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Listening To Troubled Families

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Published: Mon, 24 Apr 2017

The purpose of this essay is to critically analyse a report ‘Listening to Troubled Families’ (Casey, 2012). To accomplish this it will be necessary to give a brief historical overview of social policy and legislative developments from 1979 to the present day. It will go on to debate the drivers for contemporary practice and strategies that promote children safeguarding and family support. The essay will apply legislation, guidance and policies that give social workers a legal mandate to work with families whose children are deemed to be at risk. The essay will also deliberate a selection of social work skills whilst employing ‘theories and methods’ that are in accordance with ‘social work values’ (Teater, 2010, p. 4).

The report entitled Listening to Troubled Families is a snapshot of sixteen family’s lives who have ‘entrenched, long-term cycles of suffering problems and causing problems’ (Casey, 2012, p. 1). The phrase ‘long-term cycles’ is very similar to an expression that the Prime Minister at the time Tony Blair (2006) used in a speech to describe families with ‘problems [that] are multiple, entrenched and often passed down the generations’ (Blair, 2006 cited in Welshman, 2008, p. 77). Both statements can be compared to Joseph’s (1972) ‘cycle of deprivation’ hypothesis (Joseph, 1972 cited in Welshman, 2008, p. 77). This is important because according to Welshman (2012) it is an enactment of the debate concerning the ‘deserving and undeserving poor’ and popular beliefs aimed at ‘scroungers’ in British society. This has led Featherstone et al. (2012, 630) to conclude that previous and successive governments since 1979 have demonstrated ‘a cross-party consensus in regard to reduced political support for the welfare state’.

The families in the report had been compelled to work with the Family Intervention Project or risk ‘facing action on child care proceeding’ (Casey, 2012, p. 3). However, the report is actually based on ‘120,000 families’ that have been identified as ‘troubled’ (Casey 2012, p. 5) and who have cost the Government some ‘£9 billion in the last year alone’ (HM Government, 2012, p. 1). This equates to ‘…around £75,000 per family’ (http://www.number10.gov). The figure of a 120,000 families is based on a report conducted by the ‘Social Exclusion Task Force (SETF)’ (Levitas, 2012, p. 4). That carried out some ‘secondary analysis’ (Levitas, 2012, p. 4) from the Family and Children longitude study (FACS) in 2004. Which highlighted that ‘2 per cent’ (p. 4) of households in Britain had numerous disadvantages. Levitas (2012) notes that the Coalition government have intentionally sought to mislead the electorate, into assuming that ‘multiple disadvantage’ (Levitas, 2012, p.12) equates to families that are ‘troubled, to families that are or cause trouble’ (Levitas, 2012, p. 5).

In order to work effectively with families where neglect and abuse put children at risk it is essential that the ‘subject knowledge, understanding and skills’ (QAA, 2008, p. 8). That the student has acquired in professional training underpin all interventions with individuals to allow an ‘understanding’ of ‘situations’ (Trevithick, 2012, p. 4). To understand a situation it is important that a social worker has excellent ‘communication skills’ Koprowska, (2009, p. 1) considers that these are a fundamental requirement for ‘social work assessment and intervention’ (Koprowska, 2009, p. 72). Research conducted by Levin (2004, p. 5) substantiates this as service users require social workers who are skilled in ‘listening, counselling, assessing, case managing and finding practical ways’ to facilitate. Sedan (2005, p. 22) notes that communication comprises of ‘an interactive process involving the giving, receiving and checking out of meaning’. Having the skills to communicate would enable the practitioner to engage with caregivers and children to conduct an assessment ‘ensuring an effective and fair process and outcome’ (Holland, 2010, p. 110). Laming (2009, p. 28) reiterates this claim by asserting that the ‘Assessment processes’ should encourage ‘an increasingly clear understanding of a child’s situation’ (Laming, 2009, p. 29).

