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A referral has been made by the PSNI because they are concerned about two children aged 18 months and 4 years old following their attendance at an incident of domestic violence the previous Saturday evening. Area Child Protection Committee (ACPC,2005, 9.25) state “Child protection is everyone’s business” . Gateway teams have been established within the five Health and Social Care Trusts in Northern Ireland, to deal with all referrals both from professionals and members of the public who are concerned about a child’s well being.
Social work is a profession that embraces the principles of The Human Rights Act 1998(HRA). The Children Order (Northern Ireland) 1995 (Order 1995) underpins all aspects of the powers and duties of the social work mandate governed by social work law. The Northern Ireland Social Care Council (NISCC) code of practice reflect profession ethical and values which are intertwined with law, societal values and are at the heart of how workers conduct their practice.
Article 66 of the Children Order places a duty on workers to investigate all allegations or suspicions of abuse likely to cause harm to a child. The Family Homes and DV (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 has been incorporated into the Children Order. Article 12 A, identifies the ‘risk of harm to a child from witnessing DV,’ (Order, 1995). The social work role is to assess and intervene if a child is in need or at risk of significant harm.
“Article 17 of the Order defines a child in need as unlikely to achieve or maintain a reasonable standard of health or development without the provision of services by the Health and Social Services Trust or if the child is disabled” (Order, 1995).
Upon recite of this referral the worker must take time to “tune in” to the potential risks and appropriate action as a result of this information. The worker needs to contact the PSNI and clarify the details of the referral including the severity of the DV. Multi-agency working is a key function of social work in the area of child protection and fundamental to assessment of risk. Joint working protocols exist between the PSNI and workers in Northern Ireland. The lone working policies acknowledge, violence against workers is not unheard of and the PSNI will accompany the worker to enable them to carry out the initial assessment if needed. NI is a country emerging from conflict; however, stereotypical attitudes and beliefs about the PSNI and some members of the community are deep rooted. The worker needs to assess how s/he can proceed safely.
According to the Order 1995, the welfare of the child is paramount. Social workers try to build positive relationships with parents and families. The Article 8 European Convention of Human Rights offers, “â€¦ protection for a person’s private and family life, home and correspondence from arbitrary interference by the State,” (www.yourrights.org).
An over authoritarian approach may serve to alienate parents but this does not mean the worker takes “unnecessary risks regarding her own or others safety”, (NISCC, 2004, 4.3).
The social worker is obliged to screen details of the people involved against the e-information system and the child protection register (CPR), for current or previous social service involvement. Names of the children need to be entered individually; it is not uncommon for one child in a family to be registered and another not. If the family or children have had previous involvement with social services and the case is now closed the manual records need to be accessed and read. If the worker has any ambiguity about the interpretation of the information, clarity must be sought with the principal social worker or whoever is the relevant party.
“Workers are accountable for the quality of their work.” (NISCC, 2004,6.0) At present the worker has no way of identifying the level of risk posed to these two children. DV is a contributory factor in half of all the serious case reviews and 75% of the cases on the child protection register. (Hester, et al.1998).
When all background information is gathered the worker needs to communicate her findings both in writing and verbally to the supervisor/team leader/manager, whom in turn has ultimate responsibility for prioritising the referral based on the available information.
Failure to follow the risk assessment policies and procedures and effectively use information can have fatal consequences for the service user. If this referral was to result in a child/ren getting harmed the social work could be held personally culpable. “Ignorance is not an excuse”, (Stafford and Hardy 1996 cited Calder, 2003, p.8).
Brearley, 1982, suggests risk is calculated by the likelihood of the variation of possible outcomes
“Past knowledge provides a reasonable basis for prediction of harm.” Stafford and Hardy (1996 cited Calder, 2002, p.8.)
The Children Order, Cooperating to Safeguard Children, 2003 and Our Children and Young People Our Shared Responsibility, 2006-2016 expresses the need for workers and all professionals to communicate. Partnership recognises the expertise of other professional’s and agencies, including the parents when it comes to the protection of children. (NISCC, 2004,6.7)
The ACPC policy states a
“child must be seen and spoken to by the worker within 24 hours and that an initial assessment of need is completed within 7 working days of receiving the referral ” (ACPC,2005,para 9.25).
The worker will undertake the initial assessment with the family. Milner and O’ Byrne (2002) describe social work as a goal directed activity. The worker needs to know the possible impact of DV on the health and development of children this age and be able to recognise the signs and symptoms of abuse.
The NISCC code of practice states a “worker needs to adequately prepare and plan all aspects of work”, (NISCC, 2004 6.4).
According to Parker and Bradley, (2003) assessment is a balance between art and science. There are no scientific tools, which can predict human behaviour or eliminate risks totally. Social work training and education equip social workers with the knowledge and skills to practice. (NISCC, 2004)
The social work profession is grounded in the humanistic principles before any direct interaction takes place the worker needs to reflect on what the serious nature of what she is intending to do.
In the area of child protection there is a considerable power imbalance between the worker and service user. The worker is effectively calling the competency of the parents into question. Workers could expect parents to be less than welcoming. It is hardly surprising given the invasiveness and instructiveness of the investigative role of child protection.
