Should written agreements still be a common part of child protection practice?

Recent reviews have criticised written agreements - are they still a useful tool for social workers and families?

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‘Draconian’; ‘unsafe’; ‘knee jerk reaction’; ‘shoddy practice’. These are just some of the criticisms of written agreements made by social workers who responded to a Community Care survey in June.

Concerns over social workers’ use of written agreements in child protection cases – often where domestic abuse is a factor – have been evident in recent months in serious case reviews, and were raised again in a recent thematic report by inspectors. And now Community Care’s survey has also found misgivings about these agreements, while highlighting some of their benefits if used with care.

In June, a serious case review into the death of a four-week-old baby included wide-ranging criticisms of how social workers used written agreements. The author said a written agreement the parents signed was “not a safety measure” and served to “provide a degree of reassurance to social workers”. It warned against written agreements being used to “protect the agency” rather than being part of a plan to help protect children.

Another SCR published earlier this month, into the death of Ayeeshia-Jayne Smith, criticised an agreement that “was not helpful and placed an unrealistic expectation” on the mother.

The review author said: “The role of written agreements…appears to be common and, yet, it is known that women who are in situations where domestic abuse is a risk will find it very hard to comply with such an agreement.”

Community Care’s survey, which received almost 150 responses, raised similar concerns.

Some of the respondents felt the agreements were focused more on protecting the local authority than the family, with one respondent stating they were used to “cover our backs”. However, others championed the success of agreements that put local authority concerns into perspective for parents, and said that when parents contribute to and understand an agreement, it can lead to positive outcomes.

Understanding

The purpose of a written agreement is to clearly set out required actions a family should undertake to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the child in the case.

The agreements can include asking a victim of domestic violence to ensure they do not have contact with their abuser, or a person struggling with alcohol addiction not to drink, or at least not to drink when the children are in the house.

From a local authority perspective, written agreements don’t have legal force but are a useful way of communicating concerns with parents, and gathering evidence on parents’ ability to change and work with them. They can be used alongside child in need plans, child protection plans and when children are looked after.

Adam Birchall, principal social worker for children, young people and families in Solihull, says these agreements work well when there is some “buy in” from the family and they are specific about what is being asked of them.

“Our service users should understand why we’re working with them, what we hope to achieve and what the expectations are. Written agreements can be great as a framework, but beyond that it’s about the substantive work that goes on,” Birchall says.

He adds: “Where social workers think a written agreement equals safety is where there is a bigger risk, but sometimes setting out in an easy-to-understand form what it is you are worried about and what you are expecting the parents to do, that can be helpful.”

Protecting the agency

Two-thirds of the children’s social workers who responded to Community Care’s survey had seen written agreements be both successful and unsuccessful, and a similar number felt a written agreement “sometimes” encouraged parents to work with children’s services.

However, 68% felt agreements were used to protect the agency and reassure social workers rather than support a family.

Commenting on written agreements, an assistant director says they are “not enforceable, are draconian and do not provide any protection for the child”.

A social worker who responded to the survey commented that the agreements were “over prescriptive” or can be “vague or unrealistic” and therefore set families up to fail. This respondent admitted to using both vague and over prescriptive agreements while an inexperienced social worker.

‘Little meaning’

Another said: “They have little meaning. They provide no safety for the child. My local authority does not use them as a matter of practice. It is easy for parents to misinterpret what they mean. They are often a knee jerk reaction to provide safety without completing a safety plan or any actual change work to affect a situation. They are often used to deal with men differently – restricting contact, which is not legal for the local authority to impose when a man has [parental responsibility] for his children. I think they are shoddy practice.”

A social worker said their authority was criticised in court because of their use of written agreements.

“We were told we had ‘backed mother into a corner’ with too many conditions and rules. We obviously didn’t feel this was true. Ultimately the child was removed from her care and eventually adopted. The written agreement did not change mother’s parenting; she simply didn’t agree with any aspect of it so did nothing to keep the child safe.”

In the recent thematic inspection of multi-agency responses to domestic abuse, inspectors found widespread use of the agreements in two authorities despite “no evidence they are effective”.

