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Social work theory

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Title: Framework for practice, exploring social work theory.

The case throws up several interconnected issues. The essay will examine these through the lens of two different theories, on one hand the ecological theory of human development by Bronfenbrenner (1979), and on the other hand, the social model of disability as it has been proposed by social work theorists over the last three decades (Oliver 1996). The case demands a decision to be made and theories at best have a contributory role to play in the decision making process (Banks 2006: 27).

A brief list of the issues involved in the case should heighten the awareness for the complexity of the case. First, there is the question about the levels of parental competence and capacity for effective parenting given that both parents suffer from learning disabilities. Second, social workers need to evaluate the chances that Stan and Cassie will be able to provide a stable parental environment that has significant advantages over that provided by Cassie’s parents Marian and Bill. There are further issues surrounding the rights of parents and the rights of the child which may be perceived as mutually exclusive. Additionally, social workers will have to assess the impact of changes in location and in providing a generally supportive and protective environment which a relocation of the child to her natural parents may precipitate.

Bronfenbrenner was concerned to construct a theory of human development that recognised the dynamic interconnectedness of environmental and biological factors. He envisaged this theory to ‘lie at the point of convergence among the disciplines of the biological, psychological. and social sciences’ (Bronfenbrenner 1979:13). In a later article he elaborated his notion of the role of external environments and called for a new focus of psychological research in human development. His theory, so he argued, was uniquely suited to map out the various factors that influence child development as they were encapsulated in the institution of the family (Bronfenbrenner 1986).

Bronfenbrenner suggests that there are three dimensions which represent the units of psychological inquiry. There is, firstly, what he calls the immediate environment of human engagements (mesosystems) in which the child as well as the parents ‘actively participate’ (Bronfenbrenner 1979: 25). It comprises the entire range of activities, roles and interpersonal relations that are ‘experienced by the developing person’ (Bronfenbrenner 1979: 22) and the interconnections amongst several of these patterned behavioural structures. Bronfenbrenner proposed that mesosystems are only the intermediate structures that connect the individual to the next highest level of environmental contexts. He calls this the exosystem which characteristically does ‘not involve the developing person as an active participant, but in which events occur that affect… what happens’( Bronfenbrenner 1979: 25) in the mesosystem.

Yet, how does this contribute to a more grounded and fairer decision in the given case? Bronfenbrenner’s main thesis, implicit in the model of ecological development, is that external events do have a direct impact on child development even if they seem to be initially non-quantifiable to an outside observer and within static models. Meso- exo- and chrono-systems influence the family context, of which the chronological and exogenous dimensions are most relevant in the given context of this case. In a detailed article in which he defends his ecological model of human development and supports it with research evidence, he singles out several aspects of family existence which determine directly and noticeably child development (Bronfenbrenner 1986). Amongst others he dwells on employment (maternal and paternal), schooling, community involvement and parental networks of assistance as well as peer group involvement and pressure for the child. We may usefully add case worker-parent relationships as well as the wider policy context in which social workers operate in assessing child care cases (Calder 2003).

Bronfenbrenner analyses research evidence within his theoretical framework and against the background of social work objectives such as educational and occupational achievement of children (in later life) as well as stability of living environments (Bronfenbrenner 1986: 726). Within the UK context that is framed by the DDA and the Code of Practice one would have to add the respect for individual human beings, justice and individual rights to lead a fulfilled life, self-determination, as well as the eradication of discrimination on grounds of ethnic differences or disability which has been part of the policy agenda of New Labour (Garrett 2003; Banks 2006).

Bronfenbrenner’s model now allows a social worker to theorise the following aspects in the adjudication of opposing claims to raise Rebecca. First, they may assess the chances that Cassie or Stan find/remain in employment which evidently has a positive impact on child development (Parsons 1982). Second they may take into account the resources of support that are available to Stan and Cassie within their own family as well as the wider community (Hall 1997, Bronfenbrenner 1986). Thirdly, they would like to assess the relevance of being raised by their biological parents or by the grandparents. And social workers may look at the wider family context in which crucial activities such as schooling and after school care provision may be provided when Rebecca lives either with Stan and Cassie or her grandparents. Additionally, they may consider that parents often provide role models for children and that this may positively influence the child’s self-esteem and confidence in social settings (Parsons 1982).

Furthermore, Bronfenbrenner’s theory allows social workers to conceptualise singular events as having a long term impact on child development. The ecological theory of human development urges assessors to consider the influence that disruptions to the normal life of a child, such as the relocation to Rebecca’s natural parents may have on her chances to future educational achievement (cf. also Olsen 2003). Bronfenbrenner subsumes these factors under the chrono-system which conceptualises sudden alterations in the child’s environment in its long term effects (Bronfenbrenner 1986). Bronfenbrenner argues that child development needs to be understood in a ‘life course perspective’ in which sequences of developmental transitions can have cumulative effects (Bronfenbrenner 1979).

