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Doing child-protection social work with parents: what are the barriers in practice?

When asked, most people say they believe in protecting the environment. Yet recycling rates in England remain stubbornly low. Some people may purposefully choose not to recycle because although they believe in environmentalism, they do not think recycling is all that effective. But for most of us, the difference between our professed values and our behaviour could seem a bit embarrassing.

Understanding the relationship between values and behaviour is not straightforward. Over the past three years, as part of a large research team, we have observed directly or listened to audio recordings of more than 600 meetings between child and family social workers, parents, young people and children.

In many cases, we met subsequently with the worker, and more recently their manager too. To reflect on what happened in the session, what skills the worker used and how they balanced the need to develop an empathic and collaborative relationship while remaining purposeful, child-focussed and clear about risk or need. The wider aim of this project is to help coach workers to reflect on and develop their direct work skills, in turn helping to improve the overall quality of the service.

In many of these observations, we heard or saw examples of good partnership-working between parents and practitioners. This might include the development of collaborative plans, reflective listening skills to develop empathy, joint agenda setting or simply an acknowledgement of a shared concern for the child’s well-being and safety. In other sessions, however, we saw something more akin to treating parents as pariahs.

In these examples, workers might sound dismissive of the parent’s knowledge and expertise. They often relied on telling parents what they should do in the best interests of their children, rather than listening and learning. Some parents were threatened that unless they complied with the worker’s plan their child would be made the subject of a child protection plan or even that care proceedings could be initiated.

When reflecting with workers after these more difficult sessions, broadly speaking we found two groups. Those who believed that working in partnership is a fundamental principle of good practice and those who believed that working in partnership is a technique, applicable in some circumstances but not in others.

For those in the first group, how they behaved in the session was out of keeping with their values (much like low recycling rates are out of keeping with a professed belief in environmental protection). There could be many reasons for this – feeling over-worked, personal problems intruding into the workspace, pressure from management and so on. Those in the second group were often more circumspect. Perhaps it was unhelpful to treat the parent as a ‘pariah’ but on the other hand, depending on the situation, perhaps it was necessary, or even positively beneficial, in order to protect the child.

Of course, child and family social workers need to help children and this is their primary responsibility. The question is not whether we should protect children, but how. Typically, it is suggested that we need to strike the right balance between protecting children and supporting families. And certainly, we encountered this attitude frequently, particularly with workers who, in the sessions we observed, had behaved in more authoritarian ways.

But there is another way of considering the relationship between helping children and working with parents. Not as competing priorities to be balanced – a greater focus on one inevitably leading to a lesser focus on the other – but as mutually reinforcing and symbiotic. In other words, that working in partnership with parents is very often (if not absolutely always) the best way of helping children.

Beyond even this, however, what struck us most from our coaching sessions with workers was how few of them said they had the chance to reflect, think and talk about their values and how these translate into practice with different families. For many, they had not had these kinds of discussions since qualifying. One might expect that supervision provides a suitable forum for many, but evidently this is not always the case.

Our values, much like our skills, are shaped significantly by the organisations we work for. Those around us can challenge and reinforce them, whether implicitly or explicitly, and we in turn can challenge or reinforce the values of others.

What kind of language do we use to talk about parents, children and families? What jokes do we tell? What behaviours do we commend and admonish? Is it better, for example, to complete an assessment on time without including the parent’s views or complete it late with the parent’s views included?

Whether we believe working in partnership with parents is a fundamental principle of good practice through which we can help children, or whether we believe in the need for balance, perhaps the best thing we can do is keep talking, keep reflecting and keep challenging one another, not only about what we are doing to help families but why.

This blog post is based on our recent article in the British Journal of Social Work – Doing child protection social work with parents: what are the barriers in practice?