When a parent wants to interfere with the child safeguarding process social workers can find themselves outmanoeuvred
The serious case review into the death of Khyra Ishaq revealed the extent of the hostility and resistance of Khyra's mother in her interactions with practitioners.
A major turning point in the case, according to the serious case review, was a significant change in Angela Gordon's behaviour. Previously co-operative with school authorities, Gordon turned against them, complaining they were not looking after or educating her children adequately. At one point she became so aggressive that a teacher feared for their physical safety in Gordon's presence. Gordon displayed a similar attitude towards social workers, filing a complaint following a home visit saying she had been "harassed".
Likewise, Gordon raised the spectre of racism in her dealings with authorities. On one occasion she said she would teach her children herself because, as Muslims, they were treated differently in school. She also alleged that one of her children had been racially bullied but that the school had failed to take the issue seriously, resulting in the child having a lack of trust in teachers.
The review concludes that Gordon's behaviour was a tactic used to deter professionals, steering them away from efforts to protect her children. Her strategy worked. The SCR says: "It would appear that the resistance and hostile approach demonstrated by the adults influenced and affected the professional actions. The approach reinforced that the power dynamics lay with the parents and not with the rights, welfare and protection of the children."
This problem is not unique to the Ishaq case. "It's an issue more common than has been identified and can pose a threat to a child's safety," says Ray Braithwaite, aggression and stress trainer. "It's become more of a focus since the Peter Connelly case, where the mother said she loved her child and that was taken at face value. I wonder how frequently statements like that are considered to indicate that the child will not be harmed."
Animosity and aggression
Manipulative parents can be difficult for social workers to handle. Practitioners have to be able to recognise manipulation when they see it and then need to work with that difficulty to ensure any children are safe. In these situations, social workers' authority can seem painfully limited.
"There's no doubt social workers do leave the profession in large numbers because of the animosity and aggression they're faced with on the job," says child protection expert and trainer Jim Wild. "The difference between social work and other professions in this situation is that there's very little scope for social workers to defend themselves. Police have ways of handling difficult service users - all social workers have to depend on is their communication skills."
Social workers' attempts to deal with resistant parents can be hampered by councils' resource constraints.
"Social workers have been telling me that they're expected to deal with very difficult situations but aren't given the proper resources to do so," says Braithwaite. "They carry mobile phones, but often that doesn't feel like enough. If they feel afraid, social workers should go on home visits in pairs, but they're telling me the departments don't have those resources."
Wild has heard similar complaints: "The one thing that would possibly decrease service users' ability to interfere with cases would be having police officers attached to frontline teams. That would change the dynamic and service users would consider the visits differently. The problem is, that doesn't look like it's going to happen for a long time - councils just don't have the manpower at the moment."
Police accompaniment may not be the solution, however, because not all resistance is threatening or aggressive. Parents can interfere with safeguarding processes by being overly eager to work with practitioners and appearing to co-operate, a tactic known as disguised compliance.
"Challenging behaviour can come in all forms," says Mark Sloman, a mental health social worker. "It's not always people threatening you, sometimes it can be a parent ringing you 30 to 40 times a day to talk about the case - that can keep social workers from doing what they need to do just as much as hostile or threatening behaviour. It seems like the parent is being co-operative, but really it's their way of trying to determine the outcome of the case."
Sloman says this kind of behaviour is particularly common in fabricated or induced illness, a form of child abuse in which the carer, usually the biological mother, fakes or actually causes the symptoms of illness in a child who is under their care.
Parental mental illness
The possibility of parents' mental illness interfering with a case is a huge incentive for children's social workers to work well with adults' services, according to Sloman.
"One in four adults experience mental health problems in a lifetime - within that statistic, there's a significant number of parents," he says. "Social workers have to keep in mind that these parents might be influenced by their own experience with services and authorities. They may have built up a distrust of social workers based on their own support needs and that impacts their consideration of the children's needs and people there to support them."
Common types of resistant service users
Child protection expert and trainer Jim Wild warns what social workers can expect and how they can cope when faced with resistant parents
- Threatening: "I know a social worker who went on a routine visit to a father who had been leaving his daughter out on the streets at night. The dad was a bit of an underworld character, and when the visit was over he handed the social worker a bullet with the social worker's initials carved into it. He said, 'This is for youe_SSRq."
- Belligerent: "One scenario that comes up is an African-Caribbean woman telling a social worker that they're racist, that they only assume something's wrong in the household because her family is black. It's disarming for a lot of people - it destabilises any professional composure they might have come in with."
- Emotional: "Service users don't always act violently or with hostility - they can be emotionally evasive as well. I've heard of many who burst into tears when a social worker comes to their house, saying they feel isolated, or depressed, or victimised. That kind of behaviour can easily steer the social worker away from the reason they came."
How social workers can cope
- Know your history: "This is an excellent way of determining whether a service user is dangerous or just difficult. If you know the background of a service user, for instance whether they have a violent history or not, it's easier to tell how much is behind a threat."
- Rehearse: "Some people think this sounds contrived, but it's invaluable for social workers to run through potential scenarios with difficult parents. That way, they're not completely thrown off their mandate when these things actually happen. It's like being an actor - you need to know your lines in advance."
- Be confident: "Social workers need to feel confident when walking into family homes. If you don't feel like you're in immediate danger, you need to have the sense of purpose and professionalism to sit through whatever's being thrown at you and not lose sight of your mandate."
Have you run into any evasive service users? Share your story with other social workers on CareSpace
Khyra Ishaq death due to lack of information sharing, says SCR
Khyra death 'shows professionals should work in pairs'
No alterations made to Khyra Ishaq serious case review
This article is published in the 12 August 2010 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Facing up to Obstructive Parents