Serious success reviews: how a council is using positive outcomes to reflect on social work practice

Complex case with favourable outcome showcased in serious success review from Bexley council

failure success
Photo: ra2 studio/Fotolia

In September, hundreds of staff members from Bexley council and children’s services gathered in a hall to hear about a social worker’s case.

What made this presentation different from other major reflections on social work practice was that it analysed good practice, and a successful outcome.

“We had Eileen Munro come to one of our staff conferences last year, and she was talking about serious cases reviews and how the same thing comes up in everyone, and we never seem to learn from it,” explains Lori Goossen, service manager for professional standards and quality assurance and academy in Bexley.

“She said ‘Why don’t we learn from success and have serious success reviews?”

So Bexley council did.

The event, which featured presentations from the social worker on the case and was attended by the service users she worked with, was the third success review the authority had done, and the first presented in this format.

“It wasn’t forensic, like a serious case review,” Goossen explains. “It’s more [about] what are all the things that went right, when things went wrong what did you do differently to make things right or improve things.”

‘Critical self-reflection’

The case was a complex one. It involved a mother of eight children, all of whom had been removed into care previously, with five subsequently adopted. This case began when the mother called her social worker to say she was pregnant again with the same father as the last child removed from her care.

The social worker who worked on the case has been kept anonymous to prevent identifying the service users involved. She tells Community Care the call prompted some critical self-reflection about the work she had done with the mother, who was only known to Bexley for the most recent removal.

“I immediately went into a social work panic. ‘Was everything I did with them over the last year superficial? They’ve got together while I was still involved, and they didn’t tell us that had happened. They were meant to be separated,’” she explains.

But after stepping back, she saw the positives: “She’s called me to tell us she’s pregnant, which is a pretty big deal.

“She knows what’s probably going to happen. Me, and my manager at the time, thought: We know them, she’s done this, that is already a strength, let’s not rush into immediately thinking the worst, let’s do the proper pre-birth assessment and take everything that’s happening now into account.”

Serious success review

“There were quite a lot of battles across the way,” says the social worker.

“Most people’s reaction was ‘there is no chance’. ‘Look at the history’, ‘she won’t be able to do it’.

“The path of least resistance would be to go straight into court; we probably would have got a court order. So, having to go to things like resource panels when people on the panel would say ‘are you serious?’, you can’t go to these things and be vaguely optimistic. I had to actually have evidence to back it up.”

This was part of a sequence of events and work with the family which means, in the weeks following the success review conference, Bexley has ended its involvement with them. The mother, father and two youngest children now live together.

The success – and challenges – of the case and its outcome prompted a serious success review. The session itself left “no dry eye in the place”, according to Goossen, following contributions from the parents at the heart of the case.

For practitioners, the success review “shifted” their thinking about certain cases.

“The real learning is looking at people individually, and as human beings, not: ‘This is this kind of case, therefore we do [this]’”, Goossen explains.

Different approaches

The social worker was initially not keen to do the presentation.

“As social workers we’re not very good for praising ourselves and talking about things that go well. When we were planning it, I said I’d rather stand up by myself and talk for an hour about all the not-great things I’ve done in my practice, because that feels more comfortable than saying: ‘Because I did this, this worked well,’” she explains.

The purpose of the session was to encourage people to look at cases differently and try different approaches, therefore there weren’t questions about decision making or other professionals suggesting what they would have done and when, she adds.
The response was “overwhelming”.

“Loads of people came up to the parents. People said they felt inspired with other families they are working with…[Some were] saying things like they are working in different parts of the service but it has made them want to come back to frontline social work.”Sharing success has begun to filter down from these larger reviewsset-piece reviews into group supervision, the social worker says, before adding it is working “really well”.

Goossen says the authority is going to continue doing these reviews, which happen following managers identifying good practice and bringing it to her attention. She adds that they would like to involve service users more in the future, and a positive outcome isn’t necessary for good practice to be shared.

“The ones we’ve looked at have all had really good outcomes, but we’d like to look in the future at ones that didn’t have the outcome we had hoped for, but were still good practice.”

For the social worker, she feels an immense amount of pride for the parents, the work they did during the case and for coming forward to speak about their experiences.

She encourages more practitioners to take a step back and consider all of the evidence before making judgements on a case.
“It’s not about ignoring any risk, but you can still look at different circumstances and strengths, because all families have a strength, regardless of what they have been through,” she says.

9 Responses to Serious success reviews: how a council is using positive outcomes to reflect on social work practice

  1. Angus Skinner December 6, 2017 at 12:57 pm #

    Excellent! Well done Bexley.

  2. LS SW December 6, 2017 at 3:50 pm #

    Love this. What a great idea.

  3. OW December 8, 2017 at 12:40 am #

    A heartfelt congratulations.

  4. Melanie December 8, 2017 at 4:37 pm #

    Brilliant, what a great way in inspire and motivate social workers about the children and families they support. Well done Bexley! Social Workers need to get better at celebrating success and this is a great first step!

    • Sue G December 9, 2017 at 8:08 am #

      So proud to have been part of Bexley’s journey, and such a great idea

  5. Janet Grauberg December 8, 2017 at 6:48 pm #

    This is a great read. I’ve just finished a Masters on Organisational Change, in which I focused on Spreading Innovation in Children’s Services. I came across some really interesting literature about deliberately looking for successes as a starting point for organisational learning & development. It is a recognised approach, especially in the overseas development literature. I think such a “strength-based” approach fits much better with social work values than the “burning platform” approach to change that has been our default approach. Would be great to hear more examples in our field.

  6. Aurelia Lea December 9, 2017 at 10:19 am #

    Fantastic!! I’m going to do this where I work!

  7. Anonymous December 10, 2017 at 1:32 pm #

    Well done Bexley. This is something i have been practicing on my daily sw role for 5 years.

  8. Leona December 10, 2017 at 11:28 pm #

    What a good outcome for everyone – the trust the family showed in coming to the social worker in the first place highlights the previous good practice undertaken and the social worker should be congratulated both for this and the work in looking at things afresh and with a critical eye. So pleased to hear this – thankyou.

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