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The following essay proposes to consider the question of collaborative working in social care, looking in particular at the impact of collaborative working between agencies and professional disciplines within the context of children and families. This represents an especially complex problem to attempt to tackle with the issues of both collaborative working and working with children families subject to an almost constant process of reform and change in the contemporary era. When, for instance, we pause to consider the way in which collaborative work has become such a central feature of contemporary social policy in western liberal democracies with the promulgation of the partnership approach to government dictating the pattern of a variety of social, cultural, economic and political initiatives, we can see that any discussion relating to multi-agency work must reside in some part within the realms of a constantly changing political ideology that seeks in the first instance to instil new parameters for social work practice (Quinney, 2006:5-21). Likewise, when we consider the changing nature of working with children and families in the contemporary era, we can see that a decidedly pervasive legislative and policy framework increasingly that seeks to infringe upon the practice of social work on both an individual and a collaborative level cannot help but impact upon our understanding of the nature and role of the social worker within the context of children and families (O’Loughlin and Bywater, 2008:14-27). Thus, we need to observe from the outset the way in which the following essay constitutes an inherently subjective discussion where any conclusions garnered should be understood as open to further change and reinterpretation.
For the purpose of perspective, we intend to adopt a dualistic approach to the problem at hand, looking firstly at the political, ideological and legal context in which social work with children and families currently takes place. In this way, we will be better able to demonstrate an effective understanding of the field of child and family work, the social work role and the multidiscipline system in relation to children in need and children in need of protection. Secondly, we will look at the implications of our own evidence-based research yielded from group dynamics involving a specific case study of children and families. In this way, we will be better able to demonstrate an understanding of the importance of evidence-based practice. Moreover, in this way, we will be better able to consider both the strengths and the weaknesses of the collaborative approach to social service provision at the dawn of the twenty first century. Before we can begin, though, we need to briefly consider the historical context in order to establish a conceptual framework in which the remainder of the discussion can take place.
The political, ideological and legal context of working with children and families
To understand the significance of the multi-agency, collaborative approaches to child protection we need to first mention some of the most profound cases of child cruelty, which have acted as a launch pad for reforms of social services. When, for instance, we pause to consider the case of Dennis O’Neil who was starved and subsequently beaten to death by his foster father in 1945, we can see that instances of extreme abuse of looked after children directly contributed to reform of the child social services system. Maria Colwell was similarly abused and killed at the hands of her stepfather in spite of over fifty official visits to the family by social services, health visitors, police officers and housing officers before her death in 1973. As a result of the ensuing enquiry into Maria Colwell’s death, looked after children were assigned a ‘guardian’ by the state. (Cocker and Allain, 2008:24) Likewise, public outrage, internal inquiries and institutional reform accompanied the murders of Jasmine Beckford in 1984 and the uncovering of widespread sexual abuse amongst looked after children in Cleveland in 1987. In addition, the wrongful fostering of children on the Orkney Islands in 1991 after social workers mistakenly assumed that parents were part of a satanic cult triggered a reconfiguration of child protection policy, acting as a timely reminder as to the fallibility of decision making at an individual as well as an organisational level.
Yet while it is true that children’s services have been influenced by individual historical cases of neglect, abuse and murder, it is also true that social work and children’s services are inherently tied to the dominant political ideology of the day. As we have already asserted, social work practice in the contemporary era is an inherently political issue with a pervasive neoliberal political ideology dictating the pattern of social policy and welfare reform over the course of the past two decades. Nowhere is this modernising neoliberal impetus more prominent than in the field of social work with children and families (Johns, 2009:39-54). Beginning with the Children’s Act of 1989 and continuing with the amended Children’s Act of 2004, the state has increasingly sought to make provisions for disadvantaged children and failing families in order to reduce the debilitating ill effects of marginalisation and social exclusion.
These two Acts, in conjunction with a variety of other related social policies and statutory framework such as the Every Child Matters programme, constitute an ideological watershed with regards to the way in which the state legislatively copes with the numerous issues arising from children and families. Most obviously, these pieces of legislation and the broader emphasis upon social inclusion that they entail telegraph a new way of responding to issues arising from children and families by looking to target the causes (rather than the consequences) of neglect, exclusion, abuse and the ubiquitous problem of failing families. As a result, it is important to observe the way in which the reforms initiated over the closing decades of the twentieth century and the opening decade of the twenty first century represent a move away from the permissive social policies of the post-war years so as to incorporate a discernibly more preventative agenda for working with children and families (Morris, Barnes and Mason, 2009:43-67).
It is within this climate of preventative action that we must consider the genesis and subsequent evolution of collaborative social work practice with multi-agency work being intrinsically tied to the broader imperative of safeguarding children. The statutory framework of the Every Child Matters initiative, underpinned by the Children’s Act (2004) is, for instance, inherently tied to the partnership, collaborative approach to social service provision involving the active participation of professionals across all spectrums who work with children and young adults (Brammer, 2009:166). Understood in this way, the role of the social worker represents one part of a broader network of rights and responsibilities incorporating General Practitioners, psychologists, educational practitioners, housing association officers, National Health Service professionals, law enforcement agencies, government officials, local councillors, parents, family members and any number of related workers and associates who are able to help formulate an effective social agenda which places the child at the epicentre of all key decision-making. In this way, the social worker is better able to communicate with children who have suffered or are suffering from cases of neglect and abuse (Davies and Duckett, 2008:164-166).
