Can all families be worked with?

Barnardo’s head Martin Narey (below) has suggested that we are not taking enough children into care and that professionals are under too much pressure to continue working with families who “can’t be fixed”. Here, sector leaders join the debate

‘Sometimes families can’t be fixed’

Martin Narey (pictured), chief executive, Barnardo’s

I caused a storm earlier this month by saying we needed to act more decisively in removing neglected children from parents, and that, sometimes, early adoption was the best option for a neglected child. Some people who responded to my comments were dismissive, one or two were hostile, but overwhelmingly, people have been supportive – including many social workers.

Inevitably, and as the week progressed, my comments became caricatured and one or two people who should have known better contradicted things I did not say.

I was not of course suggesting that we should remove children from their birth parents without considerable deliberation. Barnardo’s works with families in every part of the UK and in some of them the parents struggle. This is particularly so when a mother is left to cope alone, often when the father has abandoned his financial and emotional responsibilities. But we can help in nearly every case. Through family support, or perhaps through parenting training (for which there is now such an encouraging evidential base), struggling parents can become successful parents and families can be repaired. That has to be the first option and it will often be successful.

But sometimes families can’t be fixed. Despite considerable support and guidance, some parents cannot offer the sort of stable and loving upbringing which every child needs. Neglect, lack of a decent diet, and living in squalor or without affection are not just temporary inconveniences for a child. They can cause permanent damage. And sometimes, by the time we eventually remove a child, the damage has been done, and however much foster carers or adoptive parents try, it can take years to put right. Sometimes it can never be put right.

Of course we cannot be premature. We must avoid removing children too hastily, and where parents might be able to improve their skills. But what social workers whisper to me is that, all too often, they can be confident from a very early stage about which parents will fail, often because older children have already had to be removed. As one social worker who wrote to me this week put it: “How many times as a social worker have I despaired at a lack of a robust attitude with babies and families who we know will never provide a loving home for them?” Those who come forward either to foster or adopt also know the truth of this.

But it is not social workers who are to blame. In my experience of working with them for the past four years they are passionate and courageous people. We set the rules and expectations under which they operate. Right now, in the wake of Baby P and the shocking case revealed in South Yorkshire last month, social workers’ decisions to remove children are less likely to be questioned. But I fear that soon we will return to an atmosphere in which social workers who want to do the right thing will face vilification. Once again we will read headlines about heartless social workers removing children on a whim.

Sometimes, of course, social workers might get things wrong. They cannot see into the future. They cannot be absolutely certain about which families will improve and which will not. But, right now, I fear we have got the balance wrong. When we leave a child with their birthparents, but in abject neglect, we risk that child’s whole future. We need to be braver.

Children don’t pick their parents, and we must not allow them to suffer when they are born to those who cannot or will not raise them successfully.

‘An overly simplistic and unhelpful response’

Anna Gupta, senior lecturer in social work, Royal Holloway, University of London

The idea that social workers should take more babies into care and put less effort into “fixing families that can’t be fixed” is an overly simplistic and unhelpful response to the debate on the provision of effective child protection services.

For the past few decades, media responses to child protection have been dominated by superficial judgements about social workers either intervening insufficiently or over-intrusively in families’ lives. What is so often missing from the debate is recognition of the complex and far-reaching nature of the decisions that social workers have to make.

The removal of any child, including a baby, from their family of origin is one of the most significant decisions professionals are required to make on behalf of the state. These decisions are rarely straightforward, and professionals have to balance the competing needs and rights of the child, their siblings and their parents.

While there clearly are children who need to be removed from harmful parental care at an earlier stage, there are also many children and families who benefit from effective family support services. These children’s and families’ lives are often characterised by a similar struggle with poverty, poor housing, and disability or health problems.

And while there are some children who have clearly benefited from adoption, there are others who are struggling with delayed or failed placements, long-term loss and fragmented identities. There are no easy answers.

It has been increasingly recognised that social workers are over-worked, under-resourced and functioning in organisations dominated by bureaucratic, target-driven cultures. Encouragingly, the interim report of the Social Work Task Force recognises that social workers require more resources and support to have manageable caseloads, more time for direct work, high-quality supervision, and post-qualifying training.

It is only by being able to develop relationships and meaningfully engage with families that social workers will be able to develop an understanding of children’s needs and be able to effectively safeguard and promote their welfare.

‘Prevailing rule of optimism is unfortunate’

John Simmonds, director of policy, research and development, British Association for Adoption and Fostering

It is an unassailable fact that, without the loving care and commitment of parental figures, children cannot and do not develop to their full potential. This is a tragedy for them and it is a tragedy for society.

