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The following are the skills needed in order to work with parents and with the family as a whole: ability to work in partnership with parents; ability to be honest and open even when the information you have to share is unpleasant or painful; ability to communicate with adults; ability to negotiate; ability to provide counselling, warmth, empathy, understanding; ability to tolerate people’s pain and anger; ability to work effectively with groups.
Two skills will be explained further. Starting with the ability to provide empathic understanding, this relies on the ability of the worker to imagine what the service user may be experiencing, relating it to his/hers experience. Empathy also draws on the ability of the worker to be an active listener.
As for the ability to be honest, it is known that some parents are not always honest with social workers, particularly when there are issues of abuse (Department of Health, 1991a; Reder et al; 1993), but it is important for social workers to honest in all dealings with parents. Sometimes this is difficult particularly when sharing difficult decisions with the parents, such as the decision to hold a child protection conference.
The “process” of child protection work is set out in the Working Together guidance (HM Government, 2006a), which is to be followed in conjunction with the Assessment Framework and any local procedures and protocols. Under s47 of the Children Act 1989, local authorities have a duty to make enquiries when there is reason to believe that a child is suffering or is likely to suffer, significant harm
In the case of Bethany where a section 47 enquiry is being considered, a strategy meeting should be held immediately, involving social workers, police, and any other relevant personnel such as referring professionals or when necessary those with medical or legal expertise. Apart from sharing information, the principle focus of the strategy meeting is on planning. This might include coordinating with the enquiry with any criminal investigation, dealing with any immediate issues of safety, deciding what information may be shared with parents and whether any medical examination are required.
When a child’s name is placed on the child protection register, the conference will appoint a lead professional (usually a local authority social worker) and a core group, comprising family members and relevant professionals who have the responsibility for developing and implementing the child protection plan. This plan will be reviewed at further conferences, initially within three months and six months thereafter. Depending on the degree of risk reduction, these subsequent meetings may decide to remove the child’s name from the register. Research on core groups has identified challenges very similar to those facing conferences, especially in ensuring meaningful participation (Harlow and Shardlow, 2006.)
From their study of a hundred and twenty conferences, Farmer and Owen (1995) argued that the dominant focus was on assessing risk, with minimal time devoted to planning and little subsequent reappraisal. They expressed concern that plans often failed to offer therapeutic help to children or to address the needs of parents (including women subjected to domestic violence). More recent research has suggested that, although practical and therapeutic services are generally appreciated by parents, they are often not forthcoming (CSCI, 2006). In this respect, Scourfield and Welsh (2003) argue that child protection work is dominated by a neo-liberal emphasis on monitoring and exhorting parents to change or face losing their children. Despite these difficulties, and re-abuse rates of 25-30%, studies in 1990s found that in roughly two thirds of cases, children’s wellbeing improved while on the child protection register (DH, 1995).
Failures of communication and co-ordination between professionals have been a recurring theme in child maltreatment “scandals”, but eliminating them has proved a daunting challenge.
One major concern has been to strike a balance between spreading responsibility for child protection as widely as possible while ensuring there are clear lines of accountability. For example, there have been moves to make child protection “everyone’s business” (Scottish Executive,2002; HM Government,2006b). In England and Wales, s11 of theChildren Act 2004 and s175 of the Education Act 2002 created a general duty for a range of public bodies to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. Working Together (HM Government, 2006a: 39-73) sets out various requirements for organisations to nominate key professionals to co-ordinate child protection work at their particular level (Murphy,2004), while the Children Act 2004, s12, creates a duty on professionals to notify any cause for concern to the information-sharing index. Training, especially on an inter-professional basis, has also been recognised as crucial to facilitating communication and co-ordination (Glennie,2007).
Yet, despite the many positive developments in relation to co-ordination, the challenges remain significant (Murphy,2004). Different professional roles and training generate particular “ways of seeing” in respect of assessment and these are likely to be reinforced by agency cultures (Birchall and Hallett,1995). In practice, this often means different thresholds for assessing significant harm and consequent tensions when these views are not shared by others (Stanley et al;2003). Duties to co-operate have co-existed with increasing pressures on individual professionals and agencies and unsurprisingly, it has often proved difficult to engage those for whom child protection is not regarded as part of their “core business” (Francis et al; 2006). Responsibilities have thus tended to remain with social workers, with some evidence that other professionals may seek to avoid involvement in child protection work (Harlow and Shardlow, 2006). Inter-professional relationships are also affected by issues of power and status and may be based on generalised or even stereotypical views of others.
