Recent serious case reviews have concluded that social workers struggle to deal with hostile and intimidating parents. Jim Wild explains why a national response is needed
"I raised the issue in supervision that the man in the family was threatening. He said to me: 'You don't take our kids off us, if you do things happen to you....When my last visit ended he said he would see me out and I should take care crossing the road, because accidents happen.... It left me feeling frightened and in fear of my life.
"I took it up with my manager who thought I needed to toughen myself up if I wanted to stay in the work. He was more concerned I got my files up to date and that assessments had been completed within the timescales. That service user kept me awake at night, gave me nightmares and led me to start looking in the vacancies section."
The above quote is taken from a newly qualified social worker who recently attended a two-day workshop I facilitated on working with difficult, dangerous and evasive adults in child protection.
It is by no means an isolated or extreme example of what frontline social workers tell me they face in their day-to-day work.
In his 2003 research professor Brian Littlechild, associate head of social work at the University of Hertfordshire, found the number of threats and violence was much higher in child protection work than 10 years earlier. Managers felt social workers needed a certain level of resilience to cope with it.
Littlechild found not only was this having a personal impact on workers, in terms of higher sick leave, impaired relationships at home and changing jobs, but there was also a build-up of aggression and intimidation, which many felt unable to divulge to supervisors, and left them lacking confidence.
Child protection workers can sometimes become subject to hostage theory, according to Professor Chris Goddard, director of Child Abuse Prevention Research Australia at Monash University, Melbourne. His research with Dr Janet Stanley drew a comparison with Stockholm Syndrome in which a parent acts as the terrorist and the social worker adopts defences for self-preservation such as denying the threat or identifying with the aggressor.
Both found that this often resulted in less protection for the child.
From my own experience in child protection I remember visiting a family where the man in the house had a "reputation". His partner told me: "Phil is from Northern Ireland. He knows how to plant car bombs." I worked in a dysfunctional team with a manager who was hopeless. Consequently, my survival strategy was to regularly check under my car for any strange devices. Once, when I was undertaking one such check on the car, my manager, who was passing, asked if everything was OK. "Yes, just checking the tread on my tyres," I explained.
We all develop our own coping or survival strategies but often these are inadequate. The real issue is why has so little been done to tackle what appears to be an increasing problem within child protection.
Two serious case reviews this year have concluded that bad decisions were made because social workers had been intimidated by the parents involved in the cases.
The first case, in east Cheshire, found practitioners had failed to challenge an adoptive mother's aggressive and hostile behaviour and were deterred from challenging the parents because of their class and professional standing, both being widely respected pharmaceutical scientists. This led to 10 missed opportunities to protect the children from further abuse.
In the second case, in north London, a mother used formal complaints as a weapon to deflect proper assessment until the death of her eldest child.
In 2000 there was a government taskforce on this issue but little has resulted. Certainly my impression is that the issue is getting worse.
There are some good children's services departments in local authorities that take this issue seriously and try to support workers who face varying levels of daily intimidation. But there are many more oblivious to the issues or perfunctory in their approach.
Within the next few months I hope to launch a national initiative with Littlechild and Goddard. We have the support and commitment of Community Care to help organisations and frontline workers. It is potentially one of the most exciting and innovative projects I can think of.
It begins with a survey, launched today on www.communitycare.co.uk in partnership with Reconstruct consultancy, to find out whether our hunches are correct and the problem is on the scale we believe it is. It is important to fill it in.
This will be our weapon to try to bring influential sector leaders on board to develop some tools, events and national approaches and models that will help frontline social workers.
Complaints are a form of intimidation too
Dr Siobhan Laird from the Centre for Social Work at the University of Nottingham explains why formal complaints can be used as a form of intimidation.
Three particular cases highlight the consequences when social workers are intimidated by parents who misuse complaints procedures.
One of the most recent, a serious case review in Barking and Dagenham, east London, concerned Ajit, a 12-year-old boy who died after being forced to drink bleach by his mother, Satpal Kaur Singh. Singh formally complained about two social workers allocated to the case, alleging racism and sexism. Managers removed both social workers from work with the family.
The review concluded that such concessions on the part of managers were not in the interests of the children. Although the mother's complaints about white social workers not understanding her culture were specious, "professionals and agencies frequently failed to question or challenge these views".
Similarly in the Khyra Ishaq case, the mother, Angela Gordon, was often intimidating - refusing to let social workers enter the house - and also made a complaint of harassment about one of the social workers. As a result, it was decided that the social worker would not make a planned follow-up visit the next day to the school to see the siblings.
Finally, an inquiry into the case of child sexual abuse by two foster carers in Wakefield in 2007 found that, when one social worker suspected they might pose a risk to children, a counter complaint was made about the social worker being unreliable and difficult to contact, a point conceded by her manager. This meant the initial concern was soon clouded by justified complaints about the social worker's own conduct.
Such instances of parents or carers using complaints to deflect scrutiny of their care of children reveal several important issues.
First, the extremely vulnerable position practitioners can find themselves in when working with unco-operative and unscrupulous parents, particularly if they are not backed by their line managers and decisions are taken that undermine them.
Second, the reality that social workers can sometimes be at fault and a carer's complaint justified. But such complaints need to be separated out from any concern a social worker has about risk, so that the two are separately investigated.
Third, it raises a question about the thrust of anti-oppressive training on qualifying courses and continuing professional development. Although there is a need to focus on the power of social workers as professionals and the possible discrimination and stigmatisation of subordinate social groups in society, there is also a need to acknowledge that parents or carers from these groups sometimes use this and the complaints procedure as a weapon.
Currently this training is not equipping practitioners with the self-confidence to challenge malicious accusations of discrimination.
(picture credit: Benjamin Wachanje/CIA)
Jim Wild is an associate trainer for Reconstruct, a child protection consultancy, training and research agency. Email email@example.com
Take part in our survey
Have you been threatened, intimidated or felt hostile parents had affected your ability to protect a child? Take Community Care's survey on hostile and intimidating parents by going to www.surveymonkey.com/s/comcarehostile. The survey will be closed on Friday 21 October and results published before the end of November.
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