Only fools rush in…


Practitioner: Marl‚ Slabbert, senior
practitioner.  Field: Children and families.  Location: Reading,
Berkshire.  Client: Sandra Stokes has 10 children aged between
three and 17, all of whom are living with her and her long-term

CASE HISTORY: Sandra had suffered abuse and
severe neglect as a child and had been, for the most part, brought
up in care. She didn’t really have any contact with her siblings
except for one brother, Garry, about whom there were concerns that
he might have sexually abused another of the siblings. Nonetheless,
he was supportive of Sandra. Because of her background, Sandra
found it very difficult to work with or trust professionals –
either in education or social services. She believed they were
manipulative and were not interested in what the client wanted.

Dilemma: With so many children, any parent
might be in need of some support, but Stokes’s antagonism towards
social services and education professionals put any potential
support in jeopardy, which – somewhat ironically – might have led
to more drastic action being taken.

Risk factor: By taking time to build up a
relationship rather than seeking to immediately address the
concerns of all four schools involved about the behavioural
difficulties of the children and Stokes’s parenting, there was a
risk that Stokes would be overwhelmed.

Outcome: The case is closed – the family is
still together and enjoys a productive relationship with the few
support services it needs.

There can be little doubt that we are, as Shakespeare suggested
in Troilus and Cressida, “made and moulded of things past”. Our
experiences help to shape our futures.

It is then unsurprising that unloved and neglected children often
want to have their own families in order to provide them with all
the love, affection and attention that they did not receive
themselves. Sometimes this can mean having children very young.
Sometimes this can mean having lots of children.

Sandra Stokes, now 35, was an unloved child. Taken into care after
being severely neglected, she was made safe but remained far from
happy. She was split from her siblings and, as with many who
experience the care system, she built up a dislike and mistrust of
authority figures.

To reclaim her life Sandra started her family. Over the next 15
years she would have 10 children. Ten lives had helped recreate
one. However, 18 months ago it all seemed to be falling

“We became involved last summer following concerns raised by the
education welfare officers from the various schools that the
children attended,” says senior practitioner, Marl’ Slabbert.
“Partly because of her uncomfortable relationship with officialdom,
Sandra would not work with the schools. She would be given
appointments and she wouldn’t turn up. She would speak over the
phone but the minute she felt she was not getting the support she
needed she would become verbally aggressive.”

The oldest two girls – Amy, 16 and Sonia, 15 – had been victims of
bullying, but particularly Sonia. It resulted in them moving to
another school, but the bullying continued. “Amy was protective of
Sonia and if she was in trouble Amy would step in and physically
defend her. The school excluded the children from school,” says

She continues: “At the same time, we received a referral from the
primary school about two other children – Megan, 11 and Vicky,
nine. The school, in particular, felt that Sandra wasn’t responding
properly to health issues with Vicky, who had bowel problems. But
again nobody had a face-to-face conversation with mum.”

Naturally a flow of unconnected referrals about the same family
began ringing alarm bells. However, Slabbert didn’t panic and rush
decisions. “When you get a large family and look holistically at
all the problems you can pick out all the issues. But what we did
here was to try and clarify where the difficulties lay, especially
taking into account mum’s very negative experiences, which were all
on file. We needed to find a way to work with Sandra to make sure
that she got the support she needed.

“We looked at the issues with each child to see which of these were
possibly related to things at home. In the end we couldn’t find
anything that related to mum’s care of the children being the cause
of the problems,” she says.

Slabbert’s initial contact left Sandra “quite upset”. But Sandra
quickly recovered from this shock. “We said that we need to talk to
you but we want to do it on your terms because we are aware of the
difficulties you have had in the past. And we understand how large
families work.”

Sandra arranged a meeting. “We sat down with her and went through
the list of concerns. She had no idea these existed because nobody
had told her before. However, she was prepared to try the
suggestions we made. I think she agreed because rather than saying
‘We have to do this’, we gave her the opportunity to feel in
control of the situation.”

From that day the relationship grew. Indeed, if Sandra encountered
a difficulty and was unsure whether she acted appropriately she
would call social services. “She would say, ‘I need some advice:
this is what I have done – is there anything else I need to do?’,”
says Slabbert.

The case was closed without Slabbert ever having to consider
calling a child protection conference. “This was based on our
relationship and her being prepared to co-operate with us. And the
same thing started happening with the schools as well – she started
to have conversations with them and accepting the advice and help
they were giving. All around it had a knock-on effect. It was a
really different way of working with someone and gave us a real
success story in the end,” she says.


  • By understanding Sandra’s background and experiences, and that
    the family was typical of the way in which bigger families
    function, the social work team were able to scratch beneath the
    surface of a spate of referrals that otherwise might have sparked
    emergency decision-making.
  • Confident that the difficulties being faced by the family were
    more down to misunderstanding than risky or poor parenting,
    Slabbert could afford to allow Sandra time and space to feel in
    control of the social work intervention.  This encouraged Sandra to
    engage meaningfully with social services for the first time.
  • Social services’  trust in Sandra was repaid. “She said ‘If you
    ever want to see the children feel free to come around – just give
    me a call’.  This would never have happened if we had just jumped
    in and said we have all these concerns that we need to act on
    immediately,” says Slabbert.


  • People who have awful experiences stored away in their
    emotional lockers often try very hard to ensure that their own
    children do not experience the same. However, it is not unusual for
    them to fail in this only for the cycle of abuse to continue –
    often unknowingly. Any parent with 10 children would need support
    but Sandra Stokes was not approachable or willing to accept help.
    Such a blanket attitude, regardless of any understanding of where
    that attitude has been rooted, potentially places her children at
  • With the acknowledged rise in blame and litigation aimed at
    social workers, it is unsurprising that many staff and departments
    act very defensively – making sure that their backs are covered. It
    is therefore surprising to find workers – who have received four
    separate referrals – taking such a route to what fortunately
    resulted in a positive outcome. It could have been very

Independent Comment

Faced with a history like Sandra’s and a barrage of referrals
from partner agencies, it would have been all too easy for
Marl‚ Slabbert to rush to judgement in this case, initiating
precisely the kind of heavy-handed intervention least likely to
prove successful, writes Patrick Ayre.   However, she allowed
herself the time not only to analyse the underlying problems but
also to perceive the situation from Sandra’s position. This allowed
her to work out her own objectives and to chart the most effective
way to reach them.  The pressures inherent in the child protection
system can sometimes lead us to prioritise assertiveness over
empathy, and intervention over understanding. The system, after
all, had its origins in the need to respond swiftly and effectively
to instances of “acute” abuse such as severe physical harm or
sexual abuse and it has been slow to adapt to the demands of
“chronic” forms of harm such as neglect and emotional abuse which
require a more holistic approach much less focused on incidents.
Fortunately for Sandra, Slabbert has the skills required to pursue
a more systemic approach to case planning.  My own research on the
assessment of significant harm suggests strongly that social
workers regard being “unco-operative” as a particularly negative
characteristic in parents. However, it also suggests that effective
co-operation is not a one-way street and requires each side to
engage with the other.

Patrick Ayre is senior lecturer at the University of
Luton and an independent child welfare consultant.

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.