To accomplish assessments social workers are required to use the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families (DoH et al. 2000). This is a ‘holistic’ (DoH et al. 2000, p. 26) and ecological tool that has been influenced by the work of Bronfenbrenner (1979) who proposed that individuals are shaped by their ‘macro, exo, meso and microsystem’s’ (Bronfenbrenner, 1979 cited in Trevithick, 2012, p. 325). When an assessment is conducted with an ecological approach it gives a sociological context to the whole person’s life and can gauge the impacts of government policies on individuals who are often in poverty (Trevithick, 2012). A practitioner who utilises an ecological perspective will understand how the structures of society (Jack, 2011) and the inequalities and adversities that some individuals face within it can impinge on their life chances (Trevithick, 2012). It avoids ‘individualising’ (Trevithick, 2012, p. 326) problems. Using the assessment framework facilitates the practitioner in ascertaining if a child is in need and how best to react (Ward and Glaser, 2010) which the social worker will base on current research findings (DoH et al., 2000). Information is recorded about the child’s ‘developmental needs’ (Ward and Glaser, 2010, p. 160) and the caregivers capabilities to respond ‘appropriately’ (DoH et al. 2000, p. 12). Whilst taking account of all other sources of family support and any environmental influences (DoH et al., 2000, p. 12). Another significant element in the assessment framework is information sharing between multi-agencies for ‘best interest’ decisions for the child and family (Rose, 2010, p. 44). This is to avoid what has often been referred to as a ‘silo’ style of working (Miers, 2010, p. 75). Brandon et al. (2009, p. 49) in their serious case reviews have highlighted the ‘lack of information sharing within and between professional agencies’ (Brandon et al., (2009, p. 49) which has led to children dying or suffering unnecessarily. Moreover, under Working Together to Safeguard Children (DCSF, 2010, p. 31) there is a legal requirement to implement ‘effective’ (DCSF, 2010, p. 31) collaborative ‘joint working’ (DCSF, 2010, p. 31) between agencies and multi-professionals who bring a range of knowledge and expertise into discussions.

However, it is imperative that the social worker consults with the family and seeks ‘appropriate consent’ (Rose, 2010, p. 44) except when or if a child is ‘suffering, or is at risk of suffering, significant harm (HM Government, 2012, p. 22). This would be in concordance with government guidelines Information Sharing: Guidance for practitioners and managers (HM Government, 2012). This is to protect the family from any ‘over-zealous’ (Brammer, 2010, p. 126) interference and a consideration of the Human Rights Act 1998 Article 8 should be applied to the families situation by any professionals involved in their lives. A practitioner should also consider the Rights of the Child under The United Nations Convention 1989 (Brammer, 2010, p. 178). Although these rights are not recognised under the United Kingdom domestic law and usually the ‘Gillick competency’ applies (Brammer, 2010, 179).

Angela and Carl (a case study within) the Troubled Families report had asked for help in relation to their son ‘Sam’, unfortunately this was not forthcoming. An appeal for support and Sam’s presenting behaviour should have been an opportunity for early ‘identification’ of any ‘additional need’ (DCSF, 2012, p.84). Professionals in health or education could have implemented the Common Assessment Framework (CAF) with ‘informed consent’ (CWDC, 2012, p. 20).

Performing a CAF would have identified Sam’s additional needs as above and beyond universal services (CWCD, 2012). The CAF is a combination of ‘integrated frontline’ (CWCD, 2012, p. 8) service provision that is incorporated into ‘statutory guidance’ (CWCD, 2012, p. 8) of the Children Act 2004 under section 10 (multi-agency collaboration) and section 11 (protection and promotion of children) (CWCD, 2012, p. 8). Significantly, the local authority, health and education ignored Angela’s concerns and displayed an ‘individualised approach’ (Davis and Smith, 2012, p. 14) to Sam and his family. This may have been because of the ‘rationing’ (Davis and Smith, 2012, p. 14) of services in social care. As a result of numerous local authorities losing fifty per cent of their child in need budget (Community Care, 2011). Professionals involved should have endeavoured to ‘understand’ the ‘life issues’ (Davis and Smith, 2012: p. 14) for Sam and contacted health and education professionals that Working Together to Safeguard Children (DCSF, 2010) requires.

As an alternative, to an individualised approach the social worker concerned could have employed a selection of ‘politically nuanced holistic models’ (Davis and Smith, 2012, p. 18) to the intervention. These models according to Davis and Smith (2012) would allow the social worker to recognise that they are not the total expert in situations and accept that there are many ‘forms of expertise’ (Davis and Smith, 2012, p. 18). The social worker should have identified Angela as the expert on her family and listened to her concerns. Dolan et al. (2006, 2008) have differentiated several processes to assist the practitioner in ‘family support work’ (Dolan et al. 2006 cited in Davis and Smith, 2012, p. 19). They propose that by identifying a service user’s ‘resilience’ and ‘strength’ (Dolan et al. 2006, 2008 cited in Davis and Smith, 2012, p.19) a promotion of partnership working will be established for all individuals concerned including the child. (Dolan et al. 2006 cited in Davis and Smith, 2012 p 19.). A social worker should be accessible and listen to a child’s requests and views while considering their ‘well-being’ and ‘safety’ (Dolan et al. 2006, 2008 cited in Davis and Smith, 2012, p.19). This is a requirement under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 (CA 1989) as amended by section 53 of the Children Act 2004 (CA 2004) to determine the ‘wishes and feelings’ of the child (http://www.legislation.gov.uk).