As a consequence, it is clear that partnership and collaboration should be understood as the ideological bedrock of the contemporary legal and political framework for dealing with children, families and young adults, constituting the single most important guiding principle for social workers operating in the highly complex, risk-orientated contemporary social sphere. Fuelled in some part by the high profile cases of internal failings contributing to children’s’ neglect where, most notably, the untimely death of Victoria Climbie in 2000 highlighted “gross failures of the system” (Laming, 2003:11-13), collaborative working between agencies and professional disciplines is today understood as the most viable means of positively impacting upon the well being of both children and families (Brammer, 2009:182.)
In response to the murder of Victoria Climbie and, more pertinently, as a result of the economic imperative to cut back on public sector spending, the New Labour government, followed by the present coalition government, has increasingly sought to further the multi-agency approach to social services. The Children’s Plan (2007), for example, constitutes an ideological extension of the collaborative methodology championed in the Every Child Matters campaign with the government, agencies and professionals all charged with “improving children’s lives.” (The Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2010:29) Safeguarding the well being of children is therefore no longer considered to be the sole responsibility of the state; rather, it is clear that promoting the welfare of children and families is increasingly dependent upon adopting an integrated approach with a variety of agencies, organisations and individuals sharing the responsibility for welfare while at the same time ensuring that the child remains the focus of proactive, preventative action (The Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2010:31-34). It is consequently important to underline the strengths of the multi-agency approach to social care provision, underscoring in particular the way in which focusing upon collaborative working with children and families offers a holistic approach to what is an essentially multi-faceted problem.
However, while we are correct to acknowledge the modernising ideology that underpins modern social work practice, we also need to observe the way in which the day to day practice of social work with children and families has revealed a significant underlying chasm between, on the one hand, the preventative legal framework and, on the other hand, the deep-seated flaws in the multi-agency, inter-disciplinary approach to welfare provision in the modern day (Oko, 2008:16-39). In spite of the best efforts of policy makers and in spite of the preventative statutory framework enshrined in the Every Child Matters initiative, there remain deep-rooted structural and logistical problems pertaining to the multi-agency approach. For example, the horrific death of Baby P in 2007 which occurred after social services, National Health Service consultants, and police officers demonstrates that there remains a clear and identifiable problem with regards to communication between agencies, organisations and professions.
Moreover, the harrowing case of Baby P serves to demonstrate that, even when extreme levels of abuse are being reported, there remains a problem regarding intervention. The multi-agency approach to social care provision in the contemporary should therefore be understood as being inherently flawed with the collaborative system beset by a variety of structural weaknesses and new ideological complexities (Milner and O’Byrne, 2009:19-23). Although we should not seek to overlook the strengths of multi-agency, collaborative working we must, as Eileen Munro attests, consider the way in which an exceedingly risk-orientated socio-political culture has created additional problems for social workers in the modern era with an increasingly bureaucratic, administrative understanding of social services hampering the attainment of a critical understanding of the underlying economic, cultural and political factors that create problems in the social sphere (Munro, 2008:58-76). An over-emphasis upon research and policy has not yet yielded a significant reduction in the chasm between theory and practice.
Working in a Group: The Lessons for Working with Children and Families
Hitherto, we have focused upon attempting to understand how the dominant political, ideological and legal framework looks to dictate the pattern of social services at the dawn of the twenty first century. We have also seen that while policies and frameworks seek to instil a fresh, collaborative approach to working with children and young families the practical reality of working in a multi-agency context still leads to significant problems pertaining to communication. This, in the final analysis, is an inevitable consequence of working with the dynamics of groups where there is little by way of direction and where, more importantly, different group members harbour different perspectives and different ambitions with regards to the nature, role and purpose of the project at hand.
In the group that I worked in, there were six participants. Two were two white women – one a young woman in her early twenties; the other a woman in her thirties who is the mother of two young children. There were also two black women in the group; both of these women were in their thirties and both had children. In addition, there were two black men present in the group. As soon as the group began to convene, it was immediately apparent that there was a significant problem with regards to when the group could meet. Family commitments, coupled with work placements, conspired to make agreeing on a time to meet extremely difficult. Furthermore, when work was assigned to particular individuals it was not completed on time. A lack of structure was therefore prevalent from the start.
As time went by and the problems with communication within the group continued to grow, it became apparent that the two white women took it upon themselves to act as the leaders of the group, delegating work as if they had been assigned the role of the managers. The younger woman in her early twenties was observed to be especially aggressive and domineering. When confronted she failed to act in a professional manner, which placed further strain upon the dynamics of the group. Furthermore, as the two white women exerted increasing levels of managerial control, it became apparent that they were withholding important information from the rest of the group. This was either because they did not trust the other members of the group to work to their standards or because they wished to take sole responsibility for the project upon completion. Regardless of their true intentions, the lack of co-ordination and communication resulted in a disappointing final presentation that had been undermined on account of a wholesale lack of rehearsal.
