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Therapy & Safeguarding

On the surface therapy and safeguarding are two activities that can look similar.

  • Both involve a professional in conversation with a client.
  • In both cases the professional and client have different roles and there will be a protocol, either implicit or explicit, that will define that difference.
  • The similarity may extend to the content and focus of the conversations since in both cases the professional and client may be talking about parenting, about children, about family issues, about things that please or trouble the client, about change or stuckness.
  •  Both therapy and safeguarding tend to be structured as a series of appointment.
  • In both cases the worker will have a supervisor and will talk about the work and its progress with that supervisor.
  • In both cases the worker will be expected to record their activities and may be required to liaise with other colleagues.

And yet despite the multiple surface similarities these two activities, therapy and safeguarding are fundamentally different and it is important that the difference is acknowledged and the implications of these differences are understood. Indeed the differences between the two activities are more significant than the similarities.

Primary client

In therapy the client is normally the person who is sitting with the therapist, the person with whom the therapist is talking and thinking. This remains the case even if the client is talking about wanting change in their child’s or their partner’s behaviour.


In safeguarding work the client is always the child and it is the child’s interests  and safety that are central even when the worker is talking with the parent and the child is not present.

Source of legitimacy

In therapy the source of legitimacy ultimately derives from the client. The client chooses to attend and could choose not to attend, and even though from a position of care the professional may follow-up the non-attending client, in the end, if the client chooses not to return to therapy there comes a point when the professional must accept that and close the case.


In safeguarding the legitimacy derives from statute. If a parent were to attempt to avoid contact, fail appointments or to break off contact with the service, the professional has both the right and duty to demand contact be maintained in the interest of safeguarding the child until the child is deemed, through the appropriate procedures, to be safe.

The Professional’s purpose

In therapy the therapist’s purpose is to help the client make changes. The scope and direction of change is ultimately decided by the client and the professional does not have a mandate to go beyond this.

In therapy the professional’s starting point is that change is possible and this belief needs to be reflected in the professional’s language and demeanour.


In safeguarding, the purpose of the professional is to maximise the child’s safety and to do everything possible to serve that end. This might well involve reporting the content of discussions if necessary, engaging the parent and child in risk-assessment procedures, exploring with the parent the potential consequences for parent and child if there is no change, finding ways of persuading the parent that it would be advantageous to that parent to change.

In safeguarding the professional does not exclude the possibility of change but must remain sceptical until change is demonstrated.

Dual responsibility

The complexity of the child care social worker’s position is often increased when he or she has responsibility not only for safeguarding but in addition for working towards change. There is a statutory responsibility to assist parents so they may provide a better standard of care for their children. To this end they need to engage the parent in a collaborative relationship if they are to work towards change. Maintaining a primary focus on the child’s safety requires a delicate balance between collaboration and authority. In therapy the change effect is enhanced when the worker communicates to the client belief in the client’s capacity to change. However in safeguarding it is the professional’s duty to remain sceptical until observable changes have been made and maintained. Thus the therapeutic safeguarding worker must process all the ‘information’ that he or she generates regarding the child’s position through two filters, not just what is this telling me about the possibility for change in this situation, but in addition how is this informing me about safety. The inherent difficulty of this position, and the risk that one of these sets of thoughts will dominate the worker’s thinking to the exclusion of the other, is specifically what necessitates effective managerial supervision, without which the likelihood of effective practice is diminished.

Safety before therapy

Safety must always come before therapy and if during therapy it becomes clear that a child is at risk the child’s safety must come first even if this requires the breaking of confidentiality or even the arrest of the client.

Primary client

Person in session

Child at risk
Worker’s primary purpose

Change in direction of goal

Worker’s position

Belief in capacity to change


 © BRIEF 2010. Please feel free to copy in this format for educational purposes.
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