Applying an ecological perspective to Sam would have facilitated the practitioner into recognising the impact of ‘poor housing’ on his ‘mind, body and emotions’ (Davis and Smith, 2012, p.16). An opportunity was missed by social services to engage the family with a ‘minimum intervention’ service (Davis and Smith, 2012, p. 18) and connect Angela via a ‘systems approach’ with some ‘community resources and networks’ (Mantle and Backwith, 2010, p. 2381).

The Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families recognises the implications of poverty and is determined to ‘tackle the root causes of poverty and social exclusion’ (DoH et al. 2000, p.1). However, Brewer et al. (2009) challenge this claim, and note that in 2007 – 08; poverty for individuals in the United Kingdom had increased to a ‘total of 13.5 million’. This has led to the highest levels of ‘income inequality’ since 1961 (Brewer et al., 2009 cited in Mantle and Backwith, 201, p. 2380). It is vital therefore that whilst conducting an assessment that the social worker does not exhibit ‘poverty blindness’ (Becker, 1997; Dowling, 1999 cited in Gupta and Blewett, 2008, p. 462) and has awareness of the effects poverty and how it can impact on parenting abilities. Service users in a collaborative research project were asked their views about what makes a good social worker. They wanted practitioners who were ‘open and honest and could ‘demonstrate an understanding that society as well as individuals can create neglect’ (Gupta and Blewett, 2008, p. 465).

The ‘Listening to troubled families’ report was deficient in its lack of reference to poverty or ‘social inequality’ (Palmer, 2010 cited in Trevithick, 2012, p.77). It did not discuss the ‘multiple forms of oppression’ (Hick and Murray, 2009, p. 88) that ‘dominant structures’ (Hick and Murray, 2009, p. 88) create. Hick and Murray, (2009, p. 88) suggest that the social worker who uses a structural perspective would seek to emphasise the ‘class analysis’ of the oppressed individual by the forces of dominant ‘economic power’ (Hick and Murray, 2009, p. 88). They posit that this perspective has been influenced by a ‘feminist analyses’ and the ‘patriarchal’ (Hick and Murray, 2009, p. 88) effects on family dynamics and work environments. As most social workers and the recipients of services are women (Balloch, 1997; Howe, 1986) a social worker could utilise a feminist perspective to inform their practice and advocate for fairer ‘rights and opportunities’ (Orme, 2009, p. 67) with these particular families. The social worker should be politically enlightened to enable them to campaign for the ‘collective interests of working-class’ (Orme, 2009, p. 67) groups. Leading to a recognition of full ‘economic and social rights’ (Bryson, 1999 cited in Orme, 2009, p.67).

Nicole who was a participants from the report had been raped at the age of four by her half-brother, started suffering ‘depression, it all got too much’ (Casey, 2012, 34) and was subjected to domestic abuse and rape by an ex-partner. Nicole was consuming alcohol and a ‘speed addict’ and was presenting with ‘anti-social behaviour’ (Casey, 2012, p.34). Research from Widom Spatz and Sturmhofel (2001) note that the experience of being abused as a child can increase a person’s likelihood for alcohol related problems as an adult. It could be hypothesised that Nicole was using alcohol and drugs as a form of self-medication and to gain control of an oppressive life situation. Research indicates, that ‘Dylan’ Nicole’s son or children of parents who abuse substances may be at risk of poor attachments to caregivers (Brooks and Rice 1997; Klee et al. 1998; Howe et al. 1999; Flores 2001), difficult interpersonal family relationships (Cleaver et al. 1999; Velleman and Orford 1999; Harbin and Murphy 2000) and a substantially increased risk of violence (Brookoff et al. 1997). The chronicles of children whose parents have or are misusing substances have been procured by an evaluation of research studies by Kroll, (2004). Themes that emerged from the research studies were ‘attachment, separation and loss’ (Kroll, 2004, 133) children spoke about being second best and keeping secrets. ‘…When you see ’em do drugs long enough you know you’re not number one; you know you’re always put second and the drugs are put first…’ (‘Jessica’ aged 15, in Howland Thompson 1998, cited in Kroll, 2004, 133). The research highlighted the children’s losses and lack of ‘reliable, consistent and responsive’ (Kroll, 2004, 133) parenting, their lack of ‘confidence’ and self-worth, (Kroll, 2004, 133) and the loss of an ordinary life in which they would be able to invite friends home or attend school consistently (Cork 1969; Howland Thompson 1998). In the children’s narratives they wanted professionals to appreciate their ‘hurt on the inside’ (Kroll, 2004, 136) and not to be ‘invisible’ (Kroll, 2004, 136).