In relation to communication, there are two related challenges to be faced. The first is that confidentiality, which has both interpersonal and professional dimensions. Thus, individual practitioners must address issues of confidentiality in light of their relationship with service users, but professional cultures and agency rules will also shape what information must (not) be kept confidential. A second, broader challenge is to decide from the massive volume of information gleaned which items are to be exchanged, with whom, and in what form, something that ultimately relies on professional judgement but is also influenced by inter personal processes (Reder and Duncan, 2003). Finally, it should be recognised that all the above challenges can be exacerbated by staff turnover and by agency reorganisations.
Reflecting the growing concern not only that resources were directed more to child protection services than to preventive and support services but also that there were weaknesses at strategic and operational levels about how professionals jointly supported children and their families, the government established requirements for inter-agency collaboration in the 2004 Children Act. Under sections 10 and 11 of this Act, the Director of Children’s Services is accountable for collaborative partnerships across agencies involved with the wellbeing of children to assist professionals to coordinate services focused on prevention and early intervention and, where appropriate, to plan and develop joint services.
In March 2007, the government published a review of family policy resulting from an extensive consultation with providers of services, young people and parents to lay the foundation for government spending over a three-year cycle from 2008 (HM Treasury and DFES, 2007). As part of the Every Child Matters agenda, the government is aiming to address the imbalance in the allocation of resources between prevention services and protection services and also to develop a more effective multidisciplinary framework of professional skills to enhance the effectiveness of prevention services.
Two broad aims are to develop the resilience of children to adverse factors in their family and social circumstances and also to address the needs of families “caught in a cycle of low attainment”. The goal is to increase the provision of “preventive” services but where necessary to require resistant families to use the services by setting consequences for parents through forms of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders and Parenting Orders. The intention is to enable local authorities to use additional funding flexibly to develop services provided either directly by the local authority or through multidisciplinary settings such as “extended school” services or children’s centres for younger children. The policy review commissioned four areas of “sub-review”: developing preventive approaches, children and families at risk through “low attainment”; needs of disabled children; needs of young people.
These policy aims will inform not only funding streams to local authorities, child health and education but also expectations about workforce skills developments (www.hm-treasury.gov.uk)
Families say that they value the social worker who helps them find their solutions to family problems. This approach takes into account service users’ anxieties about sharing family information with professionals and harnesses the family’s strengths to build self-confidence and more sustained solutions. The whole family approach, family focused and child centred is central to working with children and their families in a multi-agency setting. Social workers bring a broad knowledge and skills base and are able to move beyond functions into solutions. They need to influence those other agencies surrounding the child to adopt a more collaborative strength-based approach.
An approach that respects the family but does not condone the behaviour towards the child or the child’s behaviour is likely to enable the family to respond to early intervention and to take up services offered rather than being driven to use the services by compulsion. However, social workers cannot at times avoid compulsion, through either a child protection plan or court proceedings. Families need to know what sanctions may follow if there are serious concerns about a child that they do not address. Communication about options and consequences from the outset of intervention is central to good practice. Such clear communication is also needed for other agencies that may be involved. Families and children should not need to repeatedly share with professionals from different settings the difficulties they are experiencing.
A key skill social workers bring to their practice is the capacity to understand the issues from the family’s standpoint. Social workers need to take into account the impact of poverty, social marginalisation, discrimination and poor health on parenting capacity and children’s development. Social workers are the bridge to enabling other professionals to acknowledge the need for services and their responsibility to provide suitable services.
Clear communication is a prerequisite to establishing good partnerships with children, the family and the professionals involved. Work needs to be planned around time to listen, time to reflect and time to establish relationships with the child and the parents at a pace that works for them.
Communication means not only using language that families understand, so that terms familiar to professionals are properly explained and examples given, it also means establishing in what way they wish to share information. This principle needs to be embedded in the practice of all the professionals delivering services to the families. Some families may wish to use an appropriately skilled interpreter. Some may want to share with the social worker the task of making written records or completing assessment forms. Other families may feel unable to say that written records disenfranchise them because of limited literacy skills.
Services plans should be transparent and should clearly set out which agencies are involved, what is being provided, for how long and what are the consequences of not using the services. Plans need to be reviewed regularly and families need to know who has responsibility in multi-agency plans to deal with disagreement, to account for lapses in service provision and to ensure that reviews are held.