‘Not effective’

Eleanor Schooling, national director for social care at Ofsted, says that written agreements in domestic abuse cases often focus “on the wrong people”.

“Some adults are asked to sign up to written agreements about not being in contact with an abusive partner or not allowing them to the house and not having contact with that partner,” Schooling says.

“It’s not really as simple as that, it might be better if the abusive person had been the one who had to sign up to the written contract rather than the one that’s the subject of the abuse. This is often then why they fall down and are not effective.”

She says circumstances like this can often lead to social workers removing children from someone who is abused because they are unable to stop the abuser doing things laid out in the written agreement.

She says in other areas of children’s social care these agreements can be used well. She gives the example of family group conferences, and how getting every member of the family to sign up to something for a child can be a positive step.

“It’s very specifically in relation to domestic abuse we think it’s not going well, because of the power relationship obviously,” Schooling says.

She says this area of practice needs more work to see if there are ways services can place the responsibility on abusers “much more clearly”.

‘Controversy’

Written agreements in a domestic abuse context were also questioned in Ayeeshia-Jayne Smith’s serious case review. The author, Jenny Myers, said: “They may be effective if the adult/s are central to their development, feel able to comply with realistic expectations, and are clear what the consequences are if they are not adhered to.”

The review added: “Good practice would suggest that written agreements are a statement of the local authority’s concerns and advice to a parent, that they are not a contract and therefore there is no requirement for parents to sign their agreement.”

Birchall takes a similar view on the practice’s merits and faults.

“I can understand why there is controversy about it [in practice]. We’re quite often jargonistic in what we do. Sometimes we don’t understand what is in the agreement, let alone families – especially when we use generic terms, such as ‘risk’ or ‘significant harm’,” Birchall admits.

However, he adds: “Every child protection plan is essentially a written agreement, every child in need plan is one… Every plan we make with a family is the same because we don’t live with the families we are working with, so we set out what everyone has to do and ask them to sign up to doing it.

“It’s interesting that written agreements are the ones that [stand out] because there isn’t a statutory basis for them, some of it goes on trust and some of it goes into what is the larger plan.”

He says good practice is about “who has written it, what are the goals, are those goals shared”.

“If you don’t think the family are sharing the same goals then you are off to a loser from the get go.”

Evidence

He adds that they still have a place in child protection, because they help give professionals and services an evidence base, as well as giving social workers the opportunity to be creative with how they are used.

“I worked on a case where a mum wasn’t an alcoholic but went on horrendous benders and could become violent. We set it up that the older child, he had his own agreement, that he would call his grandma [when it happened],” Birchall says.

“That worked quite well, in terms of monitoring, but only because the young person really bought into the plan – and the family helped devise it,” he adds.

Social workers who responded to Community Care’s survey had also seen agreements used in positive ways.

“I have found it effective with a young person who has a child,” one social worker said. “It guides them and [they] are able to refer back to it when unsure about a decision they are making in reference to their child.”

Another said the process can help parents feel that they are negotiating with services, and be empowering for them to make a change.

Safety

So what is to be done with written agreements? Or is this an area where how services understand and apply them is the key issue, not the practice itself?

Birchall insists they still have a place in practice, as long as the work social workers are doing around them is good.

“If you’re equating a written agreement to safety you’re off to a bad start,” Birchall says. “A piece of paper with a signature is never going to keep a child safe”.

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9 Responses to Should written agreements still be a common part of child protection practice?

  1. Chris September 21, 2017 at 12:53 pm #

    All seems very familiar. I used to get very frustrated as a local authority social worker when asked to draft a written agreement where a parent promised not to do things which were *illegal*… If they’re willing to defy the law of the land, what use is a written agreement?
    I’d take the argument about ‘covering the LA’s back’ a step further – they’re often used to set the parent up to fail, signing an agreement know will be broken, so that this will provide evidence to a court that the parent can’t be trusted.

    In my experience, the push for a WA often comes from CAFCASS in care proceedings – nowadays, as soon as I heard a Guardian demand a “strong/robust/comprehensive/clear written agreement” it’s a massive red flag – the Guardian is positioning themselves in order to be able to say that they wanted a “more robust” agreement when it falls apart later. 99% of the time, a WA in court has come after a Guardian recommended the child stays at home, but feels very anxious about it. Social Workers need to be more confident in calling out Guardians or managers who are using a WA as a way of covering their own accountability.

