Safeguarding Children in England and Northern Europe

(Originally published August 2013)

 Child welfare scholars who compare Western countries’ child welfare systems have  often contrasted systems narrowly focused on child protection with broader  family support systems. Child protection systems (such as in the U.S.) tend to be organized around investigations of allegations of abuse and neglect, make official  investigative “findings” that label  some parents as abusive or neglectful, utilize court actions for making out-of-home care placements and often have a thin array of in-home services for children and families. Child welfare systems oriented around family support (e.g., in Northern Europe and Scandinavia) serve children with a broad range of issues and needs, emphasize partnerships with families and voluntary services, and offer generous help and support to poor and socially excluded children and parents.


However, in the past 10-15 years the labeling of countries’ child welfare systems as either Child Protection or Family Support has become increasingly suspect as a steadily increasing number of states in the U.S. have adopted dual track differential response systems in which 50-75% of families are assigned to a family assessment track rather than investigated. Investigative findings such as “substantiated” or “unfounded” are typically not made for the majority of families with screened-in CPS reports in states with differential response systems. Family support services, some evidenced based, have been increased to the point that in-home service cases far outnumber children in out-of-home care in some jurisdictions. Furthermore, rates of out-of-home care per 1000 children have dramatically declined in the U.S. which currently has about half the rate per 1000 of children in foster care or residential care as most countries in Northern Europe and Scandinavia.


During the same years when public child welfare agencies in the U.S. have been adding family support services and implementing differential response systems, Northern European countries have been forced to rethink their approaches to child protection following high profile child deaths. In Germany, for example, “these events (child deaths) caused a massive child protection panic in the public sector, political arena, and also in the professional field that led to a refocusing of child and family welfare services on child protection, with an emphasis on early risk assessment, crisis intervention and quick out-of-home placements,” according to German scholars.  Public confidence in child welfare authorities in Germany and Nordic European countries has been shaken by child deaths following repeated abuse and (sometimes) torture of children by caregivers despite frequent contact with a variety of professionals.


 In 2007, under fierce media pressure to act, Germany’s federal government convened a conference of prime ministers of provincial parliaments (later called the “Child Protection Summit”) to consider responses to the country’s child protection crisis.  Conference participants recommended that a new federal law should establish a framework for inter-agency cooperation, institute early health check-ups for children, and provide a variety of other preventative and early intervention services. Several German states have also passed comprehensive child protection laws to encourage or require parents to use early child assessments and screenings and created new family support programs. In addition, according to Wolff, et al, “the threshold for intervention in cases of child abuse and neglect was lowered,” and more power was given to courts to compel parents to use available services and lock up children and youth if necessary to ensure their safety.


Germany’s new child protection framework has increased public investment in a variety of health based services for children and families, added compulsory requirements regarding families’ use of these services and expanded the federal and state regulatory frameworks in which public and private agencies deliver child welfare services. The retreat from a commitment to voluntary child welfare services has been controversial in Germany, and some scholars view the country’s child welfare system as at a “crossroads” with one directional sign reading Voluntary and the other Legal Compulsion.


England’s Child Protection Reforms


England is an interesting example of a child protection system caught between powerful conflicting pressures. Since the mid-1990s, English child welfare jurisdictions have made a persistent determined effort to reshape their approaches to intervention and helping families around family support principles. In both policy and practice, this has meant an effort to work in partnership with families, and to provide a wide range of voluntary services based on families’ needs rather than solely as a response to abuse or neglect, and before major problems in family functioning require coercive interventions. According to Parton and Berridge (2011), “The concept of child protection was superseded by the much broader notion of safeguarding and promoting the welfare of the child.” In England’s child welfare policy under recent Labour governments, safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children included:


  • Protecting children from maltreatment

  • Preventing impairment of children’s health and development

  • Ensuring that children are growing up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care; and enabling children to have optimum life chances and enter adulthood successfully


This is, to say the least, a broad mandate, but the important message for U.S. policymakers, advocates and practitioners is that safeguarding children in England has been part of a larger concern with their development and well-being, not a set of child safety concerns that can be distinguished from concerns with child well-being. Parton and Berridge comment that, “Although protecting children from maltreatment is seen as important, in order to prevent impairment to health and development, on its own it is not seen as sufficient to ensure that children are growing up in circumstances that ensure the provision of safe and effective care.” In this formulation and in the conceptual frameworks of Nordic countries, “unsafe” for child welfare purposes does not mean

“abused or neglected”, or even more narrowly “in danger of serious abuse or neglect” as in some states in the U.S., but rather “children living in circumstances and conditions that endanger their development.”


However, even more than in the U.S. (if this is possible), England’s child welfare system has been devastated by high profile child deaths which have led to media attacks, public outrage, the firing of child welfare staff and other professionals involved with the child and family and urgent calls for reform. In 2008, a mother, stepfather and family friend were convicted of causing, or allowing, the death of Baby Peter. According to Parton and Berridge,  “During the trial, the court heard that Baby Peter was used as a “punch bag” and that his mother had deceived and manipulated professionals with lies and on one occasion had smeared him with chocolate to hide his bruises. There had been over 60 contacts with the family from a variety of health and social care professionals, and he was pronounced dead just 48 hours after a hospital doctor failed to identify he had a broken spine.” At one point following news stories about this horrendous child death, a British tabloid “delivered a petition to the Prime Minister containing 1.5 million signatures …”


In the U.S., child welfare crises resulting from specific high profile child deaths have mostly affected a single state’s or large city’s child welfare system, but in England there have been a series of well publicized deaths of children that have had national ramifications.  Parton and Berridge assert that one effect of the public outrage regarding the Baby Peter case in England has been increasing difficulties with recruiting and retaining social workers in child welfare jobs.


