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Critically evaluate the contributions of theory, research, legislation and policy to social work practice in relation to one aspect of practice in one of the following: Children and Families.
In this essay I am going to critically evaluate the contributions of theory, research, legislation and policy to social work practice in relation to looked after children who experience neglect. Erickson and Egeland (2002) argue that there are five types of neglect; emotional, medical, physical, mental health and educational neglect and these can all impact negatively on a child. I have chosen to concentrate on middle aged children around the ages of five to ten years of age who have experienced neglect because neglect is one of the most identified forms of child abuse and can have serious effects on children of this age (Mennon et al, 2010). According to the DfES (2014) 62% of looked after children are looked after because of abuse or neglect. Therefore it is important to evaluate how theory, research, legislation and policy can contribute to social workers understanding of neglect and how social workers can support children in overcoming these effects. I appreciate that children who become looked after due to neglect often experience other forms of abuse and these can have further negative effects on children (Mennon et al, 2010), however because this essay aims to be prescriptive rather than exhaustive I have chosen to concentrate on middle aged children who experience neglect.
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Research has made a significant contribution to social work practice in relation to looked after children who experience neglect. The majority of research concentrating on children who experience neglect (Mennon et al, 2010; Trickett and McBride Chang, 1995; Hildyard and Wolfe, 2002) has tended to show that the risk factors associated with neglect can significantly hinder children’s growth and development. Children who are neglected tend to live in poverty, with a lack of parental care, parents may be misusing substances, parents may have mental health problems, one parent may be experiencing domestic violence, and poor prenatal and postnatal care can all lead to a child being neglected by their parents (Pelton, 1994). Research has shown that children who are neglected tended to have the lowest academic grades (Eckenrode, Laird and Dorris). Studies have found that children of school age who were neglected showed social and behavioural problems, they were socially withdrawn, unpopular with other children and socially isolated (Erickson and Egeland, 2002 and Trickett and McBride Chang, 1995). Hildyard and Wolfe (2002) found that children who were severely neglected impacted detrimentally on children’s emotional well-being. Therefore, the factors associated with neglect can impact negatively on a child’s normal development and have adverse effects, which is why it is vital for social workers to understand the impact of neglect on children so they can target the most effective interventions to help children overcome the effects.
However, it could be argued that there is a lack of research that specifically relates to children who are looked after and experience neglect. Many children who are neglected who are involved with child protection services will have interventions targeted at them in order to prevent neglect from continuing and children do not always become looked after. For example, a child who is being neglected because their parents have substance misuse problems may not end up being taken in to care because the parents seek help for their problems. Or a parent who is being abused may move away from the abusive partner which enhances their ability to parent the child. Much of the research tends to concentrate on how social workers in child protection services can help families where children are experiencing neglect. Arguably therefore there is a lack of research which specifically looks at how the two compounding issues of neglect and being looked after impacts on children.
Despite this, the research exploring the effects of neglect on children help social workers understand the impact of neglect on children who are looked after and how this hinders their development which they can then consider when undertaking assessments. This can then help social workers decide what intervention is needed to promote a child’s health and well-being. Attachment theory for instance is invaluable in understanding why looked after children experience some of the adverse effects that they do (Trickett and McBride Chang, 1995). Howe argues that attachment theory is “very useful to child welfare and adoption workers” (1995: 136) because it can explain children’s behaviour which can help social workers target the most effective interventions (Howe, 2005). Attachment theory, developed by John Bowlby, argued that children need “secure attachments to their mother in order for them to be stable individuals in later life” (Dunk-west, 2013: 42). Attachment theory suggests that children who grow up without a secure caregiver have difficulty forming stable social relationships in later life. The lack of a warm and secure relationship with a caregiver during early childhood can lead to a child experiencing adverse effects, such as delinquent behaviour and depression (Howe, 1995).
Therefore children who have been neglected are likely to have insecure attachments because of the lack of care and nurturance they received growing up (Hildyard and Wolfe, 2002). Attachment theory can therefore contribute significantly to social work practice because it helps social workers in their assessments to understand the child’s needs. It also helps social workers understand the need to place looked after children who have experienced neglect in stable placements so they can develop secure attachments to their new caregivers (Howe, 2005; Cocker and Allain, 2008). This can support the emotional and social development of children and is central in building resilience (Crawford and Walker, 2007). To ensure placements are stable and secure attachments can develop; social workers must carry out good quality assessments and develop robust care plans (Cocker and Allain, 2008). Social workers must then frequently assess children in their new placements and assess the quality of their new attachments with their new caregivers, continually updating the care plan to ensure they are supporting the child’s social and emotional development (Cocker and Allain, 2008).
