Have parents become the enemy in social work?

Social work practice with families is becoming increasingly about mutual distrust and fear, says Maggie Mellon

Photo: Design Pics Inc/REX Shutterstock
Photo: Design Pics Inc/REX Shutterstock

by Maggie Mellon, BASW Vice Chair

I believe that suspicion of parents and of families has become corrosive, and is distorting the values of our profession.

For the last 20 plus years the number of investigations or assessments into families suspected of child abuse has climbed steadily upwards and now accounts for one in 20 families in England and Wales

A recent analysis found that since the Children Act 1989 referrals have increased by 311%, from 160,000 per year to 657,800 per year, between 1991 and 2014.

Assessments have increased by 302% over the same period, from 120,000 to 483,800, while the number of cases of ‘core abuse’ have fallen. The figures show that the ratio of referrals to registrations have fallen year on year from 24.1% to 7.3%.

Child protection dominates work

These assessments will have been carried out mainly by social workers. For social workers in statutory children and family teams there is no doubt that ‘child protection’ dominates every aspect of their work. Despite there being no significant rise in the number of children who die as a result of parental abuse or neglect, risk of abuse is assumed to be high.

What does this say about how social workers view parents and families? And, just as importantly, what must it tell us about how parents view contact with social services? I believe that the evidence is mounting of mutual distrust and fear.

Lauren Devine and Stephen Parker, the authors of this analysis, and other critics of current social work practice, suggest that need has become conflated with risk, and that child protection has become inseparable from family work.

The assumption in any contact with families is that risk is probable and must be screened for. No matter how many assessments find no grounds for child protection measures, the number of assessments continue to climb.

Families are suffering

There can be no doubt that many families are suffering. Need and poverty are rising, as work doesn’t pay, benefits are cut or stopped without any assessment of risk to children, homes are insecure, and warmth is a luxury. Child protection from hunger, cold and misery is certainly not on the government agenda.

And yet what used to be a major focus of social workers – empathising with and supporting people facing personal and social adversities, drawing attention to injustices and inequalities and needs – has now almost disappeared in this area of work.

Families pointing to empty cupboards, damp walls, vermin and red bills report being told that ‘we are here for the children, not for you’-  as if children’s welfare can be separated from family welfare. As if parental poverty and stress is not a major blight on children’s lives.

So there are important reasons for everyone to be concerned about social work with families.

That is the reason behind BASW hosting a visit to England and Scotland from David Tobis of Maestral International, who brings a message from New York, a city that contains even greater extremes of inequality.

Tobis is author of From Pariahs to Partners, which describes the journey taken to challenge and change policy and practice in New York where rates of children in foster care were soaring, and was in fact putting children at more risk than they were in their own homes. He will share ideas from successful system reform, such as in New York City, and how it can to support humane services in England’s child protection system.

We hope that we have reached a high water mark of suspicion and distrust, and that social work with families will now move to working with parents, with children and young people, to support them, to shield them, to speak out for them and to help them speak out for themselves.

14 Responses to Have parents become the enemy in social work?

  1. Tom J February 19, 2016 at 4:30 pm #

    I think that this is a fair question to ask. Who of us if we were to fall from grace tomorrow- (and be in debt, poverty, depression, on benefits, lose our supportive family members, be in crap housing etc) would honestly welcome a knock on the door from a children’s social worker?

    Post Baby P, Pelka and the media generally- there is a huge fear and paranoia that the next case is a Baby P one. This means that levels of suspicion can sometimes be through the roof. And parents are not daft, they will quickly pick up on these vibes if a worker has them. ‘Respectful uncertainity and Enquiring mind” -YES. ‘Constant fear and acting as though every parent is the next Baby P mother’- NO

    Moreover, the system can encourage social workers to become obsessed with assessments to the point of assessments being viewed as an end in themselves e.g. ‘ive completed three different assessments of this family and all tell of them tell me that that the parents are not meeting the children’s needs. My manager says that all three assessments are of an excellent standard and capture all of the problems’. I also have a 95% record of competing visits on time and 97% on writing up core group meetings on time. Gold stars all round!

    Meanwhile, the parent and child are still in the same crappy situation that they were prior to social care involvement. Intervention including relationship building through emotional intelligence and empathy appear to be viewed as a niche market as opposed to be central to the role. It is viewed as taking too long. Getting in the way of key performance indicators and is not thought to be the role of social workers (according to some).

