Last month a pioneering study of inequalities in children’s social care hit the headlines. One finding grabbed the spotlight – children in the most deprived communities were more than 10 times more likely to enter care than those in the richest areas.
Yet the study, carried out by 11 academics from seven UK universities, also contained an in-depth analysis of social work practice with families. Led by Kate Morris, Professor of Social Work at the University of Sheffield, this section of the research involved indepth fieldwork with social workers and managers at fourteen sites in six councils.
The authorities were a carefully selected mix of services working in both more and less deprived areas. Morris and her team wanted to find out: what was the interplay between children’s services decisions to intervene and the poverty facing a family?
Morris says some of the messages that came back are “helpful” for social workers, but others raise “uncomfortable” questions about the way the profession engages with wider issues facing the children and families they support.
Rationing and restructures
Firstly, there was the context social workers were operating in. Researchers found practitioners were dealing with “chronic unmet need” among families. However, a shortage of resources meant all of the councils had a working culture governed by eligibility and restricting care to those with the highest needs.
“For the sites, the rationing was at times an overwhelming preoccupation. The dispersal of families across other services – the infamous signposting – was no longer a matter for lower levels of need,” says Morris.
“Instead early help services had become a substitute for social work rather than a precursor to social work involvement.”
On top of this staff faced “endemic” restructuring of their services, often on cost grounds. The result of this “turbulence” was a breaking up of social workers’ knowledge about the communities they worked in.
Against this backdrop, the researchers found social workers felt the systemic nature of poverty in families was “either too big to tackle, or invisible because of familiarity”. Social workers across the sites talked about the impact of poverty on families if prompted but this rarely played out in their responses to cases.
Focus on risk
Strikingly, says Morris, poverty and its consequences was simply no longer seen as “core business” for children’s social workers. Instead a focus on risk dominated. Practitioners felt “so overwhelmed” by the wider issues facing families, that they focused on individual harms detached from their wider causes.
There were few practice tools that included addressing poverty or inequalities as a core concern. Worse still, the researchers found examples of systems and processes that caused further shame and hardship to families.
“For example, we saw plans that were testing family cooperation but without providing necessary funding, and bureaucracy that sent families on trips to multiple offices to claim reimbursement, despite evident severe financial hardships.”
Morris says there is much more analysis to do of the findings. Over the coming months the team will be completing fieldwork with families to bring their experiences into the research. They will also be undertaking feedback sessions with practitioners. However, she feels there are already important lessons from the research.
First, she argues, social work should refamiliarise itself with the relationship between poverty and child abuse and neglect.
The profession has become “muddled” in considering this link, she says, and too often avoids talking about it out of fear of being seen to be “oppressive”. This “denies the realities for many families and means we fail to tackle the issues that make family life tough”.
Secondly, practice frameworks should be created that create a “clear expectation” of assessing the consequences of poverty on a family. Doing so will help services reconnect with the “core business of families” – food, shelter and dignity – rather than what Morris labels the “core business of agencies” – rationing, resource management and performance management.
Ultimately, Morris argues, social work practice has to be set within an understanding of the wider environment if child welfare inequalities are to be tackled.
“I know, from many years in practice and management there are no easy answers – social work has always struggled with these concerns. But we also have a proud history of challenging injustices, and I hope our research can make a positive contribution to this tradition.”