However, Dunk-West (2013) argues that whilst attachment theory is important, it is vital to assess children within their social contexts. The inequalities looked after children face can be more effectively explained by using an ecological approach. Walter (2007) argued in his study that a combination of risks and multiple stressors can lead to adverse effects for looked after children and therefore a holistic approach such as the ecological model can help social workers to do that. Using Brofenbrenner’s (1979) theory for example, within the micro system a social worker could assess that a looked after child who has been neglected is highly likely to have had very little parental support and there may have been family conflict and this could have been because of characteristics within the exo system of a child’s life. Their exo system is likely to have been characterized by poverty and living in a deprived neighbourhood. For example, parents may argue because of the stress of living in poverty or engage in excessive drinking or drug taking to try and cope with the stress of living in poverty which then affects their ability to parent effectively and provide children with adequate support or supervision.
Furthermore, within the macro system looked after children are aware that society perceives them as a group of children that are deemed as at risk (Walter, 2007). For example, in Care and Prejudice (2009) an Ofsted study that interviewed three hundred children in care found that half the children in their study felt that the public held negative stereotypes about them, such as being delinquent and troublemakers. Looked after children felt heavily discriminated against and felt that this impacted on their ability to do well academically, build friendships and gain employment (Care and Prejudice, 2009). Therefore, it could be argued using an ecological approach that looked after children who experience neglect have poorer outcomes than other children because of the multiple social and environmental factors that impact on parents capacity to parent effectively (McAuley and Davis, 2009).
It could be argued that attachment theory is matriarchal in nature. For example, Bowlby’s work in particular which was developed in the 1950s is arguably sexist because the primary caregiver is assumed to be the mother (Beckett, 2006). Yet more recent work on attachment theory has reframed attachment as not meaning attachment to the mother. In modern society as more women have entered the labour market, children are increasingly taken care of by multiple figures; this can include the father, childminders or grandparents (Dunk West, 2013; Nicolsen et al, 2006). Children tend to attach and bond to multiple key figures, male and female (Beckett, 2006).
Despite this, research does tend to demonstrate how fathers are marginalized by social workers in children services and are poorly engaged. This can be particularly detrimental for children who are looked after because social workers potentially lose a valuable asset for children (Brigid and Taylor, 2000). Brigid and Taylor (2000) also argued that legislation and policy does not contribute effectively enough to guide social workers in how to challenge traditional gender assumptions, nor does legislation give clear guidance for engaging fathers. For instance, it was only from 2003 that fathers who were not married to the mother of their child acquired parental responsibility automatically even if he was on the birth certificate. Prior to this change in legislation a father could only acquire parental responsibility by a written agreement with the mother or by applying to court (Cocker and Allain, 2008). Therefore, it could be argued that the earlier work of attachment theory has heavily influenced social workers in children’s services. The importance of the attachment to the mother has been persistent and as a result social workers have often marginalized fathers (Brigid and Taylor, 2000). Attachment theory has therefore arguably contributed negatively to looked after children because social workers are still heavily influenced by its matriarchal nature.
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Legislation however underpins how social workers should support looked after children and therefore makes a huge contribution to looked after children who experience neglect, in particular the Children’s Act 1989 and Children’s Act 2004. Under section 22 of the Children Act 1989 there is a duty on the local authority ‘to safeguard and promote the child’s welfare’ (Branye and Carr, 2013: 291) it looks after. The Children’s Act 2004 added an additional duty on local authorities to promote the child’s educational achievements. When a child is subject to a care order or interim care order, social workers become the looked after child’s “corporate parent” and share parental responsibility with the birth parents. Therefore the local authority becomes responsible for a child’s care and achieving positive outcomes (Cocker and Allain, 2008). For example, ‘Section 7 of the Education Act 1996 states that parents have a duty to ensure their children are suitably educated’ (Cocker and Allain, 2008: 138), social workers as a corporate parent therefore share this duty with the birth parents (Cocker and Allain, 2008). As a result of this legislation looked after children are given a designated teacher who ensures they have a personal education plan which sets out developmental and educational needs and identifies targets (Cocker and Allain, 2008). Personal education plan meetings are then held twice a year to assess the child’s educational progress. Research has shown that looked after children tend to achieve lower grades at school than their peers and has therefore arguably heavily influenced legislation.
