The impact of hostile parents on social workers

Community Care and Reconstruct's survey of social workers has revealed the full extent of the damage to morale caused by interaction with aggressive service users, writes Judy Cooper


Community Care and Reconstruct’s survey of social workers has revealed the full extent of the damage to morale caused by interaction with aggressive service users, writes Judy Cooper

“At a children’s hearing the father shouted at me and tried to run across the room to ‘put me through the window’. He had to be physically restrained by another family member. The meeting was not suspended or any support offered to me by the hearing, the panel or by my line manager. I was expected to continue making lone visits to the family home during the evening as the children’s father worked full-time.”

This is just one of the comments posted on Community Care‘s survey, carried out with children’s services consultancy Reconstruct of more than 600 frontline social workers about working with hostile and intimidating parents.

Is is by no means the only one detailing just how alone and unsupported children’s workers are feeling when it comes to dealing with such parents, which, often, they are doing on a weekly basis.

The survey seems to show that among organisations there is little or no acknowledgement of the emotional, mental and physical toll such experiences are having on workers, nor the knock-on impact it is having on their ability to protect children.

Research by Professor Chris Goddard of Child Abuse Prevention Research Australia at Monash University in Australia suggests that, left unsupported, social workers can become “hostages” to violent parents. His findings are backed up in the survey. Social workers reported that not only were they often being literally held hostage (see p20) but also emotionally so.

“It affects my ability to concentrate on tasks and to raise child protection issues and concerns,” one wrote. Another said: “It has made me reluctant to visit a particular family.” A third noted: “Felt undermined, scared of repercussions, powerless and bullied into not being able to speak openly with parent about my concerns for his children and that he was emotionally abusing and intimidating them.”

Many in the survey reported managers telling them to “get on with the job” or to “toughen up”. One respondent wrote: “There is an unspoken expectation that social workers should tolerate aggressive behaviour from service users and that somehow it is our fault if threats spill over into actual phyisical violence or if we feel affected by such behaviour.”

It is pertinent to note that the majority of the respondents to the survey were not young and inexperienced workers – 40% had more than 10 years’ experience. More than 80% were female, with the majority of incidents recorded featuring aggressive males. Many workers had children of their own, making them far more vulnerable to threats against their family.

One wrote: “When interviewing a person considered to be a risk to children, he named my baby son and asked how he was doing. I have no idea how he got that information and it put cold fear into my being.”

More from the hostile parents survey:

Most social workers threatened in past six months

Social workers want guidelines to help with hostile parents

Councils accused of breaching their duty of care over hostile parents

Social workers struggle with hostile and intimidating parents

Goddard says the size of the problem, as illustrated by the survey, means it is imperative there there is more creative and critical thinking around reforming supervision in social work, as often supervisors themselves require further training.

“There is excellent work done outside social work that could be used. In some specialist Australian police squads, for example, team leaders describe their roles as protecting workers not only from the stress of the work but also from the stress imposed by management. This starts with induction into the squad.”

Contrast this, he says, with the findings in the survey that showed 52% of respondents either had no procedures or guidelines to deal with hostile and intimidating parents in their organisation or, if they did, they were not aware of them.

Professor Brian Littlechild, associate head of the School for Nursing, Midwifery and Social Work at the University of Hertfordshire points out that this lack of concern goes right to the top.

Despite a government analysis of serious case reviews in 2008 raising issues around hostile and intimidating parents and the impact on social workers’ ability to think and act clearly, “these areas of concern have been airbrushed out of government regulation and guidance in recent years”, says Littlechild. Although it was mentioned in the 1988 “orange book” it disappeared from subsequent government guidance and regulation. In the lastest version of Working Together to Safeguard Children there is only one reference: “Some children may be living in families that are considered resistant to change.”

Littlechild says while he is in favour of the move to reduce prescriptive guidance, given the size, scale and importance of the issue there is a need for “national good practice guidance for agences, supervisors and social workers to help but not restrict staff in how they operate”.

Pointing to the 43% of survey respondents who felt children were being put at risk by the current situation he says “children who are so severely abused should expect such guidance to give more credence to the effects of parental violence and resistance. They deserve no less from us.”

‘How should I react to hostility?’

The initial interview in a child protection investigation when evasive, dangerous or difficult service users are involved is a complex process, writes Jim Wild, training associate with Reconstruct.

It is up to the worker to mediate the hostility in ways that are not defensive or susceptible to manipulation. They must acknowledge what the service user is saying in genuinely sensitive and empathetic ways. However, they also need to practice exit strategies as, in my experience, workers are often unclear about what is a ‘dangerous’ encounter.

On Reconstruct’s training course workers have to face actors who simulate challenging situations. They are recorded and later evaluate their own performance – many are shocked or surprised when they see the way they approach an interview.

