Child abuse as a complex and wicked problem: Reflecting on policy developments in the United Kingdom in working with children and families with multiple problems

John Devaney, Trevor Spratt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In spite of significant public concern, professional efforts and financial expenditure, there has been a perceived lack of progress in reducing the incidence of child abuse, and in improving the outcomes for children in both the short and longer term. In this article the authors reflect on recent policy developments in the United Kingdom relating to children and families experiencing multiple adversities, and argue that the current conceptualisation of child abuse is flawed. In adopting a rational technical approach to the management of child abuse, there is a tendency to focus on shorter term outcomes for the child, such as immediate safety, that primarily reflect the outputs of the child protection system. However, by viewing child abuse as a wicked problem, that is complex and less amenable to being solved, then child welfare professionals can be supported to focus on achieving longer term outcomes for children that are more likely to meet their needs. The authors argue for an earlier identification of and intervention with children who are experiencing multiple adversity, such as those living with parents misusing substances and exposed to intimate partner violence.
Original languageUndefined/Unknown
Pages (from-to)635-641
Number of pages7
JournalChildren and youth services review
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2009


  • child abuse
  • child maltreatment
  • complexity theory
  • international comparisons
  • performance management
  • outcomes
  • intimate partner violence

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