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.
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.