The lack of cohesive, coordinated action within the group revealed a great deal about the inherent problems of inter-agency work with children and families. Most obviously, there was a clear and identifiable problem relating to a lack of leadership and direction in the group. Although there were only six members, every participant appeared to have their own specific ‘agenda’, which meant that the overall goal became lost in the resulting confusion of responsibilities. This, according to Michael Gasper, is a key problem in multi-agency working with children and young people where a convergence of interests creates fertile grounds for problems relating to management and leadership (Gasper, 2009:92-110). In such circumstances, it is often the agency or partner that adopts the most rigorously aggressive attitude which ends up assuming a leadership-type role – largely against the best interests of the project in hand. This was certainly the case in the group we observed where the two white women assumed leadership roles although no such premise had been discussed and in spite of the fact that no such policy had been agreed.
In this instance, of course, it is impossible to ignore the spectre of underlying race issues that may have consciously or subconsciously influenced the behaviour of the two white women within the group. Race issues are intrinsically tied to power issues; thus, the white women might have felt the need to assume control of a group dominated by black people. Again, the issue of power and the impact that this has upon inter-personal relationships within a multi-agency setting is an important factor for us to consider. As Damien Fitzgerald and Janet Kay underscore, power is an inexorably important factor that needs to be legislated for when teams come together in an interdisciplinary, multi-professional context. This is especially true during the early consultative stages of group work – the ‘storming stage’ – where “there may be fighting, power struggles, disputes and destructive criticism, which need to be managed effectively so as to minimise the impact upon the setting or the service.” (Fitzgerald and Kay, 2007:92)
The relationships that emerge from the storming stage are subsequently normalised during the ensuing ‘norming’ stage where the team starts to adopt its own identity. If, however, the relationships between the various agencies have not settled down into an egalitarian pattern by the norming stage of development, the power struggles and internal disputes will inevitably affect the ‘performing’ stage of task management. Most notably, the creative process will be stifled and the focus that should be dedicated towards the completion of the task will be diverted towards the power struggles within the group (Cheminais, 2009:38-40). This was certainly the case in the group I worked in where problems in the storming stage were translated into more serious structural problems in the norming stage, both of which ultimately affected the final performing stage of the task. Thus, once more, we need to acknowledge the significant divide between theory and practice in collaborative working with children and families where, as Jayat suggests, “policies can be well intentioned, yet are often poorly co-ordinated and, in practice, under-resourced.” (Jayat, 2009:92)
Furthermore, while acknowledging the problems that multi-agency, collaborative work entails, we also need to consider the way in which the infusion of children into the scenario creates further avenues for a lack of cohesive, co-ordinated action. If, as the evidence suggests, information sharing is negatively influenced by multi-agency, collaborative working with adults, then it stands to reason that there is bound to be much greater scope for withholding information when children and families are integrated into the procedure. If relationships at an agency level are strained then it stands to reason that, as Butler and Roberts attest, that social workers will find it even harder to maintain open and honest relationships with children and their parents in a social work context (Butler and Roberts, 2004:129-130). More importantly, it is clear that there is little time for power struggles and disputes when a child’s welfare is at stake. In the final analysis, this kind of internal wrangling runs contrary to the central tenet of the Every Child Matters and the Working to Safeguard Children campaigns, which look to make sure that the child remains the centre of task-centred, multi-agency focus (Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2010:32).
We should, of course, be careful not to assume that all group dynamics follow the pattern of the group we observed. While evidence suggests that there remains a significant scope for problems of power, communication, authority and direction within multi-agency settings it is also true that, if handled in the appropriate manner, “collaborative practice allows differences in values to surface and, if effectively ‘minded’, to be aired and resolved over time” (Glenny and Roaf, 2008:111) In such circumstances, multi-agency work with children and families can serve to positively influence the health and well being of service users. As a consequence, it is important not to assume that the structural weaknesses of collaboration mean that there are no strengths to the multi-agency process.
Understanding the strengths and the weaknesses of collaborative working between agencies and professional disciplines is dependent upon first understanding the distance to be travelled between the theory of prevention and the practice of collaboration at a grass roots level. Looking to reduce the divide between theory and practice, between the political and ideological framework and the multi-agency, collaborative approach, consequently represents the most critical challenge facing social workers and social policy makers alike. This is especially true as far as children’s services are concerned.
Ultimately, though, when looking to pass a judgement on the relative strengths and weakness of multi-agency working with children and families we need to recall that agencies involve individuals responding to crises in the social sphere. As Beckett attests, “every individual participant in the child protection process, and every profession or agency, necessarily sees things from his, her or its own particular standpoint and has his, her or its own particular ‘axes to grind.’ It is important to bear in mind that no one participant possesses the pure and unadulterated ‘truth.'” (Beckett, 2009:29) Social work is an inherently complex and subjective discipline where there is no right or wrong answer to the multitude of questions arising from the breakdown of interpersonal relationships. Collaborative work should consequently be understood as being inherently fallible. Only by concentrating upon improving the internal group dynamics of multi-agency functioning can the chasm between theory and practice begin to be reduced.
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