A volunteer worker in London achieves a good outcome with a young mother with learning disabilities who rejects involvement with statutory services
PRACTITIONER: David Walker, pictured, a volunteer with Community Service Volunteers (CSV).
FIELD: Child protection.
CLIENTS: Cheryl*, 29, her son Kevin*, 13, and daughter, Melissa*, five.
CASE HISTORY: Cheryl is a single mother who has mild learning disabilities. Her eldest child, Kevin, went into care six years ago when she was unable to cope with him. She has since had another child, Melissa, who still lives with her. However, with concerns about Cheryl’s parenting, Melissa is also likely to end up in care.
DILEMMA: Cheryl is aggressive towards social workers as she feels let down by them. She needs substantial support but she steadfastly refuses to engage with any of the social workers who visit her.
RISK FACTOR: In a final attempt to keep Melissa out of care, a volunteer is placed with the family. There is a risk that the volunteer is unable to provide the level of support necessary to make an impact in this complex case.
OUTCOME: With input from the skilled volunteer, Cheryl’s parenting skills improve and concerns about Melissa decrease markedly.
*Names have been changed
Child protection is usually considered the preserve of qualified social workers, but one innovative project, run by Community Service Volunteers (CSV), is using volunteers to support families where there are significant concerns, writes Mark Drinkwater.
David Walker is a volunteer with CSV who has worked with several vulnerable families through their Volunteers in Child Protection (ViCP) project. He is particularly pleased with the results of his work with a single mother, Cheryl, whose eldest child, Kevin, had been taken into care.
Being a parent was a struggle for Cheryl, who has mild learning disabilities and social workers were concerned about Cheryl’s poor parenting skills. They felt there was a real risk that her youngest child, Melissa, would also go into care.
At the heart of the problem was Cheryl’s refusal to engage with a succession of social workers. Walker explains that by the time he was introduced to the family by a CSV manager, the relationship with her allocated social worker had broken down to the point of no return.
Walker worked with the family on his own, but soon found that he was able to make a considerable impact on their circumstances. “When I first met her, her flat was in a really bad mess,” he says. “Her kitchen cupboards were falling off and all the flooring needed replacing. I went down to the housing office with her and advocated on her behalf. Within two weeks the repairs were carried out. Yet, she had been living like that [with the mess] for ages.”
As he got to know her better, Cheryl disclosed that she had no formal identification – not even a birth certificate. With his help, she obtained a replacement certificate and was then able to open a bank account for the first time. He then helped her apply for the right benefits, including a successful claim for a community care grant.
Walker feels that these changes were things that the professionals, for various reasons, had not been able to achieve with Cheryl. “It’s one thing to say ‘what you need to do is go to the benefits office’. That can take hours and as a social worker you don’t have time to do that,” he says.
Having gained her trust through these small triumphs, Walker was then able to help Cheryl identify more effective ways of parenting. “It’s about setting boundaries for her youngest child. So, hopefully what happened with her eldest doesn’t happen to her other child. And that’s been a continuous progress – teaching her to play with her youngest, reading books and playing with toys, instead of plonking them down in front of the TV,” he says.
Although Walker works on his own, he says that several safeguards are in place. He maintains regular contact with her designated social worker by submitting weekly reports and raises any concerns that he has. The social worker also checks the progress in the case against the key outcomes identified at the start of the placement.
There have been other areas of progress. Most notably, Cheryl has started visiting her son, Kevin, after several years with no contact between them. Although he concedes it has not been easy, Walker feels he has helped Cheryl turn her life around – particularly addressing her negativity towards professionals. “I’d like to think I’d contributed to changing things in her life. I spent a lot of time convincing her that if she perceived she was in a battle with social services it was not a battle she could win.”
Having visited the family every week for over a year, Walker says he has nothing but “total admiration” for Cheryl and feels that working with her has given him an inkling of how the relationships with social workers broke down. “She’s got a big thing about people saying something and not following it through. I think that’s where all the breakdowns with social services happened,” he says. “Through normal pressures of work – other things take priority [for social workers]. Then, as far as she’s concerned, they are useless.”
Although some professionals have voiced reservations about the role of volunteers, Walker is full of praise for the CSV project and what can be achieved by those involved. “How qualified do you have to be to help someone fill a form out or help them open a bank account? No one’s looking to be a social worker through the back door. It’s about filling the gaps really.”
Walker initially started volunteering as a way of broadening his CV. He is now on a social work degree course and acknowledges that his experiences of working closely with Cheryl have taught him a lot. “Having that insight into somebody else’s world, it’s been amazing to see how people cope with adversity. It’s been really uplifting.”
WEIGHING UP THE RISKS
Arguments for taking the risk
● Regular visits
Volunteers can commit to regular visits and are less likely to cancel appointments at short notice. This was crucial in this case where the service user feeling let down by professionals.
● Volunteers less threatening
Service users value volunteers and find them less threatening than social workers. As such, these volunteers are able to establish working relationships and can carry out practical work, including advising on child welfare.
● Nothing to lose
The social work team needed to adopt a radically different approach in this case. Cheryl was going to continue to refuse support, and so there was little to lose by using a volunteer.
Arguments against taking the risk
● Lack of experience
Even with training, volunteers will not possess the same level of experience as professional social workers. With less training behind them, volunteers might find they are ill-equipped or might become too emotionally involved in cases.
● Impact on social workers
Using volunteers could have a negative impact on morale among social workers.
● Resources needed
Volunteers might seem like a cheap substitute for professionals at a time of budgetary constraints, but they still require resources, including training and supervision.
Michael Stephenson, group manager of specialist children’s services at Southend Council
It is important to note that child protection is not the preserve of qualified social workers, and it is confusion in this area which has caused ill-informed criticism of the ViCP project.
In the child protection process, the social worker is responsible for completing the core assessment, proposing the child protection plan to the conference, coordinating the core group and acting as the key worker. None of this changes with the introduction of volunteers.
The difference between this project and other volunteer schemes is that ViCP volunteers work in the family home, have their tasks identified in the child protection plan, keep regular notes and report back to the child protection conference. They are subject to CRB and local authority checks and undertake comprehensive training.
This case study demonstrates what we see time and time again with our ViCP volunteers. Although the volunteer is part of the multi-agency team and provides reports to the social worker, the parent sees the volunteer differently to salaried staff. As this volunteer observes, he can get things done that are not on the radar of busy professionals but are vital to parents.
Contact Mark Drinkwater to submit your Risk Factor case studies
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