    Fortunately there are many workers who are aware of some of these crazy dynamics who work hard to exercise their discretion to ensure that they are working collaboratively with families for the benefit of the child. This is despite of the numerous targets, heavy mangerialism and government directives and agendas as opposed to because of them.

    I encourage workers to join their trade union and link with other like minded workers. Solidarity! Tom J

  2. joe barker February 20, 2016 at 11:28 pm #

    Social work has become the enemy of parents, I like the use of the word profession in the 60s and 70s when social work was a support agency for people that needed help it was a good provision and gave people in need a leg up and supported them in trying to improve their quality of life. Now its a control system that takes over peoples lives and takes away any responsibility they may have. I get fed up with the fact that social workers case loads are getting overwhelming and that is why mistakes like children dying are happening. Give parents the skills to cope don’t manage their lives and maybe social workers will be their friend rather than an aut a professionhorataion figure. Get back to being a provision and not a profession.

    • Philip February 24, 2016 at 3:12 pm #

      here here, the servcie belongs to society not the profession

  3. LongtimeSW February 22, 2016 at 11:13 am #

    ‘we are here for the children, not for you’ – really????

    Is this about ‘selling’ your seminar BASW, please be honest.

    You should know ( and shame on you if you don’t) that the culture of social work has for many years been top down changed, to fit statistics to ‘evidence’ performance – we have moved from Risk managing to becoming Risk averse across all agencies, including schools health etc. It is disingenuous to pretend that the business model that has crept into, and is now racing towards, the American model of ‘pay and you get, don’t pay and you beg/cheat/steal’ within personal social care services, including protecting the most vulnerable in our society regardless of age/disability/gender.

    Most CP Social Workers I know (and have had the privilege of working with) face criticism, bias (and, latterly, threats of jail) from on high – the reality is that the expectations placed on families who are vilified as feckless scroungers by shameless media and politicians, leave them with no option but to not trust anyone – after all those that have control over them have an attitude of ‘what’s in it for me?’ so why shouldn’t they?

    It would help if just for once the human stories were told about the differences that are made by intervention whether by State, government or voluntary organisations and individuals.

    Let’s have real evidence not anecdotal please

    • TotallyConfused February 22, 2016 at 8:51 pm #

      Yes, I too am desperately searching for where families are better off due to LA social worker’s involvement….

  4. FosterCarer1964 February 22, 2016 at 2:39 pm #

    Sad isn’t it? My Son left the Army three years ago. His partner gave birth to their Daughter two years ago. They’re wonderful parents who (like most new parents) worry about everything. They worry about the child eating, not eating, filling her nappy and not filling her nappy. They get concerned that she’s not learning to speak or spending too much time crawling when another child her age can walk already. They have a nice home and good jobs. There have been two incidents when their Daughter was hurt. Once she fell off the bed and once a door was opened without the person knowing she was behind it. On both occasions they were so worried about her bruises and crying that they brought her to us. Drove past A&E and past their GP because they were worried that someone would think they’d done something wrong. She was fine. They just worry that’s all.
    I think this is the message Parents and Carers are getting from our professionals.

  5. paul February 22, 2016 at 4:04 pm #

    Social work has changed radically to more social control. Pre-1990 there was a community worker certifcate, equal to that of social work; many neighbourhood teams were grateful for the input; setting up of self-help groups, latchkey projecst etc. The truth is, social work has been greatly depoliticised over the years; we no longer speak of politics of social work but of equal opportunity (a myth, a child on a council estate, single parent on benefits will never have same opportunity as a child born with a silver spoon in mouth). It was not that long ago, the mere thought of sending someone to a food bank would have caused a social work uproar!
    There is a real need to get back to a more radical social work model (if people can be bothered); but fear pervades social work; a blame down culture, a prime minister threatening to lock up poorly resourced social workers; HCPC’s ‘medical model’ and the tabloids.