The characteristics and circumstances of some parents is such that they cannot provide this care and commitment. Typically this is the result of drug and alcohol misuse, mental health problems, domestic violence and chaotic lifestyles. These issues often have long histories to them and extend over generations. They result in various forms of maltreatment to the child, the consequence of which, for a very small number, is death or serious injury. For others, the impact on their development is severe and can be life-long.

Is adoption the answer? In one respect, the answer is yes. The evidence is that removing a child from seriously adverse parental and family circumstances and placing them in advantageous parental and family circumstances makes an enormous difference. The earlier the child is placed in a new family, the more this is likely to happen. But even older adopted children will make many gains, even if developmental catch up is less than complete.

However, adoption is such a radical intervention in legally severing children from their birthparents that, as significant as the developmental gains to the child might be, it remains one of the most controversial and problematic solutions available.

The first solution must always be to provide timely and proactive support to help parents address their problems. It cannot be underestimated how difficult this can be, and most particularly to do so within the children’s developmental timeframe. Identifying when this is working out well enough, and when it is not, takes the judgement of Solomon and, unfortunately, there is still a prevailing rule of optimism that results in giving parents more chances.

Placement choices must then always run through placement with family and friends, where special guardianship offers real advantages when responsibly thought through. In the absence of these solutions, adoption may be the right plan. However, evidence suggests that it remains a solution for a declining number, and mostly for children who start their final care period under the age of one.

There is clearly scope for refocusing on the advantages of adoption and reminding ourselves of the severe consequences for children when we shy away from tough decisions.

‘Decision to remove a child is a drastic step’

Sheryl Burton, director, social inclusion department, NCB

Most people involved in the child welfare arena would concede that, for some children, removal from the family is essential for their protection and welfare. In these instances, the question of “second chances” or “fixing” the family should not be given further consideration. The disputed territory, both in relation to general child welfare policy and in the case of a specific child or family, will be in agreeing when such a decision is justified, who should make such decisions and how final they should be.

It is vital that early intervention and support services are accessible to, and respected by, children and families. Such services are crucial, helping to identify and avert problems, and provide additional help or onward referrals.

The most effective services are usually those with staff who are honest and direct, treating families with respect. Some service users will already be suspicious of agencies, but in many instances engagement remains possible. If services are seen as operating unjustly, the risk is that families will stop asking for help when it’s needed, making it even more difficult for professionals to safeguard children.

There are no easy answers to the dilemmas in safeguarding children’s welfare. The accepted maxim that, in general, children are better off in their families is grounded in overwhelming research evidence.

The decision to remove a child from their parent(s), and then transfer all parental responsibility to another by virtue of an adoption order, is a drastic step not to be taken lightly. But that is not an argument for interminable assessments, procrastinations or an infinite number of chances.

Those working in this vital area need sophisticated skills, cool heads, good supervision and strong backing from senior managers. Underlying their decision-making are fundamental questions about the type of society we live in, how we reconcile the inherent risks with individual liberties and, critically, how willing society is to tolerate the ramifications of any course of action.

‘Public mandate needed for a change in approach’

Colin Green, director of children’s services, Coventry Council

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services would welcome a debate that considered all the issues, including the roles played by all agencies involved. The debate needs to include a proper consideration of the evidence about what interventions work to protect children and ensure they have the quality of care they need.

Any debate also needs to include the wider public. These are not issues just for those professionally concerned as they go to the heart of the relationship between the state and the family and this is of concern to all of us.

In my experience, it is not a question of social workers being too cautious to intervene early on. Social workers are courageous in protecting children. How they and their local authorities undertake their role and the way they intervene are intimately affected by their experience of how well they are supported when they do intervene.

A very important element of that experience is the level of public support for intervention in family lives. This is ambivalent. Any change to a more radical approach would require a clear public mandate.

Another important element is social workers’ experience of the court system and whether it sanctions a more radical approach. Social workers and their employing authorities will also be affected by whether there are the resources available across the whole system to undertake the complex assessments of children and families to inform these very difficult decisions.

Any rebalancing of the system requires the development of a different approach, including: the judiciary’s approach to decision-making in these difficult cases; the availability of expertise to support intervention and decision-making; and the experience and time social workers have to present these very complex cases with the confidence which comes from being well trained, knowledgeable and respected.

See news story about Martin Narey’s comments 

Join the discussion online 

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.