Published online by Cambridge University Press: 04 March 2021
Child protection is a practice that is often assumed to be prone to errors and mistakes. Decisions that must be made, based on the assessment of current and future family situations and of risks to children's wellbeing, are well intended but may nevertheless go wrong. This is tragic for children and parents as well as for professionals and their organisations. In particular, if children are harmed or even die due to wrong decisions or inappropriate interventions, the disaster potential of child protection becomes clear. Also, assaults (including sexual assaults) on children by professionals shed light on how vulnerable children can be in institutions that are intended for their protection.
Howitt (1993) was one of the first authors to point out that child protection is affected by errors and mistakes. In his book, Child Abuse Errors: When Good Interventions Go Wrong, he suggested a typology that is still pertinent today. He differentiated between true positive, false positive, true negative and false negative diagnoses in child protection (compare Howitt, 1993: 31), whereby false positive judgements describe situations in which professionals diagnose child maltreatment wrongly, and false negative judgements are situations where professionals do not identify child maltreatment as such. These wrong decisions by professionals can have life-changing effects for children and their families, especially when parents are incorrectly suspected of abusing or neglecting their children and in consequence children are removed from them (over-involvement) or when children remain in families where they suffer maltreatment and nothing is done to protect them (under-involvement). Even worse, however, is when children, who are placed for their safety, are sheltered in institutions of poor quality where they are not loved, and where they grow up suffering abuse or neglect. Such cases demonstrate that decisions in child protection are rarely harmless. According to Howitt, errors and mistakes can emerge in the stages of reporting, diagnosis, identification of the perpetrator and in the actions which are taken to protect children (compare Howitt, 1993: 188).
An important contribution of Howitt's book is the insight that errors and mistakes in child protection are socially constructed. Whether they are recognised and criticised as such depends on the status and rights of children and parents in society, and the powers of professionals to protect children from abuse and neglect.