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Summer Institute Week 3: Risk, resilience and uncertainty

In many ways, week 3 was an exploration of the human condition and how, as social workers, we understand, approach and resolve questions relating to abuse and neglect in relationships.

More than a dozen experts by experience joined us this week, who shared their knowledge of interpersonal violence, abuse and neglect from the perspectives of both parents and children.

On Monday, Briony Williamson and Judith Vickress of SafeLives introduced participants to the topic of domestic abuse with a comprehensive lecture. After the lecture, women from the Mothers Apart from their Children project in Huddersfield generously shared their stories and wisdom with participants in small seminar groups, creating an environment for open and honest conversations about social work practice. This provided a unique perspective of domestic abuse and mothers’ experiences of social work, bringing the theoretical and research framework to life.

Following this introduction, grounded in the lived experiences of parents, to a key area of knowledge for child and family social work, participants were then introduced to the ways that research, professional judgement and strengths-based approaches are employed to think about harm and future risk to children. Reflecting on their learning from Monday, participants examined in detail the cognitive and organisational biases that can influence risk assessment when working with the emotive realities so powerfully shared by Mothers Apart from their Children.

On Wednesday, in small seminar groups, participants explored their own relationships to risk and certainty and began to grapple with the complexities of predicting future outcomes. They were introduced to systemic formulation and progressive hypothesising as an underpinning framework for social work assessment on the Frontline programme, and began to shape an assessment interview from their working hypotheses.

In the latter half of the week, participants explored the complex territory of child sexual abuse and again confronted the complexities of the human condition. A challenging lecture by Alison Domakin, Principal Practice Tutor, opened the day. She asked participants to look in detail at the contexts and experiences of sexual abuse. Joined again by experts by experience, participants were invited not just to consider the immediate experience of abuse but the lifelong consequences, and crucially the journey to healing and restored power. Kev Curran’s work as Director of Inspired Youth made clear the importance of continuing work with survivors of abuse and the power of storytelling. To find out more about how Inspired Youth embraces creativity as a vehicle to give young people a platform to have their voices heard, check out their website.

This led beautifully into Friday, and a chance to end the week with an exploration of strengths, hope and resilience. Kicking off the day with a keynote lecture from Head of West Midlands Region, Lisa Hackett, we looked critically at our approach to working with parents and how our relational positioning can oppress or empower.

Parental resistance – is it a sign of denial or is it resilience? This is not an easy question, but essential to ask, and it was movingly illustrated by peer mentors from the Trevi House Aftercare Programme. Mel, Tash, Shanny and Helen joined us for the day, sharing their experiences of social workers, statutory assessment and intervention for better or worse. Participants and tutors alike had to take a hard look at how social workers are approaching parents and were reminded of the importance of dignity and respect in all social work relationships. Participants considered what a strengths-based assessment looks like and in small group seminars each woman shared her story and the difference that hope made to them and their children.

After an intellectually and emotionally demanding week, Dr Louise Grant, Head of Academic Studies, led a playful, energising and research-informed plenary on resilience and the need to put on our own oxygen masks before helping others. We all left the week exhausted but also energised and enthused with the possibility of the future.