Best for the child?

The scenario where a
stepfather behaves viole ntly towards a stepson is well known to social
workers. But children in this situation should not automatically be removed.
Graham Hopkins discusses one such case handled by Fran Stellitano and Mandy

The names of all
service users mentioned in this article have been changed.

Case notes


Mandy Ford, social
worker, and Fran Stellitano, manager, family service

Field: Children and

Location: Cambridge

Client: Denise Goddard
is now 32 and has a three-year old child, Garry, with her live-in partner Andy
Rivers, 24. Goddard has two other children from a previous relationship: Chris,
9, and Sam, 7.

Case History: Rivers
came into care when he was 11 having suffered physical abuse while living with
his grandparents. He was also sexually abused by a neighbour and remains very
bitter about that experience. Numerous unsuccessful foster placements saw him
move into residential care. He has a history of aggression – and has assaulted
care staff. Goddard was known to social services at the age of eight as she
suffered from a condition that made her react badly to sunlight. Goddard’s
father was verbally aggressive. Her previous partner was violent and left after
the birth of Sam. It was Sam’s behaviour at school that alerted staff: he would
say “Andy hurt me”.  

Dilemma: Children’s
services believed they could work with the family and permitted the children to
remain at home, but other professionals strongly questioned the decision to do

Risk factor: By
leaving the children with a volatile and aggressive man they were at risk of
potential psychological, physical and emotional abuse.

Outcome: The children
have been removed from the at-risk register, the family continue to have
outreach support and are currently coping well.

faith in a decision and holding your nerve can be commendable qualities.
However, when others begin to question your actions from a professional point
of view, a risk arises that such qualities may be dangerously misplaced.

This was the
situation faced 18 months ago by social worker Mandy Ford and family service
manager Fran Stellitano when dealing with Denise Goddard and Andy Rivers. The
couple had a baby, Garry, but Goddard’s two other children, Chris, then seven
years old, and Sam (who has learning difficulties), then five, were from a
previous relationship. Rivers held a ferocious resentment towards the older

“There was an
incident when Sam turned up at school with cigarette burns,” recalls Ford. “As
a result he was removed. We had to decide whether to remove the other two
children, now on the child protection register, as well. It was clear to see
the change with Rivers there. Chris would remove himself from the room
straightaway and Sam would become very withdrawn.”

Although the home
wasn’t as clean as it should have been, it was Rivers’ temper that dominated
concerns. Having been in care himself, he “hated social services with a
vengeance”. Ford continues: “Because the learning disability team held case
responsibility for Sam, and we held responsibility for the two other boys, we
decided that provided we had access to the children and to the house, and that
they would agree to a parenting assessment, we felt relatively secure that we
could leave the children at home.”

The 12-week parenting
programme highlighted many concerns, including Rivers’ relationship with Chris,
parental interaction and roles, supervision and boundary-setting, ability to
provide a safe and clean environment, and understanding a need to change. It
was decided, unusually, to continue and expand the parenting programme. “There
was a high level of input,” says Stellitano, “two-to-three hours each session,
three times a week: twice in their home for more practical work, and once in
the centre away from the children to work on their own issues and needs.”

“In the meantime,”
adds Ford, “the court decided that Sam should be placed permanently elsewhere.
Goddard was heartbroken. But she felt she really couldn’t care for him.”

It was then that the
children’s guardian and the psychologist raised concerns about leaving children
with a man with a history of violence.

But Chris was very
resilient, Ford says. “He was very attached to his mother. Given his age, he
would be placed in long-term fostering which wasn’t appropriate. Chris was also
saying very clearly he wanted to stay with his mum. I know it’s not his
decision but we do have to listen to what he has to say.” Rivers was also
displaying affection for Garry.

