How do we better understand the cues and clues to assess emotional harm and ensure children’s recovery?

Anthony Douglas, Chief Executive

The prevalence of emotional harm is rising faster than any other type of abuse*. This is as much about greater recognition and an understanding that emotional scarring takes the longest to heal.

Assessing emotional harm means entering the child’s inner world, as there may be no obvious signs. Invariably the harm will have been caused by one or more family members, so look no further, to begin with at least. Try to understand what may be causing a child to become more aggressive, tearful or withdrawn, to name but three of the countless signs of possible emotional harm. Think in terms of parental behaviour and its impact on the child, rather than the child having problems. Changing adult behaviours without dealing with the root cause is unlikely to be enough but it can be a start.


The child’s inner world

Entering and staying in the child’s inner world is important for all Cafcass practitioners, for the duration of their involvement. Each child is like a jigsaw or crossword puzzle to solve. Family members and professionals working together to understand the cues and clues, represents the best chance of solving the puzzle. This means our casework should be a co-production with the child and those who know the child best.

It is hard to assess how a child will respond to their emotional harm. Some become emotionally blunted – “I can’t feel” – until they have some emotional distance from the source of the harm. Others are blunted for life. Yet others turn it outward and are in turn abusive to others, often from a young age. Assessing the long-term consequences of emotional abuse is nearly always beyond the scope of our short-term intervention. But it is important to convey to the court and to those with responsibility for the child what can happen if the child is not actively helped as a matter of urgency. Compromising on a solution with no major emotional benefit to the child will usually not pass the court’s perpetual acid test about securing and promoting the child’s welfare.


Emotional labour

Difficult decisions have to be taken as a matter of routine. To do that, practitioners have to be strong and resilient. Courts have to be strong and resilient. Above all, the narrative about the welfare of the child has to be less about who the child lives with and spends time with, or one care plan versus another. Rather, it should be about identifying the care plan in a public or a private law case which best ensures the child’s emotional recovery and future wellbeing. It is resources for recovery, not assessment alone, that need prioritising and investing in to help the next generation of emotionally damaged children who have already been born.

Understanding emotional harm and vulnerability means understanding emotions like loneliness – “I just don’t feel connected any more”, shame, fear and despair, as well as hope and love. It means getting alongside children who feel these emotions on a regular basis, often overwhelmingly. It is why social work is ‘emotional labour’ and why all organisations employing social workers need to help them to recover during and between cases. This is if they are not to become emotionally blunted themselves, purely as a defence mechanism, in the same way that children shut down. It is why we invest time and resource in Cafcass trying to get the environment inside the organisation right for good social work practice in case after case. For the next child we work with, though they may be case number 96,345 this year, for the child in question, it is their one and only chance. *DfE rolling data; Cafcass rolling data; and NSPCC data in How safe are our children (2017)


Please note that our blogs provide individual views on a subject and are not intended as guidance for practitioners.

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