Research into practice

Patrick Ayre reports on a comparative study of
European child protection procedures where parents have mental

In the UK, we face pressing problems where
mental health and child protection meet. The absence of shared
understandings, agendas and priorities often seems to undermine the
effectiveness and coherence of the service that we offer to
families where parental mental health is a problem. The Department
of Health has helpfully recognised the challenges that confront us
by supporting the development of an important new training

Further insight is offered by a recent
multi-national study examining co-operation between services for
community mental health and child protection in 11 states across
Europe. In this project, the same brief case study was considered
by groups of specialist practitioners in each country, who were
asked to explain what they thought would happen and what they would
expect of the supportive services involved. From an examination of
their responses, there emerged a set of common factors which, when
they were present, made a good outcome more likely. These, the
researchers suggest, provide a European model of good practice.

The first of these key factors was
communication and co-operation. At all stages, the quality of
communication was felt to be crucial. The presence of regular
informal contact was often regarded as more important to the
development of a shared understanding than was the existence of
intricately wrought formal channels of communication. It was felt
that “formal meetings, such as case conferences, did not provide a
good opportunity for building collaboration because they were
reactive, crisis-driven and case-specific”.

Unsurprisingly, the availability of resources
was the second key factor in successful collaboration. The most
important single resource was professional time. The British
participants said family support workers, the least qualified
member of the children and families team, would be able to offer
only very limited continuing assistance to the case described by
the researchers. Elsewhere, workers in some countries, such as
Germany and Sweden, said they would deploy intensive family support
teams staffed by fully qualified social workers .

An appropriate response was promoted where
participants shared knowledge about mental health, child welfare
and the services available. The difference between the assessments
made by mental health teams and by child welfare teams proved far
greater in the UK than elsewhere.

A strong network of universal and targeted
services available to support families represents the final element
in the model of good practice. Universal services, such as schools,
GPs or maternal and child health services, are often the first to
become aware that a child has a mentally ill parent. Their response
is often vital. Throughout Europe, these are complemented by
specialist services targeted at situations where the need is more

Reading comparative research can be a little
like unexpectedly catching sight of yourself in a mirror or a CCTV
monitor. You see yourself afresh and do not necessarily like what
you see. As we strive to improve services for children who have a
mentally ill parent, this study gives us a timely opportunity to
reconsider the adequacy of what we have to offer.

– R Hetherington and K Baistow, “Supporting
Families with a Mentally Ill Parent: European Perspectives on
Interagency Co-operation”, Child Abuse Review, 10,

Patrick Ayre is senior lecturer,
department of applied social studies, University of


1A Falkov (ed),
Crossing Bridges: Training Resources for Working with
Mentally Ill Parents and their Children
, Department of Health,

2 R Hetherington, K
Baistow, I Katz, J Mesie, and J Trowell, Welfare of Children
with Mentally Ill Parents: Learning from Inter-Country
, Wiley, 2001

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.