  2. stephen robinson September 21, 2017 at 5:17 pm #

    its important to have a structure, not so good if that structure if flawed, be it because of training,understanding,expectations etc – i dont think in principle written agreements are wrong – do they need to be signed?, do they work? should they always be used? – but the social worker does need a structure and so do the families so perhaps this review highlights the need to improve, by alternative tools, changing the ones available or adapting how and when they are used.

  3. LongtimeSW September 22, 2017 at 2:37 pm #

    At the risk of repeating what has already been outlined they are only as good or effective as their intended function is – If and when I use them I make clear to carer’s that they are not a legal document but a way of both family and Children Services evidencing concerns/expectations – l try to always read alongside or with them at their pace stopping to clarify any points not understood or accurate. Nor are they are meant to ‘make the child safe’ but they are meant to be the basis of evidence based social work that is intended to contribute to a ‘wrap around’ service- as for the points raised above about setting parent’s up to fail, perhaps the failing is in not being clear about timescales for review of the agreement and the purpose – like any document it should be reviewed and updatyed as circumstances change. Also like any document it has legal status as evidence in a court setting.

    Most importantly of all good written agreements are (should) be focused on outcomes for the child

  4. machiavelli September 22, 2017 at 8:09 pm #

    Written agreements can also serve as a tool to reassure other agencies. I remember a joint CP visit during which the police officer was about to PP a child. The officer was clearly inexperienced in CP and i did not think that the threshold had in any way been met so I used a written agreement as “smoke and mirrors” to reassure the police that the child would be safe. Although not worth the paper that their written on the agreement reassured the police that the mother would work with us. It worked and after a thorough assessment mother and child remainded together and are thriving. Real social work in my opinion.

  5. Sharon September 24, 2017 at 3:39 pm #

    Written agreements are not worth the paper they are wrote on…
    How does this keep children safe?
    It doesn’t..
    Why would an abuser sign a written agreement and agree to these terms.
    If a child is that much at risk remove them for their own safety..

  6. Sarah wood September 26, 2017 at 3:30 pm #

    What happens when a parent admits one offence of a slap the child lies overwhelmingly​
    Child placed under a section 47 no checks on parent followed up what’s so ever parent accept police caution not having been made aware of further allegations made by the child later fully retracted parent then left named as a neglect and child cruelty signed of but left with that on a DBS after not one shred of proven evidence been submitted and child returned

  7. Shederv September 29, 2017 at 7:38 pm #

    How can an “agreement ” possibly back a mother into a corner? Such a contract is merely a suggestion, and desperation to be seen to comply is usually in my experience (as a social worker, a child protection manager, a Practice Educator and a domestic violence consultant) the reason parents, mothers in particular, say they will conform to it. If there is real collaboration and the removal of threats on the part of the authority agreements can be a really good way of marking progress for workers and families alike.

  8. Sarah Pritchard October 7, 2017 at 6:34 am #

    Everything that goes into a written agreement should be the basis of the “plan” in whatever setting (cin, cp, lac). Thinking of a plan…. it sets out the vision of where everyone involved needs to support the child to reaching (outcomes), details roles and expectations in a SMART way…. therefore if developed WITH family and professionals it will be the vehicle of change and make a difference. It is the agreement of everyone.

    So why would you need a written agreement?? I absolutely have used them because that was the culture and I thought it was right and would keep children safe. Reflecting back I was not THINKING SLOWLY enough, I was just doing the process and it provided me, the la and other agencies reassurance that the parents new the score. What did it provide the parents…. just a threat… to motivate change through fear… something that actually would be used against family members to inflict more trauma and unrealistic pressure.

    Written agreements shouldn’t be used, they don’t keep children safe. Plans need to be the focus developed from slow thinking, partnership and analysis…..WHAT WILL MAKE THE DIFFERENCE.

  9. The Voice Of Reason October 8, 2017 at 5:41 pm #

    Yet another deeply disturbing debate, rendered all the more so by the flippant nature of some of the comments made in response to the lead article.