In addition, local authorities have a duty to monitor children’s developmental progress and so children receive medicals once a year. This is all part of safeguarding and promoting the child’s welfare. CAMHS involvement may also be necessary if the child has additional therapeutic needs (Cocker and Allain, 2008). The Children’s Act 2004 made it mandatory for different agencies to work collaboratively and share responsibility for vulnerable children and this includes looked after children so social workers have a duty to work with a range of professionals in order to promote the well being of children. Legislation is therefore central to working with looked after children as it mandates how social workers should support looked after children.
Despite parental responsibility being shared, the local authority can overrule birth parents but social workers must work in partnership with parents or anybody else with parental responsibility and consult them when making any decisions regarding the child’s welfare (Cocker and Allain, 2008). However, partnership working with parents in practice can be extremely difficult for social workers when parents do not agree with their decisions regarding the child. For example, a number of studies have highlighted how challenging it is for social workers to work in partnership with parents and take their wishes into account when a decision is made to permanently remove a child (Clifford and Burke, 2004; Charlton et al, 1998). Working in partnership with parents therefore becomes extremely challenging for social workers as they try to take the parent’s wishes in to account but also trying to act in the best interests of the child and gather evidence to explain why the child should not return home. Furthermore, Wigley et al’s (2006) study found that social workers often faced challenges when trying to collaborate with schools, as they either did not implement personal education plans or they did not communicate effectively with social workers which made it difficult to work in partnership with educational professionals.
In addition, social workers under Section 22 of the Children’s Act 1989 must also consult the child about their wishes before any decision is made and this is a key principle of the Children’s Act 1989. However, a number of studies have found that children felt they were not listened to by social workers. They often felt powerless and had very little say about their placements (Morgan, 2006; Wigley et al, 2006). It is vital for children to feel listened to so they can develop a sense of self-efficacy (Schofield and Beek, 2006) which Rutter (1985) suggests is a key factor in building resilience. It could be argued however that in many cases the child could not understand why they were being moved to a different placement and did not understand that social workers were trying to act in their best interests. Therefore, legislation although good in principle, is arguably not always effectively put in to social work practice in relation to looked after children.
Care Matters: Time for change (DfES, 2007) is a major policy framework for looked after children and is similar to legislation because it stresses the importance of improving the educational, health and emotional needs of children (Cocker and Allain, 2008). In particular, Care Matters suggests that educational attainment needs to be improved, looked after children should be prioritised in school admissions, health outcomes for looked after children should be improved, and placements need to be more local and stable and this can be delivered through high quality assessment and care planning (DfES, 2007). In addition, Care Matters suggests that children should be helped to engage in leisure activities and hobbies, which can help children to build their self-esteem and build support networks and friendships. Rutter (1985) suggested that a sense of self-esteem and confidence is vitally important to help children build resilience. Jaffee et al (2007) defines resilience as “achieving normal development in the face of considerable adversity”. Therefore, policy has made a vital contribution to social work practice in relation to looked after children.
However, with local authorities facing a fourth year of cuts to funding and with increasing numbers of children going in to care (McNicoll and Stothart, 2014) it could be argued that it is causing increasing pressure for social workers to implement policy effectively in to practice. In particular, some local authorities arehaving to make cuts to foster placements making it increasingly difficult for social workers to find high quality placements for children who have high level and complex needs (McNicoll and Stothart, 2014). This makes it extremely challenging for social workers to find placements that are local and stable for children.
To conclude, it is evident that theory, research, legislation and policy have all made a major contribution to social work practice in relation to looked after children who experience neglect. Research has heavily influenced legislation and policy, which in turn underpins social work practice in relation to looked after children. In addition, attachment theory has helped social workers to understand why looked after children may behave in the way they do and the ecological approach helps social workers to understand why looked after children experience inequalities and tend to have poorer outcomes than children in the rest of the population. These theories help social workers when carrying out their assessments and finding the most effective interventions to support looked after children who have experienced neglect. However, it is evident that policy and legislation cannot always easily be applied effectively in to practice because of the challenges of working in partnership with birth families who may oppose the child’s permanency plan and children who may not understand that the social worker is acting in their best interests. In addition, attachment theory is arguably quite matriarchal in nature and this has influenced social workers and has resulted in fathers being marginalised. Furthermore, social workers may not have the time or resources to provide the most appropriate support to looked after children and this is a weakness of the ecological approach and policy. Despite this, it is evident that theory, research, legislation and policy have all made a significant contribution to social work practice in relation to looked after children who have experienced neglect.
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