“People may feel intimidated and fearful that their children might be taken into care. This can result in hostility, anger and resentment towards the worker.” (Adams, et al, 2009 p224).
According to Farmer and Owen, (1995) Mullender, (1996) and (Mc Williams and Mc Kiernan (1995), DV is always about power and control. Their research is overwhelmingly based on male to female abuse but they do acknowledge the existence of violence against men and reciprocal violence. The worker needs to be consciously aware of this and respect the marginalized and vulnerable position of victim and abuser of DV. The worker needs to modify her own practice to address these issues sensitively and in a manner that will not further the oppression of the victim.
Various trains of thought exist as to whether empathy is a character trait or a learned skill that develops through continuous practice but it is crucial that the worker understand the importance of the perspective of the service user. Schulman 1984(cited in Cournoyer. p.22) states,
“Preparatory empathy involves “putting yourself in the clients shoes and trying to view the world through their eyes”.
Beckett and Maynard (2005) believe in the name of respect, parents have a right to know why their family is being investigated and why the worker wants to see and speak to their children. Informing the parents of their rights, including their right to complain, taking time to explain the investigation process and taking time to actively listen to parents and encouraging them to express their views will at least go in some way to upholding public trust and confidence in the social work profession. The involvement of the gateway worker will be time limited. If this family need further intervention the gateway worker needs to set the precedence for further social work involvement. If a family have a negative experience of one social worker they are likely to perceive all social workers to behave the same. Cleaver, et al (1995) stresses the need for the worker to be open and honest from the start of the process, if any trust is to be established.
Much of the assessment relies on participation of the parent, without which the worker will have great difficulty making an accurate assessment and as a result the children or the family may not get the support they need and the appropriate intervention to either meet their needs or keep them safe. (Parker and Bradley, 2003)
In the spirit of social justice and ethical practice holding the balance between the safety of the children, the importance of family life to a child and the need to avoid unnecessary interference underpins every part of the Children’s Order as it applies in practice (Children Order, 1995).
Professional ethics requires the worker to critical reflect at every stage of the process in order to think logically and make sense of what is happening.
Awareness of their own prejudices and discriminatory attitudes and a willingness to challenge them means the worker can begin to approach this family in a genuine and anti oppressive manner. According to Preston-Shoot and Agass (1990, p38)
“reactions can be determined by the workers own personal history and current emotional experiences”.
A worker who has grown up in a home where DV has been an issue may have very different feelings compared to a social worker who has never had personal experience of DV.
Workers have a professional duty under the NISCC codes of practices and in the interests of social justice not to just maintain but promote the dignity and worth of all services users. Banks (2006, p3) states, “Professional values need to distinguish between personal values.” If the worker has concerns she can explore them through supervision either with her team or senior.
Pauline Hardiker has developed the single assessment framework tool for assessing the needs of children-Understanding Needs of Children in Northern Ireland (UNOCINI) tool. The UNOCINI adopts an holistic view to assessing the needs of children. It has three interlinked areas of assessment. The needs of the child, the capacity of their parents to meet their needs and the wider family and environmental factors, such as employment and housing issues are assessed as having an impact the child’s life and well being. Our Young People Our Shared Responsibility, 2006-2016 is the Governments Ten Year Strategy’s pledge, which reflects the prevention through early intervention social policy ethos and parental responsibility and partnership principles of the Children Order are fundamental to the UNOCINI. Social workers have an ethical commitment, to promote social justice and equality to support parents in need, to bring up their children.
The aim is early identification of need, purposeful intervention, with the objective of preventing difficulties escalating and promoting the strengths and resilience of the family. Threshold of needs correspond with risk. The thinking behind this is to promote a shared understanding between professionals to identify concerns, risk, needs and strengths, particularly in the area of communication. DV is cited in threshold three of needs, (DHSSPSNI, 2007).
Mullender et al, (2004) believes children face three risks: the risk of observing traumatic events, the risk of being abused themselves, and the risk of being neglected.
Jean Paiget (1896-1980) is instrumental in constructing the idea that healthy children develop through a serious of ordered sequences, known as milestones. No two children will follow exactly the same pattern but it would be reasonable to expect that a child of 18 months would be starting to talk, walk and explore their environment. A 4-year-old would be able to walk, talk in sentences, and be out of nappies. Osofsky, (2004,p4) stresses, “Trauma due to domestic violence interferes with a child’s development.” Mullender et al (2004) whilst agreeing with Osofsky suggests that protective factors, such as a supportive not violent adult, a placid temperament and the child’s young age and lack of ability to full appreciate what is happening might help reduce the risks to children. She does point out that each child is different and will respond differently. Professional ethics and values of the social work profession emphases the need to “treat each child as an individual” (NISCC, 2004, 1.1).
“The key factors in the parenting and child domain are basic care, ensuring safety, emotional warmth, stimulation, guidance and boundaries and stability.” (Howarth, 2004,p24)
A report by Davenport in 1984 cited in Howarth (2004) discovered DV has a very negative impact on the mental health of the victim. Parents are more likely to respond with irritability and anger or fail to respond at all, rendering them emotionally unavailable to their children.
