Academics Karen Broadhurst and Chris Hall continue our regular series of practice guidance by looking at home visits in children's social work
Although there is evidence that social work has become more office-based, home visiting remains a central part of practice with children and families. It is essential that social workers feel equipped to carry out home visits, which require a range of skills to cope with the tensions inherent in entering the private world of the family.
Safe working policies About one-third of families can be hostile and resistant. Where a family is known to be hostile, joint visits are recommended. Social workers should carry mobile phones and report their whereabouts to managers. Mechanisms should be in place if social workers fail to return when expected.
Honest and open engagement with families From the outset, this is vital to build strong relationships. Families need to know what to expect when a worker visits, particularly if the worker intends to see family bedrooms, examine the condition of the kitchen or make unannounced visits. The use of a genogram can provide an excellent starting point and can establish household composition.
Observing the family's behaviour and circumstances Preparation for home visits should include reading up on the case history. Changes in the family's circumstances should be observed, including home conditions, household composition and changes in children's appearance and behaviour, as well as their interactions with the parents. Collecting and recording information is part of, but not an end point, in assessment, and observations should be pieced together through supervision and careful reflection on the case.
Frequency of visits These should be matched to levels of risk and subject to revision if a family's situation deteriorates. One-off visits will provide only a very crude picture of the family. It is imperative that, where workers are uncertain, they make space for further visits and resist hasty categorisations such as "no further action".
Critical reflection This and an awareness of one's own emotional responses to home visits are vital. For example, it can come as a relief to the social worker if difficult families are not home when they call; or they may avoid asking challenging questions of the family. Workers should share these feelings in supervision and reflect on how their own emotional response affects observations and how often they visit.
Karen Broadhurst is a lecturer in applied social science at Lancaster University; Chris Hall is a reader in social work at University of Durham. They are both engaged in extensive collaborative research for local authorities with a particular interest in home visits.
This article is published in the 7 January 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline "Get the best out of family home visits"