For families the government’s proposals under the Every Child Matters agenda create the possibility of improvements in accessing services across agencies. However, joint planning and commissioning will only be effective if parents, families and children are consulted about what services are useful to them. Services delivered through extended schools and children’s centres need to be innovative and harness the skills of the third sector to deliver not only universal services but also services for children with additional and specialist needs.
Social workers and their managers are well placed to drive forward more effective ways of working directly with families: the risk is that processes designed to ensure accountability will create unnecessary barriers for skilled professionals who want to work alongside families to support them to find solutions.
in 2000, the New Labour government published the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and Their Families (DH et al; 2000). The Framework was to be applied to all assessments under the Children Act 1989, whether for children in need (s17) or where “significant harm” was suspected (s47). The Assessment Framework (DH et al; 2000:10-16) sets out the following key principles: Assessments should be child centred, rooted in child development; ecological in their approach; ensure equality of opportunity; involve working with children and families; build on strengths as well as identify difficulties; are inter-agency in their approach to assessment and the provision of services; are a continuing process, not a single event; are carried out in parallel with other action and providing services; are grounded in evidence-based knowledge.
Any assessment of a child and his family which aims to understand what is happening to a child has to take account of a child’s developmental needs, the parenting capacity to respond to those needs, and the wider family and environmental factors. Together these form three systems whose interactions have direct impact on the current and long term wellbeing of a child. The Assessment Framework represents a way of trying to capture the complexity of a child’s world and beginning to construct a coherent approach to collecting and analysing information about each child.
The Framework should be rooted in understandings of child development. Contemporary thinking about children’s needs has evolved over several decades and reflects a mixture of theoretical influences and evidence derived from research studies.Taylor (2004) identifies the following needs: basic physical care, affection, security, stimulation, guidance, control and discipline, responsibility, independence. As assessment has become increasingly rationalised, it has become more common to adopt a “balance sheet” approach, often couched in terms of risk factors i.e. the increased probability of a particular (negative) outcome and protective factors that decrease its likelihood.
An important factor behind the increasing interest in parenting has been a focus on the impact of mental health problems, substance misuse and domestic violence on parents and, in turn, children. Research in the 1990s suggested that these played an important role in many child welfare cases, especially when present in combination, but that they were neither well understood nor addressed in practice (Cleaver et al; 1999). They are relevant in two main ways. First, background knowledge of the impact is an important factor in decision making and second, there may be particular implications for the process of assessment and how it is managed. While each of these areas has distinctive characteristics, there are also common treads. One is that assessment demands a careful balancing act to avoid over or under reaction.Thus, despite heightened risk to children’s welfare, it is important to recognise that those suffering from mental health and other problems do not necessarily make poor parents, and that the majority of their children grow up without major ill-effects (Cleaver, 2002).
An adult who violently assaults another adult in the home is, in fact, also abusing children who may see, hear or be aware of that violence. Hughes, 1992, found that in 90 per cent of cases of domestic violence, children were in the same or the next room. This “indirect abuse”, is a form of emotional abuse, and actually one of the more severe forms. (Bearing in mind that emotional abuse and neglect are closely related, we might also see it as neglect of the child’s needs.) Children are exposed to feelings of terror, grief, impotence, and to the realisation that adults on whom they may rely for safety, security and protection are either, incapable of protecting even themselves, or, capable of dangerous violence towards those they are supposed to protect (Kelly, 1994:44). Since the implementation of the Adoption and Children Act in December 2005, the Children Act 1989 definition of significant harm has expressly included “impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another”.
A crucial element of the Framework was to emphasise the interconnectedness of the three domains, drawing on the ecological theory of Bronfenbrenner (1979). In essence, Bronfenbrenner construes the factors influencing the child’s development as a series of four concentric circles, which he refers to as systems ranging from the child’s immediate environment to the broadest social context. The microsystem describes any setting where the child is an active participant, typically the family, school, peer group or immediate neighbourhood. The mesosystem comprises relationships between microsystems, for example between home and school. Finally, the macrosystem comprises the broader social environment in which children and families live, including cultural values, customs, economy and laws.
Arguably the most influential theoretical framework within assessment and child social care more broadly is that based on attachment. Originally derived from the work of Bowlby (1953), attachment theory emphasises the importance of relationships between children and parental figures, especially mothers. Bowlby was particularly concerned with the negative consequences of lost or poor attachment which led to “maternal deprivation”. Subsequently, his work attracted criticism for its gendered assumptions and ethnocentricity, but having fallen out of fashion, attachment theory was “rediscovered” during the 1990s (Thoburn, 1999) and its importance was made explicit in the Assessment Framework.
