02/01/2012 18:12 GMT | Updated 03/03/2012 05:12 GMT

Child Protection: We Need a Radical Rethink

There is much to celebrate in child protection from 2011, but we need a radical rethink if we are to make a real difference in 2012.

This has been a year of significant change in child protection, much of it for the better. And it was also the year that saw ChildLine celebrate 25 years of helping vulnerable children. Over a quarter of a century it has helped 2.6 million young people since it was launched by Esther Rantzen. Its remarkable work was summed up by Esther when she told me about a counsellor who, a few years ago, had taken a call from a young person on their mobile phone who was about to jump from a motorway bridge. He spent 30 tense minutes talking her out of it and helped to save her life. After the call, Esther asked him how long he'd been volunteering at ChildLine, and he replied with a wry smile: "This is my first shift."

We've also seen law reforms, currently before Parliament, that will mean that adults who seriously abuse a child will no longer be able to escape justice by blaming each other. We've seen changes that force other EU countries to comply with criminal checks when one of their nationals comes here to work. And we've seen two major government reviews that could transform the family law system and social work practice.

But sadly, serious abuse and neglect still occur. On average around 50 children are killed each year in England and Wales, most by those that were supposed to love and protect them. Disturbingly, of these, around a third are less than a year old. Fortunately, from the NSPCC's prevalence study, we know some forms of abuse are reducing but new threats to children are emerging all the time.

So what can be done? We have to recognise that decades of policies and rising public spending have not made a major impact on child abuse. This is because, despite a rise in recent years in children being taken into care, most children who are maltreated are invisible to services. And, crucially, money has too often been focused on treating the symptoms rather than intervening before abuse even occurs which would have the biggest impact and be most cost effective.

Throwing money at the situation is simply not an option right now. We need a complete rethink about the way we approach this problem - this relies on two things.

Firstly, society must take more responsibility for the way it treats children. There must be no hiding place for those who deliberately ill-treat children and there must be support from services, but also friends, family and neighbours for those who just need help to be better parents. We will never end child abuse if we think the answer lies solely in Whitehall. If we turn a blind eye, we are betraying the most vulnerable. It's not just a 'Big Society' but a 'Better Society'; a society that does not look to others to act, but is willing to act themselves. Often it's a neighbour or friend that a parent first turns to when they find it difficult to cope. A shoulder to cry on can lead to specialist support.

Secondly, we need the decreased resources now available for child protection to be focused on the youngest age. Money must be prioritised on prevention, not cure. This means concentrating on what we know works, but also on what is cost effective and saves money in the long-term. For example, services which help new mums and dads who, for one reason or another, lack the ability to be good parents. Ultimately, they are their child's primary carer and it's them who we must focus on.

We know which parents we need to help. Ask any social worker and they will tell you that drink, drugs, mental health problems and domestic violence are more often than not the key indicators of potential parenting problems. That's not to say all parents with these problems are a risk to their children but around half of all serious cases of abuse or neglect involve these factors. I know from the work we do with families that these problems can seriously impair parenting skills. And the most at risk are babies because they can't ask for help. We know that around 200,000 babies are currently living in families with one or more of these issues. That focuses efforts immediately, especially as many of these parents will already be known to services before they are even expecting a baby and will certainly be known to services once they are.

And the earlier help is given, the more effective it is. A project I've seen in action from the US, which the NSPCC is replicating in the UK, gives intensive one-to-one support to young or vulnerable parents and has been shown to save £4 for every £1 spent. I've seen very troubled young mothers who have no bond at all with their baby, or understanding of how to care for it, transformed into loving and caring parents. It takes time and it takes money, but the cost of not acting at this early stage is far more expensive and often life destroying.

And we can all help, whether it's being there for those around us who struggle with a newborn, or picking up the phone to report a situation if it's more serious. If we are to bring down the shocking numbers of abuse and neglect, services must help people to help themselves at the earliest stage and we, as a society, must do our bit.