For many social workers, participatory practice may seem an unachievable goal, particularly in the field of child protection. In this paper, we discuss a significant programme of change in one London local authority, as part of which we undertook 110 observations of practice and provided more than eighty follow-up coaching sessions for workers. Through these observations, we saw many examples of key participatory practice skills such as empathy, collaboration and involvement in decision making. We also saw many examples of reducing autonomy and excluding parents from decision making. Often, we found the same worker would adopt a participatory approach with one family and a non-participatory approach with another. Through coaching sessions, we explored how and why workers used different approaches and discussed the barriers to adopting a more consistently participatory approach. These discussions led us to reflect on fundamental questions relating to the purpose of child-protection social work, how social workers can best help families and what the limits might be of participation in situations of high risk. We argue that truly participatory child-protection social work requires not simply better training or different tools, but an innovation in the value base of children’s services.