Fahlberg (1994) has defined attachment as “an affectionate bond between two individuals that endures through space and time and serves to join them emotionally”. She argues that the development of attachment occurs through a cycle of “arousal and relaxation”, wherein the child becomes aroused through needs such as food or comfort, but relaxes once these needs are met by the attachment figure. Repetition of the cycle develops trust and a sense of security for the child. Fahlberg also points to a positive interaction cycle, where play and humour make interaction enjoyable and mutually rewarding and attachment is strengthened. The longer-term importance of attachment is that it should provide children with a “secure base” from which to explore the social world and give them an “internal working model” for relationships based on trust. Although open to change through later experiences, these models exert a strong and often enduring influence over the lives of children and adults (Howe,2001).
Needless to say, such processes do not always follow this path and, while a complete absence of attachment is rare, insecure attachment may affect up to half of the population (Howe,2001). Building on Ainsworth et al’s (1978) work, insecure attachments are customarily divided into three categories: anxious avoidant (detached), anxious resistant (ambivalent) and disorganised/controlling. Each is associated with specific attachment behaviours, such as the reaction to separation, and wider patterns of behaviour.
Howe (2003) argues that attachment behaviours reflect how children “make sense of adults” both emotionally and cognitively and are typically adaptive responses to their care environment. Within assessment, therefore, attachment behaviours can give important insights into children’s well-being and development, while the theory may help to explain the factors that lie behind them and to gauge the potential for change. Understanding attachment is particularly pertinent when temporary or permanent removal of a child is being considered, both in terms of recognising the effects of removal and the importance of maintaining contact between children and birth family members including siblings (Sanders,2004). Information on attachment can be gleaned from interviews, direct work with children, from other professionals and perhaps most importantly observation, but as Howe (2003) warns, assessing attachments is a complex task that requires experience and cautious handling.
Explanatory accounts of child maltreatment have emanated from all the major schools of psychology. Their primary focus rests with individual perpetrators, but to a greater or lesser extent they also address ideas of “intergenerational transmission”, examining the ways in which the childhood victims of maltreatment may become perpetrators as adults. Although they enjoy little support, there are also “pre-psychological” theories rooted in biology and ideas of instinct (Corby, 2005:156-158).
Psychodynamic perspectives (broadly derived from Freudian psychology) emphasise developmental stages and the formation of personality as these stages are negotiated (Mc Cluskey and Hooper, 2000). In relation to child maltreatment, attention has focused on how a parent’s own childhood may influence their capacity to recognise and meet children’s needs, whether they have acquired a rigid personality, become easily frustrated or have difficulty in controlling aggression. This is evident in the case of Bethany where behaviour appears at first sight to be neglectful or abusive but seems in fact to be the result of genuine ignorance about the needs of a child or the role of a parent. Some adults may have lacked appropriate role models while growing up; some are very isolated and have little access to sources of advice. When there seems to be a lack of knowledge or of parenting skills, an appropriate form of intervention is education: the provision of advice, information, instruction or role models.
Social learning theory focuses on how behaviour is learned through processes of observation, conditioning and reinforcement. In line with the theory, intervention would focus on identifying these patterns and seeking to modify them through behavioural therapy, perhaps by working on avoiding “triggers” for maltreatment or reinforcing appropriate parental responses. Throughout her childhood, Bethany witnessed violence hence repeating the same behaviour as an adult.
A basic feature of anti discriminatory practice is the ability to see that discrimination and oppression are so often central to the situations social workers encounter. The fact that social work service users are predominantly from disadvantaged groups is unlikely to be seen as a key issue. However, what anti discriminatory practice teaches us is that discrimination and oppression are vitally important matters and, if we are not attuned to recognising and challenging discrimination, we run the risk of, at best condoning it and, at worst exacerbating and amplifying it through our own action.
Overarching both the 1989 and the 2004 Children Act is the 1998 Human Rights Act which requires agencies with responsibilities for child health, education and welfare services to comply with the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights. Of particular relevance is Article 8, respect for private and family life. This Article does not give an absolute guarantee to family life and therefore to services to support a family to bring up their children. It is a “qualified” right, and the State and its agencies have to balance the child’s entitlement to grow up cared for by their family, who may need support services to do so, against the duty to protect the child and, where necessary following a fair and transparent process, to remove the child from the family.
The duty on the Director of the Children’s Services to plan with other agencies to commission and provide support services to promote children’s wellbeing must comply with both international obligation and domestic law to ensure that service provision is non-discriminatory
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