    If people such as “Machiavelli” (an interesting, and somewhat suggestive, online moniker, to say the least… see below) believe that written agreements are “smoke and mirrors” and “not worth the paper they are written on”, then why use them? Indeed, the comment made by “Machiavelli” is truly disturbing, and shows a level of incompetence which stands out as scary… After all, just HOW could “Machiavelli” know that the Police Officer was “clearly inexperienced” in child protection? Was the officer wearing some sort of badge, or T-shirt that advertised this fact? NO! The statement given is merely based upon “Machiavelli”‘s opinion, and therefore does not represent fact. Indeed, how do any of us know whether “Machiavelli” is experienced or not in child protection? And then to say “I don’t think the threshold had been in any way met”. Well, clearly other workers involved in the case DID believe the threshold had been met. So, why dear “Machiavelli”, did you believe it was acceptable to throw your weight around and lie to the Police by providing a “smoke and mirrors” written agreement that you, yourself, admit you do not believe is “worth the paper it’s written on” in order to confirm the safety of a child whose safety clearly could NOT be confirmed by a written agreement that YOU, yourself, did not even have faith in? APPALLING, TRULY APPALLING PRACTICE! And, if the “get out clause” is to claim that “mother and child are now thriving”, then just where is the proof? No further information is provided, so the case that is being described could just as easily be fictitious as real.

    By the way… an explanation as to why “Machiavelli” as an online identity/moniker rings alarm bells… To be “Machiavellian” according to the Oxford English Dictionary means “to be cunning, scheming and unscrupulous, especially in Politics”. Hmmmm!!!!! Surely to argue online that one uses written agreements in child protection proceedings as “smoke and mirrors” despite thinking they are “not worth the paper they are written on” reveals a character that is SCHEMING AND UNSCRUPULOUS? Caught “in flagrante delicto” methinks!! And, yes, I used THAT particular phrase deliberately!

    “Sarah Wood”‘s comment is disturbing, too. To suggest that “what happens when a parent admits one offence of a slap the child lies overwhelmingly”. Who says that children who have been abused lie? What does it mean to “lie overwhelmingly”? It might be argued that parents who abuse their children and then deny this, minimize this, and seek to cover this up are equally “lying overwhelmingly”.

    I will be absolutely blunt here. I am sick and tired of this complete, total and utter nonsense in respect of child protection. I am sick and tired of seeing the same old polarized argument. The nonsensical tit-for-tat. It worries me deeply that I have witnessed this ridiculous rhetoric elsewhere, most notably put forward by advocates of such theories as “false memory syndrome” or “parental alienation syndrome”. All I see is a ridiculous, circular stalemate in which the following occurs…

    Abuse is alleged (either by child, or third party) then…
    Parents get offended because abuse is alleged and they are terrified of being investigated, then…
    Parents blame child for alleging abuse, and try to make out child is lying, then…
    Child (or original alleger of abuse) fights even harder to confirm that abuse did occur, because they feel upset, angry, offended, frightened and concerned that they are not being listened to and believed, so…
    Parents try hard to cover up any claims of abuse, and to make sure that no evidence can be presented to an investigation; they try to make out they are the “perfect parents in a perfect family”, but…
    The child now feels that the parents are trying to cover something up, and this causes even greater offence, and adds to the sense of being abused…

    And on, and on, and on it goes. All because we have an adversarial legal system in which two opposing sides are allowed, even encouraged, to present two opposing stories. Thus, in an abuse or domestic violence case, it is inevitable that this pathetic tit-for-tat will occur, as accuser and accused take two opposing stances. Meanwhile, the services which are meant to investigate whether abuse has actually occurred find themselves diverted by having to deal with the inevitable fallout caused by the incessant tit-for-tat arguments of those who back different sides in any family court case.