Example scenario:

There have been a number of referrals about screams coming from the Smith’s house late into the night. There are two children aged four and seven in the house.

Mr Smith is raising his voice and being quite challenging.

Mr Smith to worker: ‘You come round here asking these sort or questions and it makes me angry, OK? So what gives you the ******* right to do that? Can I come round to your house and ask you that same sort of questions can I? No! But you come round here and you think you’re really ****** big with your new car and fancy words, do you know what it’s like to live on £70 a week do you? Because if you did maybe you would lose your temper a bit!

Poor response:

“Mr Smith I have a referral and it is the job of children’s services to see if your child is at risk and I have every right to ask you questions and the sooner you answer them the better it is for you and your family…”

The response here has too much jargon, does not acknowledge what the service user is saying and is too provocative.

Good response:

“Mr Smith I realise it is very unusual to be asked such questions and it is part of my job to do this. It sounds like it is very hard for you and your family at the moment, but if we can try and work together and get through this I will do my best to sort this out with you…”

This is a more collaborative, acknowledging and supportive approach. It is not authoritarian but it is authoritative.

In the Community Care/Reconstruct survey on hostile parents, social workers were asked to detail the most intimidating situation they have found themselves in. Here is just a selection of the responses

“After having applied for care proceedings I had to move out of my home for a period and get safety alarms fitted. I suffered harassment for many months, threats of violence, taking photos of me and my car and both parents turned up outside my work with a baseball bat and waited by my car in the dark. Fortunately they were stopped by police. They also made numerous complaints about my practice. Although none of them were upheld it was the constant barrage of letters as well as threats of physical harm which affected me.”

“Threatened with two aggressive dogs while in a family home.”

“Held hostage in family’s house. The father threatened me as he said I was sent by social services to ‘tell lies’ about his family. He threatened me, pointed his finger, used foul language and wouldn’t let me use my phone to call the office or police.”

“Being barricaded in a room by a service user at the end of a corridor with no alarm. I was there for over two hours.”

“Was removing an 11-year old girl from home where sexual abuse had been disclosed by siblings. Police were present. Mother assembled a lot of neighbours all shouting abuse. Mother came at me and child with a garden fork. I grabbed the child and headed for the car, focused on getting her to safety. It was only once I was in the car that I realised my leg was bleeding profusely and the garden fork had gone into my leg. Needed stitches. Mother continued to make threats thereafter.”

“A service user planted a bomb outside the office in the early hours of the morning which had to be blown up in a controlled explosion. Staff were not allowed into the office on that day and the thing that stuck with me was that they were all more concerned about their core assessments being late than they were about the fact someone had just tried to kill them!”

“Sitting in a meeting and seeing the mother’s partner slightly lift up his trouser leg to reveal a knife.”

“Held in flat at knife-point when telling client that the children could not return home.”

“After a court hearing the father went to the court car park and pulled out a hidden plank of wood and totally smashed my car. The first day I drove my car after having had it repaired he jumped out into the road in front of me having memorised my number-plate. I changed my car as I was worried about my children and now have an alarm on me at all times.”

“The father of a family I worked with attempted to run me off a dual carriageway. I still get a bit panicky if someone cuts in front of me while driving.”

“Being followed by three male service users in my car and rammed on several occasions from behind.”

Being pregnant and having an adult male threatening to rip my baby from my stomach.”

“Several years ago a service user made a direct threat to hurt me or my family during a conference. Later one of her family was seen asking questions about my address in the village where I lived. Thankfully they never found me.”

“I made an arranged home visit to a child, on my arrival the child was not there but the mother, her partner and maternal grandmother surrounded me in the house and became very verbally abusive and threatening.”

“Death threats by phone and letter from a father of a child I was working with. Said he’d find out where I lived. He also attacked me at court and damaged my car in the car park outside of court.”

“Having six drug dealers call round to force me to settle a debt incurred by a looked-after child in my care could have gotten a bit lively.”

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● Professor Brian Littlechild and Reconstruct trainer Jim Wild will be discussing these issues at Community Care Children and Families Live in London on 16 November, 2011. Together with Professor Chris Goddard and Community Care they will lobby for best practice guidelines to be in place across the country.

● For readers who are interested to read more about Professor Goddard’s research on supervision and pressures on child protection workers, see his forthcoming article (with Sue Hunt): “The complexities of caring for child protection workers: the contexts of practice and supervision” to be published in December’s Journal of Social Work Practice, Vol. 25, No. 4.

Subscribers to Community Care Inform can access Guide to how to deal with hostile and aggressive adults or young people and how to manage intimidating situations by trainer Ray Braithwaite

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