Feeling ‘social worked’: how can we better incorporate service user voices into children’s services?

Tony Stanley and Andy Couldrick talk about how children and families need to be better involved in the design of children's services

Picture credit: vege/fotolia

by Tony Stanley & Andy Couldrick

Social work is in the business of helping. In the name of helping though we can, at times, harm the very people we set out to serve.

Parents, carers, grandparents and wider family will feel our practice footprint, even if we don’t directly meet or engage with them. They are the hidden voices of our practice.

By paying closer attention to these voices, we argue, there is much to be gained. With well-established and creative children in care councils and care leaver forums, we think its time to enact a more meaningful participation with the hidden and marginalised voices of parents, carers and wider family.

Participation by people who use and experience services is a well-established principle across public services.

Best illustrated in the adult disability and mental health sectors, people who use these services continue to shape and influence design, delivery and evaluations of practice (Beresford, 2017).


Importantly the involvement by people who use services has helped to shape a social model of disability, ushering in a new paradigm and welcome alternative to deficit-focussed and problem-saturated ideas and practices. But in children’s social care this is still really undeveloped.

There are some good transformational examples to learn from. The New York child welfare system has successfully involved family and parental experience in their services for many years (Tobis, 2013).

Parents who were frustrated and alarmed by the quality and experience of the social work service offered and received successfully agitated and argued to be more centrally involved with both its design and delivery.

Australasia and Norway have great models of meaningful co-production, and here in the UK adult social care has much to teach children’s social care with the Care Act’s wellbeing principle and Making Safeguarding Personal agenda sound backdrops for stronger inclusive practice.

Fresh opportunity

This being said, how can we bring these ideas to life in really busy and overworked children’s services? Are new and emerging children’s trusts a fresh opportunity?

Birmingham Children’s Trust is setting up a peer-based service user group to help facilitate the involvement of those who feel ‘social worked’.

When Tony was in Tower Hamlets he ran this exercise a few years ago, and not surprisingly parents and family members involved with children’s services said things like ‘Don’t move the goal posts’, ‘be straight with us’, and ‘if you say you are going to visit, then show up’.

These are sensible and realistic messages we need to pay attention to. To avoid tokenism, and to maximise the lived experience while showing the greatest respect for people who can feel harmed by us, this is an area in need of more debate and planning.

Importantly, if we say we are serious about learning from the hidden, we have to be committed to doing something about what they tell us.

Parents and carers who experience our services are a rich and largely untapped resource whom we can engage and welcome; we are trying to do so in Birmingham Children’s Trust’s working and governance arrangements.

Partners, not pariahs

Following David Tobis’ work, we want to see parents treated as partners, not pariahs. Key to this work is the relationships we build with wider families, and confident leadership where values of respect are not just given lip service – but we believe that families’ are worth doing business with.

This is not straightforward, as Arnstein (1969) points out in her participation ladder model. Much of what we do to involve others can too easily slip into tokenism at best and non-participation at worst. It will probably feel harmful. The language we use and overhear in our offices will show us if this work is token.

In sharing Parental Responsibility (PR) are we always working hard to engage and welcome those with PR? When we call people ‘paedophiles’, fathers can be easily closed out of our work. If the father is denied participation, or turned away, we deny ourselves and most importantly the child to the whole parental family system. This will feel harmful for the hidden voices.

Birmingham Children’s Trust is establishing person-centred governance arrangements, and informed by IFSWs focus on social justice and rights based practice (noted through BASW’s codes of ethics), professional leadership in this area can help to unlock the hidden voices, and learn in an open and more mature way, and by leading well, meaningful transformation is in sight. To date we have only just scratched the surface of whose voices are welcomed in to help us to do just that.

A one day West Midlands and North Midlands Teaching Partnership event for social care professionals is planned for February 8, held in Birmingham; planned, set up, hosted and organised by people who have experienced social work. This is a one day event to extend challenge around how we hear and how we pay attention to the hidden voices of our practice. Key debates from the day will follow.

Tony Stanley is the chief social worker at Birmingham Children’s Trust. Andy Couldrick is the chief executive at Birmingham Children’s Trust.