    Most disturbing of all is the fact that some people have made very lucrative “careers” (I use parentheses to highlight the fact that I think such careers should not exist as they border upon abusive in their own right) out of encouraging this tit-for-tat adversarial nonsense. It concerns me immensely that said individuals ALWAYS take the side of the ACCUSED PARENT, claiming that child victims of abuse fabricate claims, or lie, or have “false memories”. What kind of person wants to attempt to discredit a child who may have been abused? Surely the most prudent, responsible thing to do is to fully, thoroughly, accurately and sensitively investigate the claim whilst attempting to remain impartial and objective respecting those involved. NOT to turn round and instantly claim the alleged child victim of abuse is a “liar”, “fabricating stories”, “making things up” or recalling “false memories”.

    In a genuinely loving, caring, nurturing, supportive, healthy family do we REALLY believe that children will fabricate, invent or otherwise make up allegations of abuse against their parents (whom it is to be anticipated they will love and care for)? WHY would an innocent child make deliberately false allegations of abuse against a loving, caring parent? I ask you… THINK about it. Though we may believe children to have vivid imaginations, I do NOT believe in any way that a child’s imagination conceives of false abuse allegations against an innocent parent. Indeed, I find it hard to see how a child could conceive of abuse, unless the child had some actual, REAL experience of being abused or witnessing abuse.

    Allow me to be blunt. Child abuse involves doing things to a child that children in regular, healthy and non-abusive families DO NOT experience. Indeed, it often involves doing things to a child that society would NOT expect ANY CHILD to experience. Does any one of us actually believe that children in general experience sexual acts with adults, or use drugs and alcohol long before puberty, or get thrown down the stairs, or locked in coal holes, or left to feed themselves from bin bags…? So, if a child, or youth, alleges that such things have happened to them then WHY should they be making it up? After all, such experiences are outside the usual and expected remit of experiences that a child or youth might have – so where would the child/youth gain knowledge of such experiences in order to report them as abuse? I truly DO NOT believe that little children have extensive knowledge of sexual acts amounting to abuse, of emotional and verbal abuse, of physical abuse and suchlike unless they have either first-hand experienced them, or else witnessed them.

    There may be people who argue that children could see such things on television, or on the internet, or read about them… But, I ask you, just how many of us would truly expect that our children are regularly seeing such things on TV, or reading about such things? And, even if children WERE to do this, it still begs the question as to WHY a child would allege that such things happened to him/her. Especially if that child is supposed to come from a loving, caring family. Children may have vivid imaginations; BUT imaginations that prompt them to allege abuse against an innocent and beloved parent? Somehow I think NOT.

    Furthermore, because a child’s sphere of life experiences is pretty limited, we can see that little children to teens have only a certain number of people they are likely to come into contact with, and to gain experiences from. Most children and youths will have parents, or carers with whom they reside (unless they are in residential care homes/orphanages/boarding schools); most will go to school; most will have an extended family including grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins; most have friends of their own age. Besides this, they may come into contact with other people like the family GP; workers in shops where they or their family shop; neighbours; the postman/woman; people involved in childrens’ leisure activities such as sport coaches, music teachers, Scout masters; if they are religious, people at their church, mosque, etc… It would NOT be expected that such people teach the child about, or encourage the child to participate in, sexual acts, drinking alcohol underage, taking illegal drugs, crime, violence… So, if the people a child comes into contact regularly with are not expected to do such things, just WHERE would a child have learned about such things in order to report abuse? Either the child has encountered such things as a result of a relationship with one of the people listed (which IS therefore abuse), OR the child has encountered it elsewhere (meaning that there IS still a possibility the child WAS abused by someone unknown).

    Anyhow, if we put aside the distracting issue of arguments over whether alleged victims of abuse are “believable” (and anyone doing their job in child protection correctly, and well, will do so) then we come to the issue of written agreements. Doubtless, issues over their validity and use will continue to rage, as arguments for and against both exist. The problem lies truly in something that nobody has talked about – TRUST. If one uses a written agreement, one has to accept that its outcome will depend upon the level of trust that can be placed upon a family, or individual, to adhere to the agreement. This is highly relevant, given that even within “Community Care” itself, several articles have been devoted to the problem of identifying perpetrators of domestic abuse and coercive control. If we find such people hard to identify, then equally, we must find such people hard to understand and to get to know. This implies that trust also becomes a difficult issue. After all, how does one trust a person who is hard to identify and understand?