  6. Colin Smart February 23, 2016 at 2:18 pm #

    The first visit I made as a Diploma in Public and Social Administration student spending the summer of 1962 with Manchester and Salford Family Service Unit was to see the parents of children who had become branded by the authorities as second generation problem families and to listen for two hours as the female head of household described the multitude of social workers and officers who had called on the family over several decades which served to remind that when you look into the abyss the abyss looks back into you. This was one year before the Children’s and Young Persons Act 1963 was passed which enabled Children’s Departments for the first time to provide support and assistance in kind to families to prevent children entering care, remaining in care and appearing before the courts. The development heralded the growth in family social workers and child care officers, family support agencies and services. When attending child care social work training in 1963 I spent one month at an independent residential unit for homeless mothers and their children which should have a model for helping and protecting young women who had been exploited and abused by men. At that time Children’s officer’s considered themselves accountable for everything that happened to all and any child in their care and fought alongside the Association of Child Care Officers for continuing service improvements. for more and better trained staff, especially in residential care services and supported and defended their staff when they got into difficulties. Although the service was part of local government because the service was small in terms of numbers and budgets it was not regarded as stepping stone for ambitious politicians and ambitious male officers wanting to have power in local government.

    It was not a golden age of child care as the summary of research published by the National Children’s Bureau in 1967 on children deprived of a normal home life (the heading in the 1961-1963 Home Office Children’s Department report to Parliament) who had been placed in residential care, one volume Facts and Fallacies and a second residential care. Good progress was made by people who believed in what they were doing and cared and who were respected by the general population and officialdom.

    The same good will existed in the heady chaos when Social Service Departments were first created and which soon became caught up in the management reorganisation which took all aspects of Health, apart from public health functions out of local government and the reorganisation of local authorities outside of London which involved a significant reduction in their number and where children were lost in the system with some ‘cases’ files as closes or unallocated.

    A former colleague Wally Harbert has brilliant described the reality of attempting to provide good child care and protection in hostile environment in his novel Bent Twiggs. It is easy to put the blame on what then happened on the failure of the abolition of Approved Schools and the attempted bringing of child care values into the approved school system with the Children’s and Young person’s Act when what happened was the reverse or blame a number of other developments covered in the last chapters of Forgotten Children Christian Walmar 2000 and in Child Care Revisisted, The Chidren’s Departments Bob Holman revised edition 1998. One key issue has to separate the issue of physical abuse from sexual something which the Goddard inquiry is not doing with its investigation into Medomsley.

    Officialdom under political and media pressure from the vociferous survivors and campaigners is justifiable wanting to tackle what is alongside the treatment of women by men, especially in times of war and violent conflict as the one of the great worldwide challenges of this time. Given the failure to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 in England and Wales after the election of the Conservative government in 1970, it is encouraging to witness the redefining of child in terms of sexual exploitation as anyone under the age of 18 and that sexual exploitation covers the interactions not just between someone 18 years and old and someone younger but will embrace sexual activity between those aged under 18 if reported complained or coming to the attention of officialdom, which if adopted as proposed from April will create further issues of Children’s Officers and for their staff in terms of how they will be perceived when they knock on the door

    I stopped monitoring the situation in 2003 after the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee under Chris Mullin (with David Cameron and Tom Watson members) effectively stopped police investigations into historical allegations because of a number of personal developments and was shocked to discover in 2014 spending three months continuously in contact with survivors, some coming to my home as I did to theirs. several who had on going contact with social services in relation to their own children that they saw, and with justification social services as their enemy looking for ways to take their children into care and pace for adoption without parental consent. Several did not believe me what I tried to explain that in the 1960’s we concentrated on discouraging parents wanting to place their children in care. In1963 I used public transport to help take into care the children of the Chairman of the Children’s Committee in Birmingham who wife was in hospital having another and I can tell you this because he explained that he was doing this to the local media to show the public could have confidence when their children were placed in the care of the local authority.

    It is also noteworthy to mention that the Coalition government adopted the same approach as the Blair Government when Frank Dobson the first Secretary of State at the Health Department found out what was going on and wrote in the government response to the Utting report There can be no more excuse 1989. When Frank announced the government were spending £450 million over three years to try and solve the problem, former Secretary of State now Baroness Bottomley said the problem was intractable and back bencher Mr Bercow insisted on fining out that it was new money.

    The reality is that no one knows what to do whether to stop some parents beating and killing their own children or. children having sex with other children or adults with children which is understandable while we live in a world were civilians are expendable in all states especially women and their children and us old men and grandmothers because of greedy, power and wealth seeking unscrupulous men in government and the international finance and business corporations who rule!