8 Responses to Feeling ‘social worked’: how can we better incorporate service user voices into children’s services?

  1. Hilton Dawson February 1, 2018 at 6:18 pm #

    The people you are talking about are citizens who at the very least pay your wages through their taxes & vote for the politicians who decide all the laws & policies behind all childrens’ services.
    Irrespective of whatever has brought them to social work attention they have their own history and networks and talents. It is the greatest failing of social work with children & families to allow its child protection responsibilities & legal obligations to obscure the enormous potential of work with groups of parents. Good luck in what you’re doing, with care & good judgement please hand back these people some real power.

  2. londonboy February 2, 2018 at 8:41 am #

    ‘frustrated and alarmed’ – I’d go so far as to say ‘alienated and traumatised’.
    The silence from SW’s speaks volumes.

  3. Childrenfirst February 2, 2018 at 9:27 am #

    There is obviously a necessary power imbalance, but certain Individual professionals and in some cases teams misuse this and devalue the importance of working together and forging relationships. Additionally psychological assessments should be routinely carried out on social workers….in my experience some come to the profession with their own baggage that has not been dealt with and leads to poor practice.

    • Laura Bye February 5, 2018 at 4:52 pm #

      Elaborate on your experiences with people coming to the profession with their own baggage before being dealt with? I totally agree about the power imbalance though.

  4. londonboy February 2, 2018 at 10:23 am #

    Or to put it another way

    In England/Wales, formal guidelines acted as a primary and foremost frame of reference. Information sharing between professionals was a priority in measures to secure protection. The importance of intuition, ethical implications, and the involvement of family members were only referred to occasionally. Relationships and conversations between professionals, at times, seemed to supersede engagement with children and parents. Preventing the worst became the primar consideration in this guideline‐driven system. Partly, it seemed as if the heart of social work had atrophied.

    Child protection systems between professional cooperation and trustful relationships: A comparison of professional practical and ethical dilemmas in England/Wales, Germany, Portugal, and Slovenia


  5. Marion wood February 2, 2018 at 10:14 pm #

    I wish you well with this as New York shows it could be very powerful in changing practice. We had David Tobias over to Edinburgh and few years ago and have set up a group called Parents Advocacy Rights but have been struggling to get a foothold where it matters

    • Sean Haresnape February 11, 2018 at 9:49 pm #

      Are you aware of the brilliant work that Edinburgh Family Group Conference service is doing giving families a central role and voice?

  6. Laura Bye February 5, 2018 at 4:46 pm #

    I very much agree that by listening and involving service users and past service users into shaping social work would improve the services and the families involved.

    I myself was taken into care when I was three years old, unfortunately social services failed on numerous amounts of time and ending up breach many of my humans rights and never followed their policies and procedures that were set in place. To put it bluntly I was never safeguarded and social services never acted upon on their duty to me. What I am trying to get at it is that no matter how qualified you are, no disrespect to any social worker or the profession as I myself am training to be a social worker now, but no qualification will be able to make you understand what it is really like to be in care or receive these services from social workers and other professions. The forward thinking way of this would be like we say in daily life, Customer feedback.

    I strongly believe people who have been through the system should very much be involved in the shaping of the system as are we not the ones that have to live and breathe this system so why should we not have a say in how this should be shaped? The system all seems very robotic.

    Many care leavers struggle to go on and lead successful lives due to the challenges they have faced as children, and I talk on behalf off many care leavers, it is hard and as you transition into adult hood it does not get easier as the support goes. You have to think when you are 26,30,50,60 you always have people to turn to this is not always the case for care leavers and I have seen this to be the main reason or isolation.

    I want to give an example just to open up peoples minds….
    If I was to have a child who do I ring when I am not sure if my child has heat rash? or a nappy rash? or my child did not stop crying? Or how to certain things our parents would have taught us or we know we can call when we are worried. its always the little things that seem to be missed.
    By not having the right connections and support could lead to mental health problems and could even cause our children to suffer because we cant cope ourselves or have not been shown how to do certain things and we simply have no help, and everyone needs help and everyone always need someone no matter how young or old. P.s. I don’t have children this is just an example.

    If you have a look at charities such as the REES foundation they are about empowering care leavers, utilising their skills and trying to shape how care should be as we are the ones who have received it. Our opinion matters, our voice matters. Most importantly they offer a community, a community which should be vital in the care leaving framework.

    If this ignored and not listened to failings are going to come down to social services like many cases do. I myself can also talk first hand on this as I have to had to uphold a complaint with my local authority. So to prevent these, include service users and past service users and learn from mistakes and learn about what works and what doesn’t. It will be very useful and eye opening to the profession.