Child Protection and Child Safeguarding – More than Semantics


Like many other areas of human activity, social work develops its own language. Changes in our thinking and our understanding are reflected in our communications. I recall when I first began my career, the deliberate harming of a child was termed “Non-Accidental Injury”.  There was no separate category for registration for an “At Risk” child for sexual harming. This was because it was believed that this was such an uncommon experience for children that it did not warrant categorisation in its own right. It was not until the early eighties that sexual abuse was added to the “Child Protection Register”. Non Accidental Injury or NAI was then replaced by child abuse, significant harm, with the frequent use of the term child protection. More recently, we have adopted the term child safeguarding.

It is easy to miss the fact that behind these changes lie a development in our understanding of the many ways in which children are harmed in our society and also where our attention must be focused in order to prevent it happening. Being clear what is meant by each term is important and is not just an exercise in semantics.

Child protection denotes for me the actions that are taken to protect a child from further harm once it is believed abuse has occurred, or that there is a likelihood that it will occur unless intervention takes place. In other words, the emphasis is placed on reacting to the identification of abuse or the strong risk of abuse. Child protection policies generally detail who should speak to whom and when about possible or actual abuse.

Child safeguarding, on the other hand, refers to all the actions that are taken to safeguard a child or children and prevent harm occurring to them at all. Child safeguarding is about preventing harm happening rather than reacting to it once it is thought to have taken place. The distinction is significant and can be missed by some.

The best outcome that a vulnerable child can have in society is to be kept free from harm.  The most effective intervention that can be made is one that eliminates risk and keeps the child safe where they are. So much of what took place previously was aimed at reacting to the harm a child had suffered rather than preventing it from taking place in the first place.

A safeguarding strategy is a plan that aims at managing risk in any environment that children are in, to eliminate that risk. It incorporates child protection actions but its primary aim is prevention rather than reacting to abuse if it happens. The two terms are very different and place the emphasis in separate areas in terms of the actions of professionals.

Today we understand that risk can be viewed as existing in a particular environment.  It is often not related solely to one individual but may be present through the way in which several people or systems interact with each other. A simple example would be ensuring that all possible steps are taken to keep individuals who pose a threat to children away from them. This is the thinking behind police checks and vetting systems. Similarly, children engaged in an activity where they may be at risk should be adequately supervised by a fit adult. Any equipment they use should be safe and in good working order. These are all examples of safeguarding actions.

A good safeguarding strategy is an accumulation of policies, procedures and actions that have at their heart the prevention of harm to children. For this to be in place, there needs to be a sound understanding of the ways in which children can be harmed, and by whom. If you do not see potential danger as existing then you will not be motivated to take the necessary steps to eliminate it.

There have been many examples of this occurring in our society but I want to particularly note the difficulties that many churches have in identifying potential risk. From my own practice experience, I recall many conversations that I have had within church settings where an offender has been identified to the shock and disbelief of their colleagues. Comments such as “I would never have believed that a person of their standing and education could do that to a child”.

Many offenders try to make full use of your disbelief as a way of hiding their activities. When seeking to assess risk, I would always try to avoid making assumptions on whether someone was a “safe” person in respect of possible abuse of a child until there was evidence available to make that decision reasonable.

Churches tend to be places where there is an ambience of acceptance and concern for each other. On occasions, this can be unquestioning. There can be a lack of appropriate scrutiny with regard to why someone is volunteering to participate in children’s activities so often.  If the church has sound safeguarding policies in place, then checks will be made and activities appropriately supervised. However, some church settings really struggle to do this because they want to believe that the risks that may be present in the rest of society are not within their setting. So often, this has been shown to be misguided and children have been harmed as a result.

The safeguarding of children, when effectively undertaken, delivers the best outcomes for children. For it to work, we have to recognise that children are harmed in many different ways in our society. Risk to them can result from the actions of a single individual who exploits the failings of systems that exist to protect children. Those systems need to be regularly subjected to robust examination and tested for flaws. The existence of weaknesses in the systems is what the potential offender seeks. In the same way that you would not walk away from your car and leave the keys in the ignition, we have to ensure that where children are they are effectively safeguarded. This requires a good understanding of the nature of risk to children in particular environments. It is so much more than just semantics.