Like all guiding theories of psychological development that are supposed to assist in decision making, however, Bronfenbrenner’s model fails to provide a ranking of values which could help determine the eventual outcome of decisions in the long run. He points in his work to convincing evidence that parental employment is a significant factor in normal child development, as well as the importance of social networks on which parents can rely for support in raising the child (Bronfenbrenner 1986). What his model cannot do is to contrast meaningfully these indisputably desirable factors of child development with the equally valuable wider goals of public policy such as reinstating parental rights to people with disabilities.

The social model of disability represented a major landmark in changing the theoretical assumptions that informed public attitudes to disabilities (Oliver 1992; Hedlund 2000). Articulated by social scientists such as Finckelstein in the 1970s, the social model was proposed in contradistinction to the medical model of disability which located the origin of disability in a lack of conformity to normal functioning (Oliver 1992). Theorists who challenged this model prevalent in disability theory and practice argued that there are two dimensions to disability. On one side there is a physical impairment, while on the other hand society is structured and organised in such a way as to disallow disabled people to carry out certain functions which they are certainly capable of (Oliver 1992; Olsen 2003; Morris 1993).

The social model thus places the onus of change on society which hitherto has prevented people from functioning to their full abilities. The critical edge of the social model is apparent (Hughes 1997). Disabled people certainly have the capacity to being a parent if society removes the obstacles to effective parenting that is has erected over centuries and provides the support to disabled parents that they are entitled to. Parental competence is something that should be assumed on the side of disabled parents rather than working on the presumption that a physical impairment renders disabled people incapable to exercising certain functions in society.

This model thus shifts the burden of proof to society and therefore stipulates that fundamental rights of individuals, such as having the chance of being a parent, can only be infringed if it can be shown that significant harm comes to the child through neglect, injury or considerably diminishing of the opportunities for the child. Once again, this must be judged not against the capacities of disabled parents to raise a child under circumstances of prevalent discrimination against them by society but under conditions of equality with able bodied persons (Morris 1993).

In this framework the tables are turned. Arguments in favour of Rebecca being raised by her grandparents must show a significant violation of her rights to have a fulfilled life when living with her biological parents or the chance that effective parenting is not possible in a household that comprises a father and mother both suffering from learning disabilities. Although the child’s welfare is paramount this principle cannot be assumed to contradict and ultimately to override the right to raise your own children simply because society may not provide an environment free from discrimination against disabled people which may impinge on the abilities of the Stan and Cassie to provide a stable and caring family setting.

There exists a comprehensive assessment framework for child welfare cases like this and one of the first principles is that the natural family is the best place in which children develop and grow up (Calder 2003). Doubts about the parenting competence and capacity of Stan and Cassie thus heavily draw on the medical model of disability which, within the policy context of the UK, has been rejected as a valid framework for assessments of disability care.

Both theories have advantages and disadvantages for the assessment process in the given case. Bronfenbrenner’s model allows case managers to take into account events that may considerably disrupt Rebecca’s life and, in the long run, impinge on her abilities to perform well in educational and vocational settings. In contrast, the social model of disability raises awareness for the basic principles of equity and fairness in making decisions in a social care context. It urges social workers to understand the particular situation of Stan and Cassie as determined to a large extent by society. Lack of resources and support in raising Rebecca would therefore have to be tackled by the social welfare system in contribution to placing both parents in a profoundly unjust situation in the first place.

While Bronfenbrenner’s theory may incline social workers more towards deciding in favour of Rebecca’s grandparents, the social model of disability reiterates strongly the need of the social welfare system to remove all obstacles to disabled parenting so that Stan and Cassie can raise their own child.


Banks, S. (2006). Ethics and Values in Social Work. Third Edition. Basingstoke: Palgrave

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1986). Ecology of the Family as a Context for Human Development: Research Perspectives. Developmental Psychology, 22, 6, 723-742

_______________ (1979). The Ecology of Human Development. Experiments by Nature and Design. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press

Garrett, P. M. (2003). Swimming with Dolphins: The Assessment Framework, New Labour and New Tools for Social Work with Children and Families. British Journal of Social Work, 33, 441-463

Hall, S. K. e.a. (1997). Caseworkers’ Perceptions of Protective Services Clients’ Parental Functioning: Toward an Ecological Integration. Children and Youth Services Review, 19, 3, 179-194

Hedlund, M. (2000). Disability as a Phenomenon: a discourse of social and biological understanding. Disability and Society, 15, 5, 765-780

Hughes, B. and Paterson, K. (1997). The Social Model of Disability and the Disappearing Body: towards a sociology of impairment. Disability and Society, 12, 3, 325-340

Morris, J. (1993). Independent Lives? Community Care and Disabled People. Basingstoke: McMillan

Oliver, M. (1996). Understanding Disability. From Theory to Practice. Basingstoke: MacMillan

Olsen, R. and Harriet Clarke (2003). Parenting and Disability. Disabled parents experiences of raising children. Bristol: The Policy Press

Parsons, J. E., Terry F. Adler and Caroline M. Kczala (1982). Socialisation of Achievement Attitudes and Beliefs: Parental Influences. Child Development, 53, 310-321

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