    The above is HUGELY important, as it highlights a SIGNIFICANT problem in child protection, domestic violence intervention, and Social Work overall. There is far too much focus merely upon “CRISIS INTERVENTION” as opposed to longer term work that sees, and works with, the “bigger picture”. Put simply, the longer one works with a family, individual, victim or perpetrator, the longer one has to get to know this family or individual. To find out background information. To learn about contacts, support networks, finances, physical and mental health, housing, drug or alcohol usage… To gather information of a nature that provides a better understanding of an individual, or of a family’s dynamics, and how these relate to any allegations of abuse. Unfortunately, budget cuts, pay cuts, reduces resources, staff shortages, massive caseloads and suchlike mean that there is pressure to move cases on, thus reducing the amount of long term and preventative work that can be done. Sadly, the truth is that the longer any worker spends on one case, the more other cases will mount up. So, instead, some Local Authorities attempt to progress cases quickly, and some even close them inappropriately early. The more overwhelmed a Local Authority is in terms of reduced budget, shortage of staff, lacking resources… the more likely it may be that such a Local Authority will struggle to meet the demands of working with high numbers of complex cases that require long term intervention.

    And the less time staff have to work with individuals and families, the less they get to know and understand these people and the situations they face. Resulting in poorer quality assessments, and poorer quality care. Because, despite what some scientists may claim, people CANNOT make appropriate and effective evaluations of others based solely upon limited first impressions. They need time to appraise the situation and the person.

    In those exceptional cases where a person gets a really strong “gut feeling” about another person – say, where you meet someone and they come across as really “creepy”, or evasive, or defensive, or really hard to read – then perhaps we ought to give more credit to such feelings. Whilst I would be wary of making snap judgements of all people, and whilst I would not advocate judging everyone on first impressions, there CAN be times when our “gut” is a very good, and reliable instinct. Here, I recall a case where I worked with an offender in prison. This was the one and only time I have felt “creeped out” by a service user. The individual boasted of links to the Sicilian Mafia and of links to Mafia-style organizations in places like London and Malta. The individual had a history of domestic violence. Interviewing the service user was uncomfortable – they were always very defensive, guarded, and intimidating, making personal threats. I was NOT alone in feeling wary of said prisoner. Other staff felt this way, too. You might like to know that the prisoner in question assaulted a member of staff, and absconded. Say no more! Sometimes, you CAN trust your “gut”!

    The building of relationships over the long term with service users is vitally important – not friendships, that is irresponsible, but good, professional relationships. A rapport. Where such a rapport exists, then it may well be staff find it useful to work with written agreements, because they can be collaborative and permit service users to engage more fully with the process of rehabilitation, change, or moving forwards. However, if (as pointed out by “Shederv”) service users only accept such agreements out of desperation, or a desire to appear compliant, then it is unlikely they will be useful. The desire to APPEAR compliant is not in the least bit the same as actually BEING compliant. A person can feign compliance for any number of reasons – to dupe staff into being less rigorous in their investigations of abuse; to hide further abuse; to present a good case in court for custody, etc. Feigned compliance is NOT true compliance, it is merely a mask that a potential abuser may assume and wear in order to hide further acts of abuse, or to evade having to take full responsibility for past abuse.

    For example, a person with mental health problems might feel sick of having to have contact with their mental health team. They might also not really believe they are mentally ill (i.e. they lack insight). They might have Bi-Polar and actually LIKE being MANIC because it makes them feel invincible. This person might tell the mental health team that they are taking all their tablets, but actually might not take the tablets at all. The feigned compliance may work for a while, and the mental health team may reduce their visits, believing that the service user is compliant with medication, and thus mentally stable (i.e. non-symptomatic). Meanwhile, the service user, who is NOT regularly taking their medication, may at first feel relieved, or even proud, to have evaded the continued attention of mental health services, and may be delighted that visits/appointments have reduced. However, over time, symptoms of mental illness (e.g. psychosis, hallucinations, extreme nervous energy) may return, and without the intervention of mental health services again, the person may end in crisis.

    THAT is why it is important to get to know people, and their situations, background, life experiences, etc. BEFORE making (often inappropriate) judgements.

    Duh! It’s not rocket science!

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