When Failure to Protect Fails to Protect Children

By Kristen Selleck, MSW

National Training and Consultation Director

I recently had a conversation with child protection investigators about their use of “failure to protect.” When I suggested that failure to protect was not helpful to child welfare’s mission, some of the workers agreed and some disagreed. It led to an important conversation.

Those who agreed said they thought that when they used failure to protect they were being victim blaming and that they were uncomfortable with that. While I appreciate the empathy inherent in this statement, I’m aware that empathy by itself does not help us address the issue of child safety specific to child welfare’s mission.

Those who disagreed stated that they felt they needed to use failure to protect to maintain child safety. When I asked them what inherently increased safety for children when child welfare uses failure to protect, there was no concrete answer. There was no way in which workers could find failure to protect related specifically to child safety. In fact, several participants added that they thought using this paradigm would lessen the information victims of domestic violence would share with child welfare, making it harder for child welfare to assess the risk to children. This reasoning shows that children are actually less safe in the system when we use failure to protect.

Some workers still struggled with the idea of shifting away from failure to protect and answering this important question: How do we keep children safe without failure to protect? The answer is both easy and hard. We need to shift our thinking away from the adult victim and focus on both the needs of the children and intervening with perpetrators. It’s been my experience that we use failure to protect most often when we don’t want to or cannot find a strategy for working with perpetrators. The down side of this is that when we focus on victims it makes it easier for us to ignore perpetrators; by ignoring perpetrators we do NOT reduce the risk to children regardless of our intervention with victims.

It’s hard for child protection workers, I believe, to think about how to shift away from failure to protect because it’s been the paradigm in child welfare for so long. However, if we really want to focus on ways to keep children safe, we need to move away from failure to protect and improve our capacity to assess children’s needs and our interventions with perpetrators.

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