Barnardo’s Terry Jones, Jenny Lewis and
Owen Gill argue that adopting an ‘ecological’ approach
brings into play powerful forces for the benefit of children.
The Department of Health guidelines on the
assessment of vulnerable children introduced in 2000 requires
workers to explore parenting capacity and the developmental needs
of the child.1 But it also requires workers to explore
issues of social integration and access to resources.
Central to the approach is a recognition of
the interplay between the different levels of the child’s
experience. The “ecological” perspective sees the child as embedded
within a number of systems – the family both immediate and
extended, the community and the wider social arrangements for the
distribution of resources.
For the assessment framework this approach was
represented by a triangle with parenting capacity and the child’s
developmental needs at two sides of the triangle and social
integration and access to resources (housing, income and
employment) on the third.
Although this representation indicated the
equal significance of the different levels of the child’s
experience there is as yet little evidence that social workers,
health visitors and others are adequately integrating this
perspective into their assessments and work with families and
children. The dominant perspective remains one of focusing on what
is happening within families rather than seeing the interplay of
the family’s internal and external worlds.
One reason for this is that in the UK there
has been far more research and theory developed around the first
two sides of the triangle. The analysis of community patterns and
the distribution of resources as they impact on families has
received only limited exploration.
Two levels of evidence, however, suggest the
importance of attention being urgently directed at the third and
missing side of the triangle. First, many families themselves have
a sophisticated “ecological” perspective. They will often see the
connections between housing, income and informal support and what
is going on inside their families in a far more fluid and
insightful way than workers whose training and professional culture
only allows them to work within the boundaries of the family.
Second, international research has shown child
welfare outcomes are related to the social characteristics of local
neighbourhoods. In the US research has shown the connections
between social isolation, the characteristics of social networks in
local neighbourhoods, and rates of child mistreatment. The
ecological approach is therefore not a luxury that potentially
distracts workers from crucial child protection concerns. In
looking at community patterns of support and integration it goes to
the heart of keeping children safe.
If the adoption of an ecological approach is
to become a reality in the UK there is an urgent need to develop
information about the interplay of community and interpersonal
factors. This will involve the development of research on these
links but it will also involve building up a body of case material
about the links between the internal and external worlds of family
The following two cases from our current
practice explore these links. Names have been changed.
Mary and Dean
Mary, a white lone parent, came to the family
centre wanting to talk about the difficulties she was experiencing
with her oldest child Dean, aged seven. Her three children had the
same father, an African-Caribbean man who had not lived with the
family for three years.
Mary told the worker, who was herself black,
that she was finding it increasingly difficult to cope with Dean’s
behaviour and was thinking about asking for him to be fostered. She
said he was naughty all the time and that he did not listen to her.
She said that any punishment she tried did not work and that he
often shouted and swore at her when she told him off.
During the initial meetings with Dean it
emerged that he was very angry with his mother and blamed her for
his father’s lack of contact. It also emerged that Dean was
struggling with the image he had of his father. On the one hand he
was a man whom he idolised. On the other hand he was a black man
who was considered inferior by the people that Dean knew and in
particular by his mother.
It also emerged that Dean was the victim of
racial harrassment. He said he had to look over his shoulder the
whole time because he never knew when he was going to be attacked.
He said that he had complained to a school meals assistant about
racial harrassment but had been told “half-caste children are
nothing but trouble”.
The worker felt that Mary’s general standard
of parenting was good. However during early discussions it emerged
strongly that Mary was unaware of the impact of her own racism and
negative views about black men on Dean.
It also emerged that because of being in a
multiracial family Mary had little support in this primarily white
In order to address the different but
interconnected levels of difficulty that Dean was experiencing the
following programme of work was undertaken.
l Racial harrassment in the neighbourhood. The
worker supported Mary in a move away from the immediate
neighbourhood. Although the move was only four streets away Mary
felt that the reaction to black and multiracial families there was
much more positive and supportive. Action was taken against the
perpetrators of the harrassment but both the worker and Mary felt
that an immediate change of accomodation was in Dean’s best
l Racial harrassment at school. A meeting was
arranged with the headteacher which focused on changing the
handling of racist incidents at the school.
l Support group. Mary joined a group for white
parents of dual heritage children. This group not only provided an
opportunity for the parents to explore their complex reactions to
their current or former partners; it also provided support for Mary
within her own community.
l Individual work with Dean. The aim was to
help Dean develop a positive view of himself as a child of dual
l Identity group. Dean eventually joined a
group of other dual heritage children from the local community in
regular sessions at the family centre. One aim of the group was to
reduce the isolation of these children in the community.
The combination of these approaches to Dean’s
apparent “behaviour difficulties” was eventually successful. Not
only did Dean develop a more positive perception of himself but,
equally important, community supports were developed for both Dean
and his mother.
John and Cathy
John and Cathy have two children,
eight-year-old Charlie and Laura (four). Charlie has cerebral
Cathy talked about her depression and her
difficulties in accepting Charlie’s disability. She began to see a
counsellor at the centre but her depression worsened. Eventually
Cathy was admitted voluntarily to the local psychiatric
John felt increasingly unable to cope with
looking after the children. By the time of Cathy’s hospitalisation
both the children were distressed. Neither John nor Cathy had
supportive family living nearby.
A community development colleague suggested
that John might join a group of residents campaigning for better
play provision. John became involved in the group and began to see
it as an important respite from the stresses and turmoil of family
John’s new sense of purpose carried over into
his family life. He realised that he could be effective within his
family as well as in the group. And John’s new involvement gave the
family a wider and richer set of local networks. Pressures on the
family are still high. But the informal supports that have been
developed and the new sense of the potential for change have been
maintained. Workers are confident that the family can withstand
These stories show the interplay of the internal and
external worlds of the family that is central to the ecological
perspective. In both cases community influences had brought
benefits for individual family members.
Practitioners need to build up a body of case
histories which explore links between what happens within families
and what happens within local neighbourhoods. We can then move
beyond interpretations which are entirely reliant on an
understanding of what goes on within the family and take a wider
view of opportunities for change.
Terry Jones is team leader, family
support; Jenny Lewis is project leader, both at Barnardo’s
Fulford family centre. Owen Gill is regional anti-poverty
co-ordinator, Barnardo’s South West.
1 Framework for the
Assessment of Children in Need and their Families, Department of
Health, 2000 http://www.doh.gov.uk/scg/cin.htm