how parents or caregivers often feel unable to or choose not to prioritise their children's needs over their own. As professionals, we must be child-centred and remember the lived experience of the child in that situation and advocate on the child's behalf.
Often parents and caregivers believe their child is 'too young' to understand and therefore expose them to risky situations in the home, for example, emotional or physical conflict in the home between family relatives or partners. A child will pick up on the tension and non-verbal atmosphere resulting in sobbing, bedwetting due to worrying, food or sleep difficulties etc.
Babies, toddlers and children are transparent and have no filters and display their stress and worries through their behaviour, play and language. They do not know that the home environment is harmful until they are given a safer alternative, for example, when the child makes a mistake they are not shouted at or blamed for it but assisted in correction and supported to enable the child to learn the safer option and feel valued.
Substance misuse, mental health and domestic abuse are common themes we see in serious case reviews, child protection and child in need cases. Non-recent use and current use both impact on the child and we have to consider what the child was or still currently exposed to and the impact it has on their child development and safety. A child may communicate their distress through behaviour, delay reaction or internalise it.
The early years practitioner in the setting may be the first person outside the family home to notice the concern as it's the first person or setting the child has been introduced to outside their family in their young life. We need to be observant in these interactions with child and caregivers to ensure the basic care, stimulation, guidance, boundaries, emotional warmth, attachments and stability are developing and adequate. All children but especially younger children need these provisions to ensure a sense of stability to encourage a positive space where they can develop their five senses in safe nurturing environments.
Early years practitioners are privileged to be one of the first set of professionals given access to this set of young children. They are best placed to spot early signs of a young child communicating a behaviour or babble a few words indicating they have been exposed or experienced harm. Frontline staff need to be the eyes and ears, and prepared to discuss their low-level concerns with their safeguarding lead or children social care departments. All staff need to have the 'it could happen here' approach and 'think the unthinkable'. Child protection training is key and staff must be reminded throughout the year about signs and symptoms. Supervision and availability are key in developing an open culture of reporting and vigilance.