The contested subject : child protection assessment before birth
The study focused on the activity of an inner city local authority during one year. This was contextualised by an analysis of statistical data, the policy and procedural framework and the organisational structure of the study authority. Data from the case files of all babies (31) either unborn or under the age of one year who were subject to an Initial Child Protection Case Conference during 1993-4 year were then collected using a pro forma. Key documents were copied and studied in their entirely. Three levels of textual analysis were applied: a description of the families, the operation of the child protection system and the outcome for the babies one year after the Conference; case studies illustrating both the range of dilemmas and social work styles, and a thematic analysis of the ways in which the assessing social workers constructed the notion of a 'safe baby'. These levels of analysis are reflected in the presentation of the findings. The population of families who had been the subject of pre-birth assessment was found to be particularly troubled, with mothers experiencing substance use or mental health problems. Many also had a history of difficulty in caring for previous children. There were indications that the child protection system provided an inadequate framework for undertaking pre-birth assessments and the responses to referrals was inconsistent. However, only a quarter of the babies where pre-birth or neo-natal assessment had taken place were living with their mother in the community at follow-up, supporting the view that this vulnerable population is particularly in need of an adequate social work response. The case studies confirmed this vulnerability whilst demonstrating the variable nature of social work practice. When this practice was further explored thematically, judgements were found to be based on constructions about the natural mother, the peripheral father and the passive baby. Fundamental issues were raised about an alternative paradigm for practice where the subject status of those involved in the assessment process could more effectively be recognised in the construction of evidence. However, the political framework would need to support such an approach and further debate is needed about the proper role of social workers at this point in a child's life.