Should children’s social work be a touch-free zone?

Although physical contact is a human need, children's social workers are starting to take a hands-off approach in order to reduce the risk of misunderstandings and false accusations. Camilla Pemberton reports

 Although physical contact is a human need, children’s social workers are starting to take a hands-off approach in order to reduce the risk of misunderstandings and false accusations. Camilla Pemberton reports

It was only a hug but it cost Stephen Daniels*, 48, his job and nearly ruined his marriage. In 2003, the former ­residential care worker was falsely ­accused of sexually assaulting a 13-year-old in his care. The truth: Daniels had put his arm around the teenager to comfort him after a relationship breakdown. Eventually, the boy admitted to fabricating the story, for attention, and because he believed social workers “were never meant to touch children”.

In fact, there is no such prescriptive rule on initiating or responding to natural physical contact with children in social care settings. “There is no simple formula,” says Nushra Mansuri, joint manager of the British Association of Social Workers in England. “Each context is different and each person is different, but healthy physical contact is an important method of communication.”

Daniel’s case illustrates the minefield that social care workers and managers have to navigate when it comes to touch. False accusations seem to come with the territory. There are no official figures, but the organisation FACT (Falsely Accused Carers and Teachers) estimates hundreds of professionals are falsely accused in the UK every year. This doesn’t surprise Mansuri. “We are working with vulnerable children with extremely complex backgrounds. Inevitably they may sometimes misconstrue things or lash out at those caring for them,” she says.

The impact of this on professional confidence can be devastating – Daniels left his job because of an “overwhelming sense of failure and embarrassment” – and many believe it has made the profession increasingly, and detrimentally, risk averse. Although there is no one-size-fits-all rule book, Stuart Hannah, a social worker and psychologist at London’s Tavistock centre, says the safe care mantra in social care has translated into a “risk-averse mantra”.

“The default culture in social care today is risk aversion,” he says, adding that, because it is impossible to mandate for physical contact, social workers are instructed differently depending on their manager and local authority.

The issue polarises the workforce. Newly qualified social workers at a recent conference at King’s College, London, claimed the guidance they received from managers was for a strictly hands-off approach. They told Community Care their experiences suggested the prevailing belief is that professionals who initiate physical contact with children are asking for trouble.

Paul Childs, the Hampshire Council social worker recently named Council Worker of the Year, says professionals feel anxiety over what decisions they should make. But he does not subscribe to a touch-free or hands-off agenda. “We talk to these children about the most intimate things in the world. If we want to show them it’s safe enough for them to trust us then it should be safe enough to touch,” he says.

Mansuri agrees, calling it a “false and unnatural situation” for a caring profession to have a demarcation on physical contact. “We communicate in so many ways and physical contact is an important part of that,” she says. “A lot of the children we work with have been damaged and let down and we need to restore their trust by modelling appropriate behaviour.”

A hands-off approach to social work may protect professionals, but it will not always serve a child’s interests, says Jarone Macklin-Page, a 21-year-old actor and care leaver from Norfolk. “Children will feel lonely and rejected if it’s obvious professionals are nervous to be around them or don’t want to touch them,” he says. “Children want to be liked by the people caring for them. A simple hug or pat on the back can be reassuring and comforting in the right context. We mustn’t forget that some of these children may have had no experience at all of positive, healthy physical contact.”

Indeed, Liz Davies, professor of social work at London Metropolitan University, asks: “If no one gives children the experience of safe touch, how will they be able to recognise unsafe touch?”

Despite what happened, Daniels is adamant that social workers must not be paralysed by fear. “If I’d understood the child and his history better I’d have understood what a hug meant in that context,” he says.

Hannah says: “Physical touch is a real human need and should be part of a physical needs assessment. Situations must be judged wisely and handled sensitively.”

*Not his real name

When to be hands-on, when to keep your distance

GOOD: After being called to a busy dual carriageway where 14-year-old Callum* was threatening to commit suicide, social worker Paul Childs talked to him, calmed him and brought him back to safety. Afterwards, the terrified and overwhelmed 14-year-old hugged Childs and “clung desperately” to him for some time. Childs says: “It was the right thing to do in that situation. I had been Callum’s social worker for a few years so I knew him well. Moreover, it was important that he felt safe and that I wasn’t cold.”

BAD: Carespace user: “I worked with a sexually abused male and it was evident that his body wasn’t his own. He would try to use it as a tool to pacify or please adults and would let anyone touch him without question. There was one teacher who would breach his personal space constantly: grab his knee, hug himI confronted the teacher but he said he was just a tactile bloke, he had known this kid for years and if the lad’s not complaining what’s the problem? I explained this kid had been passed from one abuser to another his whole life and that we need to be teaching him to take control of his body and to help him understand that physical contact is OK only if he is comfortable with it.”

GOOD: Angela, social worker, Liverpool: “I did a home visit where a five-year-old I knew fairly well, but hadn’t seen for a few months, clambered on to my knee and curled up in a foetal position. Her behaviour and appearance concerned me so I sat her on my knee and put my arms around her. It was only then that I could tell just how malnourished she was because her mother had shrouded her in layers of baggy clothes.”

*Not his real name

Top tips to avoid trouble

● What do you know about the child and their background? If there is a history of abuse remember that the child is likely to experience an adult’s touch in a distinct manner. Always be aware of this and talk through any issues with colleagues and managers.

● Role-play with colleagues and managers to gain an understanding about how to respond to different situations.

● Reflective practice. Always ask yourself why you made certain decisions and what the outcome was.

● Ask yourself, whose needs are being met by the contact? Is it the child’s need for physical contact or a need of your own? Are you a particularly tactile person or wanting to gain that child’s approval?

● If you think a child is likely to make a false accusation, think about safety mechanisms and accountability. Joint working can help as a temporary safety mechanism.

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This article is published in the 26 August 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “Will social workers lose their touch?”

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