The Munro Review has identified that parents make better progress if families are engaged without coercion. Scott Hunter and Helen Wosu argue that this cannot be done without more time and lower caseloads
The interim report from the Munro Review of child protection services stated: “There is a tension in providing support to parents. For most, the right approach is to offer services with families making a voluntary choice to receive them. There are families whose parenting raises serious concern, and it may be necessary to take a more coercive approach.
It is the problem of deciding when to escalate the level of professional involvement that is one of the main concerns of this review. A complicating factor is that parents who voluntarily engage with support services tend to make more progress while a more coercive approach can deteriorate into an adversarial relationship that blocks progress. Therefore, moving up the scale of intrusiveness carries gains and losses and so creates a complex decision.”
Policy in Scotland also emphasises the need for increased participation of social work service users in shaping services. So two small-scale, practitioner-led research projects were undertaken by social workers in Edinburgh and Midlothian councils, between May and August last year, to explore the challenges in this area and how they might be overcome.
The research consisted of either interviews with parents and their social workers in the child protection system or practitioner questionnaires and focus groups as well as reviewed transcripts of family interviews.
The results of these projects seem to suggest that, in order to increase service user engagement in child protection, the current managerialist regimes in social work need to be challenged.
Timescales proved to be one of the biggest barriers to engagement, particularly if parents or family members had learning disabilities. One parent with minor learning difficulties said: “You just need to take your time with me and work slowly with me, instead of saying we need to do this by this time and just take time and be patient.” Practitioners universally expressed the view that high caseloads prevented them from building relationships and working with families to effect real change.
The problem of time has another dimension relating to risk and child development. We now realise that critical brain development takes places in the early months and years of life and that neglect and abuse can cause lifelong damaging effects on brain structure. New ways of working with families need to be explored, where children’s needs are managed adequately at the same time as work with the parents.
Another barrier was the style and format of child protection meetings. Parents were commonly quoted as saying: “I was really nervous and always worried. It was like they were judging youit was just such an intense thing to sit there and listen.” Practitioners empathised with this noting: “Meetings are very formal, imagine how the family feels when they know it’s all about them and their parenting.”
Both projects found that trust could not exist without practitioners spending more time with families and without them empathising with family problems.
It was also found that clear and consistent boundaries in child protection work were needed to allow families understand what is expected of them; “that actually made it clear what we needed to do”.
Such boundaries allow practitioners a framework to intervene. “You need the opportunity to help families understand what it all means – we don’t want families not knowing what’s going on or being unprepared,” one practitioner said. Even small things, such as preparing families for a meeting and debriefing them afterwards, can make a massive difference in building relationships.
Despite the different models of interventions used by the two authorities, the problems and pressures were common. The perception, therefore, that different models of intervention are the panacea to solving child protection problems is shown to be simplistic unless there is thought given to wider policy and organisational issues.
Ultimately, social workers need more time with service users to build trust and ensure that trust is built on honesty and clear boundaries.
Time spent with families needs to be prioritised and cannot be achieved without manageable caseloads nor, we would argue, within the current trend of managerialism in social work. Social workers need to ensure that the time they spend with families is put to good use.
Scott Hunter is a planning officer in the education and children’s services division at Midlothian Council and Helen Wosu is a former employee development officer in child protection with Edinburgh Council, and is now an independent social worker
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