But there were
continual worries about Rivers’ temper. “Quite often at sessions,” says Ford,
“Rivers would lose his temper and tell everyone exactly what to do and make all
sorts of threats.” Also, adds Stellitano, “he would let his own issues get in
the way. He’d say, ‘if they think they’re having it bad – they should see what
I had.’ At one review he lost it and became so abusive and rude that the
meeting was stopped. But he would be apologetic. He did self-reflect and he did
always come back.”

However, Goddard was
doing well. The family moved into a new council house, “freshly decorated and
spotless. And it’s still spotless now. Checks were daily, but have become weekly,”
says Ford. The team were encouraged and impressed by Chris’s resilience. “He
felt guilty that Sam was taken away – and worried about him. But he was
interacting better with Rivers, and had developed outside interests (in
football and wrestling), and his school was very positive about him,” says

Garry, however, was
less resilient. “Although there were no obvious signs that Garry was being
affected,” adds Ford, “he has speech delay and is hyperactive. We advised that
he could go to playgroup and we offered to pay, but Rivers said, ‘no, he’s my
son. I’ll pay for it.’ And, to give him his due, five mornings a week he takes
Garry to playgroup.”

Such was the progress
made that the children were removed from the register: Rivers and Goddard were
“so chuffed”. “But there will always be ups and downs because that’s the way
the family works: periods of calm and crises. And we have to manage the crises
because that’s when the risk is,” says Ford, who credits Stellitano’s team with
the success: “If we hadn’t had the input and support from the family service
the children definitely wouldn’t be with Goddard and Rivers now.”


– Despite Rivers’
volatile character and violent past, it was considered that with Sam removed
from the home, the adults could work on the relationship with the remaining
children and develop their parenting skills.

– They were willing
for the department to have access to the house and children, and were willing
to attend a parenting programme.  

– They were open to
ideas from social work and family service staff. They were willing to work and
co-operate with staff and stuck with the extended programme.

– Despite aggressive
verbal outbursts, Rivers would reflect on his behaviour and apologise and
continue to take part in the programme.

– Goddard and Rivers
wanted to keep their children. Goddard had come to terms with losing Sam, and
had a strong relationship with Chris, who had developed strong resilience.
Rivers was clearly very affectionate towards his son, Garry.

Arguments against risk

– Rivers was a
volatile, violent and verbally aggressive man. He had already caused emotional,
psychological and physical harm to Sam, and Chris was very wary in his presence.

– Outside
professional opinion was raising strong concerns about the decision to leave
Chris and Garry with Goddard and Rivers. The psychologist in a report concluded
that he would “never have them caring for children”. Similarly, the children’s
guardian expressed concerns over the decision to keep the children at home. To
choose not to take their advice left the workers open to allegations of
malpractice should further abuse take place.

– Rivers’ aggressive
hatred of social services – originating from his own unpleasant experience of
care and being looked after – was a barrier to being able to work with him.

– Both adults had
shown their inability to care and protect one child.


Assuming that Sam’s
cigarette burns were deliberately inflicted, the decision to recommend that the
other children be allowed to remain at home was a remarkably courageous one,
writes Patrick Ayre. Risk theory tells us that children at risk expose all
those of us working with them to risk as well. There is a danger that our
decisions can centre more on what is safe for us than what we feel is best for
the children. No one could accuse Mandy Ford and Fran Stellitano of this form
of defensive practice.

However, in this
situation, the risk of further harm was strong, particularly in the early
stages. In the case of a man with a history of violent aggression and a
resentment of his stepson, it is hard to see how having access to the children
represented much of a guarantee of safety, unless someone was present all day,
every day. In circumstances like this, it is vital to remain child-centred and
to assess the emotional impact on the children as well as physical risk.

Research tells us
that cases involving violent and aggressive parents are among the least
well-handled and require particularly skilled supervision if reliable
judgements are to be made.

In this case, Ford
and Stellitano decided, against some opposition, that the situation was one
that they could work with. The children remain at home and off the child
protection register. However, we still need to ask ourselves: “Were they right
or were they lucky?”

Patrick Ayre is senior lecturer,
department of applied social studies, University of Luton.

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