Research into practice

Research with child protection managers has shown some of the
traumatic effects on workers of violence and aggression from parent
service users.1

Although there has been a great improvement on managing physical
violence since the late 1980s, there is still a need to establish
how this area of risk can be dealt with.

Interviews with 20 managers in a large social services department
examined issues of definition, under-reporting, gender, ethnicity,
who is at risk in what types of ways, and the effectiveness of
responses to perpetrators.

While physical violence is comparatively rare, other forms of
“indirect violence”, as one respondent referred to it, were common.
These situations caused some of the greatest problems for workers,
managers and children. Problems appeared to arise from a
“power/control” continuum as presented by some service users. As a
result, workers might not recognise the effects of intimidation or
threats over time on their assessments and interventions, or they
might be unable to share these problems with managers, potentially
leaving the child inadequately protected – a situation which has
occurred a number of times in child abuse deaths.

The research showed that:

  • Fear and anxiety were common features of respondents’
    experiences in reaction to aggression and violence.
  • Some of the most powerful effects of threats or violence or
    both were when these were personalised against the worker and also
    their family.
  • Skilled and knowledgeable supervision was important in reducing
    risks to workers and children.
  • The situations where violence was most likely to occur were
    when decisions were being made about removing children, when
    applying for a care order or during contact meetings.
  • Role conflict and ambiguity contribute to stress and violence
    experienced by workers in child protection work.
  • The adversarial complaints procedure was not helpful for the
    organisation to learn from difficulties that may have led to
    complaints, and also proved problematic for workers.

Managers believed that some workers had difficulties being open
and honest with service users about their role and the reasons for
the intervention, which could cause problems. This was exacerbated
by the ambiguity of the child protection social work role – whether
the roles of supporter and investigator can be reconciled. Nearly
all those interviewed believed that the Diploma in Social Work did
not prepare students for the pressures of the conflict-laden nature
of child protection.

Most physical violence was perpetrated by mothers, but it was the
less obvious (to others) threats from males that had greatest
effects. Examples included sustained and personalised verbal abuse
and threats, and workers being followed in the street or in cars.
Racist abuse was identified as a regular occurrence for workers
from ethnic minority groups.

Attempts to work with service users on their part in the aggression
were not a major feature of responses, and is an area that agencies
need to consider further.

The findings offer a model for how under-reporting, effects on
victimised staff, support for staff and dealing effectively with
perpetrators might be incorporated into the development of practice
and agency policies. The report suggests how risk assessment and
risk management procedures can take these issues into account in
order to protect more effectively the worker and children.

1 Brian Littlechild, The Management of
Conflict and Service User Violence against Staff in Child
Protection Work
, Department of Health and Social Care,
University of Hertfordshire, College Lane, Hatfield, Herts AL10
9AB. E-mail:

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