Research into practice

Patrick Ayre looks at new research that warns
against the disadvantages of not working in partnership effectively
with depressed mothers.

Over the past decade, effective partnership
between social workers and parents in the field of child and family
social work has come to be recognised as being of crucial
importance to successful practice. However, a close look at the
research that has informed our thinking during this period suggests
that we have paid much more attention to one side of this
partnership than to the other.

Very useful work has been done on
demonstrating those characteristics of social workers and their
employing agencies that most effectively promote
partnership1. Much less time has been spent looking at
specific factors that may affect the capacity of individual parents
to play a full and active part and at how we can be responsive to
these. Recent research by Michael Sheppard of the University of
Plymouth goes some way towards redressing this imbalance by
studying a group of parents who may potentially suffer serious
disadvantage in the field of partnership unless we attend carefully
to their unique needs.

In choosing his subject, Sheppard invites us
to acknowledge that women are predominantly the primary care givers
of children and that this is overwhelmingly the case in families
receiving social work intervention. He further reminds us that
research has suggested that well over a third of these mothers are
likely to be depressed but that social workers often fail to
identify this.

What we know about depression in general
suggests that it may be difficult for those experiencing it to
participate as full partners in complex and stressful interactions
such as those which tend to characterise child and family social
work. By analysing the partnership process in some detail, this
study helps us to identify which aspects of process are likely to
present the most pressing problems and to consider how best we can

Compared with mothers not suffering
depression, Sheppard found that depressed women scored
significantly worse with respect to their motivation and
confidence, more often feeling unsure of themselves and finding it
“hard to summon the energy to say much” at meetings and
conferences. As a result, they felt that they participated far
less. Indeed over a quarter felt that they took little or no part
in most of the decisions made. Problems were likely to be
particularly complex in situations where children were felt to be
at risk.

What, then, can we learn about the response
required in these most difficult circumstances? At the most basic
level, Sheppard points out that a greater level of sensitivity to
the mother’s state of mind is required. He notes that depressed
people react particularly strongly and negatively to criticism and
that self-blame, pessimism and helplessness are widespread features
of these cases. He suggests that it is crucial that social workers
continually strive to identify positive aspects of parenting to
counteract the explicit and implicit criticism associated with
their involvement with the family.

However, in many cases, even this may not be
enough to promote effective partnership. For many of these mothers,
the negative thoughts they have about themselves are deeply locked
into their social and psychological functioning. In these cases, a
mother’s potential to become truly an actor rather than a prop in
the drama of her own life may only be realised by the kind of
skilled intervention, using cognitive methods, which few social
workers now have the time to contemplate.

– M Sheppard, “Depressed Mothers’ Experience
of Partnership in Child and Family Care”, British Journal of
Social Work
, Vol 32, 2002

Patrick Ayre is senior lecturer,
Department of Applied Social Studies, University of


– M William, Parents, Children and
Social Workers: Working in Partnership under the Children Act
Ashgate, 1997

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