Mark Drinkwater describes a case in which an independent practitioner’s assessment makes all the difference for a father who wants his children to live with him and his new partner
PRACTITIONER Anna McMillan, senior practitioner with Circle, a Scottish charity.
FIELD Children’s social care.
CLIENT Natalie*, 22, Stuart*, 32, and his two children, Lee*, nine, and Sarah*, eight.
CASE HISTORY Stuart had a turbulent relationship with Diane*, the mother of two of his children. After she left him, Diane’s new partner physically abused the children. They were then placed in foster care. Attempts to ensure Diane could provide a safe environment for the children failed. Stuart has another child with his new partner, Natalie, and wants his two eldest children to live with him.
DILEMMA Until now Stuart has shown little commitment to his two eldest children. Should the children be placed with him and his new partner?
RISK FACTOR Both children have attachment disorders and would be a challenge for any carer. Any additional instability would further damage them.
OUTCOME Following a parenting assessment, the children are allowed to live with Stuart and Natalie. The family happy with the new arrangement.
* Not their real names
THE STORY Social workers can find it a challenge to be impartial when carrying out childcare assessments, particularly if the individuals are well known to them. Consequently, councils are turning to independent agencies to conduct assessments on their behalf.
Anna McMillan, a senior practitioner with Scottish charity Circle, was commissioned by a local authority to carry out a parenting assessment on Stuart who wanted his children to return to live with him.
Stuart’s two eldest children had been removed from his former partner and were placed in short-term foster care. Their case was to be heard by a permanence panel, a body that makes recommendations on long-term fostering or a permanent adoption. “At this point Stuart got a solicitor involved as he wanted his children to live with him.” says McMillan. “This option had never been looked at previously.”
McMillan established that in the past it had been his former partner, Diane, who had been the main person in contact with social services. She had portrayed Stuart as aggressive and an absent father. This image had persisted with the professionals involved.
In the course of McMillan’s assessment it became evident that Stuart was a caring and nurturing man, willing to take onboard advice about caring for his children. He now had a new partner, Natalie.
McMillan found evidence of Natalie’s parenting skills and a supportive extended family. Natalie was a positive influence on Stuart and had a good relationship with the children. “They trusted Natalie. It was a much warmer environment than Stuart’s previous relationship,” McMillan says.
Stuart’s situation had improved over the years. He now had a stable job and had set up a home with Natalie. Together they were successfully bringing up a child of their own. “We look for strengths and resilience: individual skills or networks of support that can counteract areas of weakness,” says McMillan. “She [Natalie] was young, but had a huge amount of parenting skills. Operating alongside her, Stuart was able to learn from her.”
Looking after Stuart’s eldest two children would not be easy. McMillan observed that the abuse and a lack of stability had taken its toll on them. They both displayed attachment disorders and low self-esteem. In addition, the daughter had developmental delays. “It was a big task looking after them as each child’s behaviour was very different and required different parenting styles. Even their foster carer, who had done a lot of good work, was still struggling,” she says.
Despite these challenges, McMillan gave a favourable assessment of Stuart and Natalie’s parenting skills and they were granted parental rights and residency of the children. Social work involvement continued and direct support was put in place for the daughter. Three months later, an evaluation by one of McMillan’s colleagues found the arrangement was working out better than had been hoped.
Reflecting on her involvement, McMillan values the role non-statutory agencies can play when carrying out assessments. “Even though we’re still social workers, we are independent and having this new perspective is often helpful,” she says.
Arguments for taking the risk
● More stability
Stuart has demonstrated that he is able to care for his youngest child and has a renewed interest in his two eldest children. With regular employment, his home life is much more stable and he seems able to fully commit to his two eldest children.
● Influence of new partner
Natalie’s involvement is a positive influence on Stuart. She has a good relationship with Stuart’s two eldest children and her extended family network is a further source of support.
● Thorough groundwork
The social worker observed Stuart and Natalie on many occasions. This would have given a reliable picture of their abilities as parents.
Arguments against taking the risk
● History of failed parenting
While Stuart was not responsible for the physical abuse of the children, he had failed to offer them security or commitment in the past.
● Risk of deception
Stuart seems to have turned his life around, but questions remain as to whether this can be sustained. There is the risk that he has presented himself as a reliable parent for the assessment.
● Attachment issues
Both children have attachment disorders and would present a challenge for any carer. Any additional instability in their home arrangements would further damage the children.
PRACTITIONER: Patrick Ayre, senior social work lecturer at the University of Bedfordshire
In family assessment we must always beware of the danger of relying on “known facts” without checking out the reality.
We form a mental model of a family and its characteristics and once this becomes fixed, any further information which comes along which does not fit with this tends to slide off the surface of our thinking, being discarded or underplayed. In this case, Stuart’s lack of engagement had allowed Diane’s story to shape the workers’ impressions and it was very helpful to commission an independent assessment.
However, such assessments are notoriously tricky. We can all put on a bit of a show when being observed for an hour or two by appointment. We can even brief our friends and family to say nice things about us. The secret lies in getting behind the image being presented to work out what is really going on. Often, we tend to use our ears too much and our eyes too little. We spend too much time asking questions and writing down answers and too little observing what actually happens. When we do ask questions, we should seek evidence of actual performance rather than just of attitudes.
Published under the headline Should dad have the kids? in the 1 July 2010 issue of Community Care