A father has
threatened his estranged wife an d
social workers, and there are fears about the well-being of his children.
Social worker Norman Kay tells Graham Hopkins how he had to balance the
children’s right to see their father with their safety.
The names of all
service users mentioned in this article have been changed
Field: Team manager,
children and families fieldwork.
Location: A town in
the west of England.
Clients: The Walker
family. Martin Walker, the father, is living with the two oldest sons, both
over 18. Yvonne Walker, the mother, is living separately with the five youngest
children. There are also two other children, one of whom is 17 and detained
under the Mental Health Act 1983 in a specialist hospital, while the other, who
is 16, is in a specialist residential care home.
Case history: The
family came to England from a commonwealth country
in the late 1990s.
Martin Walker has only recently completed a prison sentence for a bomb hoax at
the social services offices and for making threats to staff.
He has also allegedly
committed arson at his wife’s home. He has supervised contact with his five
youngest children, for whom continued supervision orders are being sought. The
council is seeking a care order on the 16-year-old to prevent him
being removed by
Walker, who is opposing the order, seeking unsupervised access and suing the
council for allegedly failing to exercise a duty of care to his
Dilemma: There is a
threat of violence from Martin Walker, yet there has been no actual incident
for some months.
Risk factor: How to
balance the needs of the children who wish to see their father with concerns
about fears for their safety and that of staff.
supervision during contact has been reduced, the situation remains unresolved.
Putting the needs of children first is the cornerstone of good social work
practice with families. However, this notion can be tested at times and
difficult decisions can be made more complex by competing family loyalties and
A large family in the
west country has tested the knowledge, experience and skills accrued over 30
years by Norman Kay, team manager, children and families fieldwork.
In July 2001, Martin
Walker was released on licence from prison. He was serving a nine-month
sentence for issuing a bomb hoax at the social services office, and for other
threatening behaviour towards staff. “The man is six foot and not meanly
built,” says Kay. “He had been very vindictive to named staff. There is a
social worker working with the mother and the children, but I am the only link
Walker blames social
services – “He obviously has a deep well of anger,” says Kay – for the mental
illness of his 17-year-old son who is detained in a specialist hospital, and
for the brain injury suffered by his 16-year-old son, who was injured in a
traffic accident. Both have also exhibited highly sexualised behaviour,
including inappropriate touching of their younger sisters – aged between four
and 14 – while at home. “The younger children are emotionally damaged. They
have intense, specialist support at home as mum is not the best of copers,”
“There is an awful
lot of domestic violence in this family,” he continues, “the father has set
fire to his ex-wife’s house, although no charges were brought, and she is
terrified of him. She has an order restraining him coming to the family home.”
Walker is living in
temporary accommodation with his two other – adult – children. He is also
making clear signs that he wants his other two older sons with him. To this
end, Kay is applying for a care order for the 16-year-old.
Similarly there are
concerns for the safety of the younger children. “In the past we’re fairly
clear that the older children have been subject to sexual abuse in their home
country. We don’t know by whom. It remains to be seen if we’ll ever know. The
children in this family have been very damaged by the adults,” says Kay.
Kay praises the
department for its understanding and investment of time and money in this case.
For example, in addition to the family support, whenever Walker has
contact with his five younger children
a security guard is posted outside. Walker sees three children one week, two
another, at a council resource centre. He is seeking unsupervised contact
through the court, which Kay is opposing: a position the children’s guardian is
“One of the issues
for us,” he adds, “has been to what extent should we allow contact? We did
start off with a family support worker supervising in the room during contacts.
We now have a semi-supervised contact, by which I mean the family support
worker is not in the room with the children, but brings them in, pops her head
around the door once or twice, and collects them at the end.”
preventing Walker, taken out after his conviction, entering council premises
without prior permission is set to expire. “And there’s a dilemma,” says Kay,
“I cannot in the last six months – apart from an answerphone message – identify
an actual instance of his being threatening.” Nonetheless, Kay will request a
continuation. The court case (dealing with access, care order and supervision
order) is set for June. Kay rightly surmises that it will be a time when
Walker’s frustrations and anger are going to be heightened.
history in England suggests that his anger is directed at adults rather than
children, and this might lead to the contact being unsupervised. “But I’m loath
to take an unacceptable risk,” says Kay. “And there is the dilemma in our risk
assessment – are we being too unreasonable or disproportionate?”
question why Walker should be permitted to see his children at all. Kay can
understand that sentiment. “He’s very volatile, unpredictable, and quite a
dangerous guy. But he is their father. And this is part of the risk factor for
us. The children need their dad, they welcome seeing him.”
“If he showed
faultless co-operation,” says Kay, “it would be quite difficult then to resist
an argument that the contact should be relaxed. If I get the supervision order
it will be for two years, so we’ll have that length of time to work. There’s
plenty of time to judge it.”
welcome the contact with him – and it is the children’s needs that are at the
centre of the work carried out by Kay and his colleagues.
– It is also
important for the children’s understanding of their heritage to know their
– Although the
history of Walker’s violent and threatening behaviour is of very grave concern,
there is no evidence that this behaviour is aimed at his children, as adults
appear to bear the brunt of his frustration and anger. Further, he has provided
no example of potentially dangerous behaviour since last September. He has
complied with the injunctions made against him.
– Although he is
challenging the department through the courts for unsupervised access to his
children, Walker has co-operated with arrangements in place and they have been
positive experiences for the children. Also, the compromise solution of partly
supervised access has so far worked well.
– There is little
doubt that Walker’s volatile, threatening and unpredictable character, and
known history, show that he is a dangerous character. The alleged arson attack
at the family home is evidence of his potential, as his bomb hoax and vendettas
against named social workers. His prison sentence is also indicative of the
seriousness with which he is to be judged.
– Certain staff have
felt under real threat to the extent that special protective measures needed to
– There is a very
real concern that Walker would remove the 16-year-old from the specialist
residential care home to his temporary accommodation.
– Walker has
demonstrated a regular and vociferous anger against social services.
– The highly
sexualised displays by two of Walker’s sons, and other factors, suggest that
they may have been victims of sexual abuse. That the department cannot trace
the family’s care history in the country of their origin also adds to the
This case has to be
handled very carefully as there are additional dangers which have not been
mentioned. One such danger is “essentialism” – treating people’s behaviour as
part of their psychological make-up without taking adequate account of the
circumstances in which they are operating. For example, Walker is referred to
as a “dangerous guy”, but anyone can be dangerous if cornered. We need to know
more about why he poses a threat, rather than assume that it is simply part of
who he is. For example, why is he so angry? Can anything be done about this?
Has mediation been considered? Also, the family are referred to as being from a
“commonwealth” country. Is racism a factor? Is this part of his anger?
This is a tricky case
but my concern is that the actions of the professionals concerned could lead to
an escalation of the situation rather than deal with the underlying conflict
factors. Reference is made to a risk assessment but it would need to be a
thorough and systematic one that explores the full range of relevant factors
and avoids such problems as essentialism. A clear, focused risk assessment
which identifies the dangers to be avoided, the hazards that might lead to them
and the strengths that can be drawn upon would help to dispel much of the
anxiety surrounding this scenario.
Thompson is a director of Avenue Consulting and visiting professor at the
University of Liverpool. He is the author of Building the Future: Social Work
with Children, Young People and Their Families, Russell House Publications,