Research into practice

In child protection work social workers spend most of their time working with female clients even in cases where the person whose behaviour is putting a child at risk is a man. My qualitative research1 set out to explore this problem. I observed social workers’ routine work in the office, interviewed them and read case files in order to learn about the office culture with regard to work with men and women clients.

Not surprisingly, there was more than one message about women clients in the team I studied and the picture is complex.

  • The social workers saw most women as oppressed in the extreme, usually by their male partners.
  • Living in an oppressive situation is thought to affect how women look after children. They are not thought to be free to parent in the same way as more middle class and well supported women. But at the same time social workers see mothers as able to exercise free will when it matters – that is, when social workers think children are at risk. Social workers come to expect little change in cases but, where a woman is given an ultimatum about her children’s future, it is expected that this will galvanise change and that she will act immediately to keep her children.
  • It is seen to be the fundamental responsibility of women to protect children, so that “allowing” a violent man to stay in a household constitutes “failure to protect”.
  • There is empathy with women clients, but only up to a point. When a woman fails to act in response to an ultimatum, the empathy ends, in the sense that this is not seen as understandable.

There were also various interpretations of male clients in the social work office.

  • Men as a threat – as we might expect, this idea can be found in relation to child protection cases. Sex offenders are seen as conforming to a set template of behaviour, whereas there is a variety of approaches taken to understanding violent men.
  • Men as no use – many male clients are said to spend little time on, and have few skills for, either child care or domestic work.
  • Men as irrelevant – if men play little role in day-to-day child care work, then a pragmatic approach is to engage the woman as the one with the direct route to the children. Men without parental responsibility tend not to be included in key elements of the child protection process.
  • Men as absent – many men are described as totally or partly absent from children’s lives, or as choosing to absent themselves from involvement with social workers.
  • Men as no different from women – this idea comes both from an ethic of non-discrimination (you should treat everyone the same) and also from the view that in some families both parents are viewed as “as bad as each other”.
  • Men as better than women – this could be said of a small number of cases, where the woman had been identified as failing in her expected role and the man is capable in contrast to her.

It is important to understand the culture of the social work office if we are to change practice so that less pressure is unfairly put on women and also so that men who have something positive to offer children are involved. The next stage is to develop best practice that is gender-aware.

Jonathan Scourfield is lecturer, Cardiff University school of social sciences. Contact:

1 Jonathan Scourfield, Gender and Child Protection, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003

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