The local authority are compelled under the CA 1989 part III to support families who need help bringing up children and work in partnership with caregiver’s (DoH et al., 2000). However, after the implementation of the CA 1989 it was discovered through Messages from Research (DoH, 1995) that a concentration on ‘child protection’ had created a dearth of services for the child in need (Morris, 2012, p. 14). This was supported by the Victoria Climbié inquiry as Laming (2003, p. 6) asserted that usually the safest protection for the child was ‘…timely intervention of family support services…’ In response to the inquiry, the Green Paper, Every Child Matters (2003) was introduced (Parton, 2006, p. 151). Its remit was to focus on ‘universal’ (Parton, 2006, p. 152) services for all children and ‘targeted’ (Parton, 2006, p. 152) services for children with any further supplementary needs.

The Laming inquiry (2003) made recommendations that were instigated by New Labour who envisaged service provisions that were based around ‘preventative services and early intervention’ (Driscoll, 2009, 335). These services took the form of ‘Sure Start, the Children’s Fund and Connexions (Morris, 2012, 16). However, the provisions that New Labour implemented failed to engage the families’ with the most enduring and ‘complex’ (Morris, 2012, p.16) requirements. Therefore, like the preceding CA 1989 which had ignored ‘children in need’ (Morris, 2012, p. 17) and the subsequent Children Act (2004) which had failed to reach more complex families, ‘policy drivers’ had become ‘confusing’ and sometimes ‘contradictory’ (Morris, 2012: 17).

The debate around ‘early intervention’ (DoH et al., 2000: xi) have evolved from New Labour’s ‘modernisation’ agenda and their attempt to meet the demands of a ‘globalised economy’ (Frost and Parton, 2009, 25). However, these concepts can be traced back, to when the Conservative government who had initially gained power in 1979 (http://news.bbc.co.uk) and introduced managerialism and a mixed economy of care into the organisation of social services departments (Frost and Parton, 2009). As well as promoting ‘economy, efficiency and effectiveness’ (Frost and Parton, 2009, p. 24) the Conservatives were concerned with encouraging services that were ‘transparent’ and ‘accountable’ (Frost and Parton, 2009, p. 25). When New Labour was elected in 1997 they ‘adopted’ (Chard and Ayre, 2010: p. 96) many of the Conservative policies and implemented ‘performance targets, inspection regimes and league tables’ (Frost and Parton, 2009, p. 25). However, Ferguson (2004, p. 4) posits that New Labour went further and ‘has embraced the market with a passion and enthusiasm which often leaves the Conservatives standing’ Numerous commentators (Dixon et al., 1998, cited in Chard and Ayre, 2010, p. 95) assert that managerialism has been regarded as a market driven ‘solution’ to a public service ‘problem’. Lonne et al. (2008) argue that a managerialist perspective does not appreciate the significance of forming trustful, professional, relationships with service users. Ferguson (2010) clarifies this as the absence of social work involvement with children and families as social workers have been increasingly drawn into an office based environment. Therefore, any direct contact with families is limited with the social worker orchestrating services and fulfilling administration duties. This leaves no time according to Peckover et al. (2008) for interpersonal communication between the practitioner and family. Broadhurst et al. (2010, p. 363) bemoans this outcome as ‘the space between help-seeker and help-provider is steadily widening’. Munroe (2011) in her final report on child protection stressed that professionals have found it increasingly difficult to sustain any direct work with children and their families. This is because of the burden of ‘statutory guidance, targets and local rules’ (Munroe, 2011, p. 6). Laming (2009: 10) reiterates these claims by asserting that ‘…ultimately the safety of a child depends on staff having the time, knowledge and skill to understand the child or young person and their family circumstances’.

In conclusion this essay has explored the Listening to Troubled Families (Casey, 2012) report and as Levitas (2012, p. 4) notes ‘The problem is not the research itself, but its misuse’ and the Coalitions attempt to mislead the public.


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