Attachment theory believes that if a child’s primary attachment is damaged in the first or second year of their life they are at significantly increased risk of developing problems later in life.
Fahlberg (1991, p.64) states
“The primary task to be accomplished during the first year of life is for the baby to develop trust in others and â€¦ explore their environmentâ€¦ children growing up in a violent household may be too frightened to show inquisitiveness.”
Humphrey’s et al (2006) explored the emotional turmoil of children drawn into participating in the violence leaving the child confused and afraid and the parent undermined as a valued human being in their own eyes and the in the eyes of the child.
Humphrey’s has also drawn attention presumed attitudes that expect all mothers to love their children and treat them the same. The child that looks like the abuser or the child that is born as a result of rape may be more vulnerable to harm than the child who is none of these things.
Maslows higher hierarchy of needs believes that a child needs to feel safe and have a sense of belongingness within their family if they are to achieve their full potential, (Hoghughi and Long, 2004). Without this they are unlikely to achieve their full potential.
Smale and Tuson, (1993 cited Coulshed and Orme 1998) recommend the exchange model where all people are seen as experts on their own problems and the emphasis is on the exchange of information rather than the worker being the expert.
Listening is a core skill of any communication process. Social workers have been ridiculed in the past for their ‘know it all’ approach, often leaving families stigmatised and traumatised because of their investigations but without any purposeful intervention.
Lord Lamming (Laming report, 2003 cited in Wilson and James, 2008, p.254) following the death of Victoria Climbe, is clear that the
“aim of communication with children or about children is to gain a comprehensive understanding of a day in the life of a child”.
Children may engage through play. The worker could ask the child what TV programmes they watch or who makes dinner or puts them to bed. DV is not just about controlling people it involves controlling the household movements. The social worker needs to maintain vigilance for any visible signs of injury and needs to ask the child what happened.
Workers should engage parents at every stage of the process. The worker needs to ask the parents permission to share and collate the information; however, regardless if they agree or not the information will need to be shared in the interest of child protection.
All social work involvement needs to be proportionate to the age and developmental needs of the children and the nature and severity of the risks, concerns and strengths of the individual child and their respective family.
Farmer and Owen, (1995, p79) has highlighted that
“in the face of allegations couples often from a defensive alliance against outside agencies”.
They may have conflicting and confusing feelings of love and hate towards each other. Thompson,(2006) advised couples often have “multiple truths” of events and experiences. This advises the worker not to be drawn into giving personal judgements or opinions.
Thompson,(2006) focuses on the personal, cultural and structural model of oppression, (PCS) which might explain why women do not leave. Dobash and Dobash, (1979 cited in Cleaver, 1999) suggest that on a personal level women feel shame and guilt; they know their children are affected and they don’t report DV or seek support because they fear they will not be believed or that they may be killed for reporting it. The impact of violence can lead to the woman feeling worthless and isolated.
Culturally women are brought up from childhood to be caretakers, to comfort others and as a result of this they may believe that they are responsible for the abusers attacks, if they were a better wife, mother, cook, and then the violence would stop. The patriarchal nature of society often sees many women dependant for finance on a man. Thompson (2006) remarks, bring a child up in poverty is not impossible but it is hard.
Structurally, the lack of affordable housing and a lack of confidence in the legal system are barriers that prevent women from leaving an abusive partner. Family Homes and DV (Northern Ireland) Order 1998,Article 29 gives courts the power to remove an suspected abuser from the family home instead of removing the children. (Children Order, 1995) but this does not guarantee safety.
The new Government have warned of social welfare cut backs; the worker has to balance the needs of the family against available scarce recourses. Banks (2003 p101) states,
“a worker needs to be able to challenge agency policies and practicesâ€¦Professional code of ethics along with education will have a role to play in this.”
A worker needs time to complete an accurate assessment. Heavy caseloads and a lack of resources have contributed to failure to protect in the past.
Empowerment is about actively finding ways that the victim can make use of intervention to help themselves move towards the survivor role and care and their children without the support of the state.
Accurate, precise recording are vitally important to child protection and helps build the picture of children’s lives. The risks and strengths posed to them will provide the basis for shared understanding, analysis, decision-making and plans about the children and their family.
The social worker on the Gateway team is responsible for drawing all the strands of information together. Health visitors, GP, PSNI, extended family all hold key pieces of information that could protect these children. The Gateway team is responsible for convening the initial case conference. All stakeholders need to contribute.
Similar treads of poor communication, lack of interagency working and inaccurate recording, has consistently reappeared throughout Serious Case Reviews. In 1973 Maria Colwell aged 7 was beaten to death by her stepfather. In 2007 Arthur Mc Enhill set fire to his home killing his whole family, 7 in total and the same year 17month old Peter Connolly died after suffering horrific abuse. Domestic violence was a key feature in all of these tragedies.
Pemberton, (2010, p17) advises,
“Patterns in social history and behaviour can be detected and something, which may appear insignificant in isolation, can be identified as a key warning sign in context”
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