    I would like to believe that the situation will get better for the courageous people who train and work in child care and child protection to day but I fear it is going to get a lot worse unless you find a way to speak together with voice and in common cause.

  7. Planet Autism February 24, 2016 at 2:44 pm #

    But the article misses out the fact that it’s not just parents being judged for the poverty and dire circumstances they find themselves in, but also parents being judged wrongly by this risk averse and hysterical cover-your back culture in social care, with a good dose of abuse of power all too often, in the case of the fictions of emotional harm and MSBP/FII.

    The former can be used for anything, parents are not only the enemy in child protection but misuse of supposed emotional harm (even ridiculously ‘possible future emotional harm’ and even more ridiculously when the child is a newborn – we have become the film Minority Report!) for just about anything that can be twisted to fit and as for MSBP/FII it’s extremely rare and disputed to even exist by some experts, yet it seems to be flavour of the moment to all too many SWs.

    Too much power brings risk of abuse of power, social services are supposedly the servant of the state and the term ‘services’ is now totally inappropriate. When SWs have the power to ‘diagnose’ people with psychiatric conditions, ‘diagnose’ their children with attachment problems and take actions swiftly backed up without question by the police, courts and other professionals on a gravy train, families don’t stand a chance with the imbalance of power and kudos/status afforded SWs against them.

    George Orwell would be turning in his grave.

  8. Lynne Brosnan February 24, 2016 at 3:39 pm #

    Spot on FosterCarer1964 parents have become frightened of every fall or accident that occurs. A little more respect towards parents and carers and a little less of the we know best attitude would help.
    Parents should be able to enjoy their children not worry about every little bruise which happens in the normal rough and tumble in a child’s life.
    Parents and carers that need help and support from professionals should be treated in a respectful non-judgmental way after all parents are the most important people in a child’s life.

  9. Winston Smith February 25, 2016 at 12:59 pm #

    I’m sorry to upset Community Care and its readership of social workers, but “parents are the enemy” has been the underlying theory for 43 years since the “New Understanding of Child Abuse” was introduced into Britain. The same theory prevails in the family Courts.

  10. Charles Pragnell February 25, 2016 at 11:18 pm #

    Pre-1980s social work was focused on Family Preservation and the core element of social work was in providing advice, guidance, and support to families experiencing difficulties. This was in accordance with the legal provision and duty placed on social workers to “Keep children out of (State) care and to diminish the need to keep them in care by the use of all possible resources, including money”. It involved a great deal of risk-taking for social workers who had considerable autonomy in their work.

    However, after the scandals of the deaths of children while under social work care and supervision and the scandals and Inquiries into multiple removals on the grounds of specious theories of child abuse, such autonomy was gradually removed and decision-making was taken up into the managerial systems in social work. Decisions taken by people far removed from the persons and the personalities of the families involved. Decisions became taken on what was written on pieces of paper and not in direct face-to-face contact with those persons. Fear of social workers and their managers being found at fault created a climate and culture of safe options, which led to punitive attitudes towards both parents and children. This fear still prevails in social work departments and informs and determines every decision regarding child protection.

    Added into this was forced adoption which has become the safest option, remove the child from the parents and place them in adoption giving managers comfort that the situation is resolved and the social workers a warm fuzzy feeling that they have done so `good’. They haven’t, they have simply created a whole range of other problems, for the child and for the natural parents.

    That’s is how social work got to be where it is today, a group of people living in fear, with little control over the professional goals they may be seeking, and their empathy and compassion stunted by the system and the fail-safe policies from above.

  11. Jonathan Ritchie March 18, 2016 at 9:02 am #

    The one element I would add to Charles Pragnells excellent analysis is the pervasive dire problem that afflicts all positions which involve having power over others which is that the power attracts the psychopaths, sociopaths and narcissists who enjoy abusing their power over others. The caring professions have to rid themselves of this toxic minority who unfortunately seem to gravitate to higher positions of power.

  12. sheila phillips March 19, 2016 at 3:30 pm #

    I do agree that families do suffer it sends wrong signals out to parents when there being.put under pressure buy needless to say so called professionals social workers . They put u in so much fear including the extending families of the children taken into care with falls reports which has been the case for us .the parents weren’t interacting with there kids in play not enough of this and that had an accident which they were accused scandal ouse outrage of the whole system .