During the past 2-3 years, the English scholar, Eileen Munro, has been given extraordinary powers to conduct an in-depth review of the English child welfare system, including meetings with managers, practitioners, parents and youth; and to recommend changes in both child welfare practices and management approaches that would interrupt the usual ways English authorities have responded to high profile deaths. Munro (herself an expert on child maltreatment deaths) has pointed out the futility of steadily adding to agencies’ prescriptive frameworks, i.e., policy and procedural manuals, that are already hundreds of pages in length; and has recommended giving child welfare practitioners more, not less, discretion in how they perform their jobs. Munro has also strongly advocated for a more child centered focus in how child welfare systems operate, a recommendation that resonates with changes in conceptual frameworks in several Nordic countries. Munro has also introduced the concept of ‘risk sensible’ practice in which the limitations of current assessment tools in child protection are openly acknowledged, and talk of “ensuring safety” is recognized as unreasonable. The outcome of Munro’s Report and its recommendations on England’s child protection system remains to be seen.  



Out-of-Home Care Rates per 1000 in England and Northern Europe 


One of the most interesting child welfare developments of the past decade has been the decline in out-of-home care rates in the U.S. and the increase in these rates in countries in Northern Europe, including Scandinavia.     


  Country                                        Before                                   Recently  


   USA                                                8 (1997)                                 5.4 (2012)


  Canada                                           4 (1991)                                 9.7 (2007)


  England                                          4.5 (1994)                              5.5 (2009)


  Sweden                                          6 (2000)                                 6.6 (2007)


  Finland                                           8 (1994)                                 12 (2007)


  Denmark                                       9.5 (1993)                              10.2 (2007)


  Norway                                          5.8 (1994)                              8.2 (2008)


 Germany                                         9.5 (1995)                              9.9 (2005)


 Belgium                                          7.9 (2004)                              8.6 (2008)


 Netherlands                                   8.4 (2000)                              10 (2009)   



Why do the U.S. and England have lower (often much lower) out-of-home care rates

than countries in Northern Europe that have stronger social welfare systems and whose child welfare systems have been committed for decades to voluntary family support services? There are three main reasons: (1) a much higher percentage of children and youth in out-of-home care in Northern Europe and Scandinavia were placed for reasons other than child abuse and neglect. Children in out-of-home care in Scandinavia are often older school age youth placed due to behavior problems. Child welfare agencies in the U.S. and England place many more babies and other young children due mainly to child neglect than is the case in Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway. (2) A much lower percentage of children placed in out-of-home care in Europe exit to adoption than in the U.S. where adoption is usually viewed as a good permanency outcome. There is a far less positive view of adoption in many European countries. (3) In some countries in Northern Europe, most out-of-home placements are voluntary, and may be viewed as a type of family support rather than as a coercive insult to family integrity.




What can policymakers, advocates and practitioners in the U.S. learn from developments in child protection that have occurred in the past 10-15 years in England and Northern Europe?


  • Every child welfare system in English speaking countries and in Northern Europe has experienced horrendous child deaths that have led to public outrage and to strong political pressures to improve child protection systems. High profile child deaths in England and Northern Europe have undermined public confidence in child protection systems, and made it more difficult to recruit and retain social workers for critical child welfare jobs. However,

  •  England, Germany and the Nordic countries have strengthened their child protection systems in part by adding to family support systems and enhancing preventative and early intervention services, rather than narrowly focusing on children assessed to be in danger, i.e., at risk of imminent harm. 

  • Safeguarding in Northern Europe and Scandinavia ( and in England until recently) has been concerned with a wide range of conditions that endanger children’s development, not just abuse and neglect; and the emphasis is on identifying and doing something about these challenges to safe care and positive development as early as possible.   

  • All child welfare systems must struggle to find the right combination of family support services and high quality forensic investigations. The expanded use of differential response systems will not eliminate the need for expert investigators; and these investigators should be given high status and first rate support in public child welfare agencies.  

  • Out-of-home care is viewed differently and used differently in Scandinavia than in the U.S.  Countries with well-developed social welfare systems do not have child welfare systems inundated with reports of child neglect and with concerns about the safety of babies and other young children. Nevertheless, these countries have plenty of child welfare issues and challenges due to the same factors associated with child welfare cases in the U.S., i.e., substance abuse, mental health problems, family violence, and poverty.   

  • England has recently begun to examine how child welfare systems are managed and to consider scaling down prescriptive frameworks that guide child welfare practice rather than steadily adding to them. It is long past due for there to be similar initiatives in the United States.




Gilbert, Neil, Parton, Nigel and Skivenes, Marit (Editors) , Child Protection Systems: International Trends and Orientations , Oxford University Press, 2011


Bostock, Lisa, Bairstow, Sue, Fish, Shelia and Macleod, Fiona,  Managing risk and minimizing mistakes in services to children and families, Social Care Institute for Excellence, London, England, 2005


Staying Safe: A consultation document , Department for Children, Schools and Families, Nottingham, England. 2007.


NOTE: The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author's and are not intended to reflect the views of Casey Family Programs.

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