By a NQSW from a London authority
As a newly qualified social worker in a referral and assessment team, being given my first section 7 report, like many new and unknown quantities, was a little daunting.
(A section 7 report is a welfare report requested by the court in private law proceedings under section 7 of the Children Act (1989). The purpose is to make an assessment and recommendation about a child’s residence and contact in situations where separated parents are unable to come to an agreement. Social workers are generally requested to prepare this report if the local authority has had involvement, at the time or in the recent past.)
I was especially nervous because it related to a child we had real concerns about. I started to rack my brains as to how I was going to determine what would be best for this little boy, and how I would gather all the evidence to support that decision.
Sam (not his real name) was 22 months old, and serious concerns had been raised from a number of sources about his care when being looked after by his mother. These included neglect and drug use, as well as instability and chaotic care arrangements. However, many of these were hearsay and it was difficult to either substantiate or dismiss them. His father seemed a much more appropriate carer, but there had also been some concerns about him. Sam had moved around between different people in his short life and I was conscious that gaining stability was of utmost importance for him.
I raised my anxieties about the case with my team, and it was suggested that I undertake an activity based on the ‘strange situation’ procedure, developed originally by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in the 1960s. This involved observing Sam with each parent to look at his reactions when they leave him alone, when they leave him with a stranger, and when they come back to see him and are reunited after this short separation.
In addition, my colleagues suggested I then use the ‘guided parenting task’ to see how each parent is with him. The guided parenting task was developed by a research team in Leiden and has been modified by David and Yvonne Shemmings. The point is to observe the adult actually parenting, rather than relying on them simply telling you how they parent.
The task involves asking parents to play with their child and then introducing an element of challenge. For example, you get the parent not to allow the child to play with a particular toy, or to ask the child to stop playing and tidy up. This is done to observe how the parent can manage this, and it is surprisingly revealing.
I did these tasks at our contact centre, which has a room with a two-way mirror, with one of my colleagues undertaking the direction while I observed.
While Sam’s mother responded to him well during both activities, offering praise and encouragement, her engagement was limited and he was more interested in the toys than in her. She had emptied numerous toys out on the floor and Sam was highly stimulated and flitted from toy to toy. His mother then found it difficult to enforce boundaries such as ensuring Sam did not play with a particular toy.
Sam had no reaction when she left the room or when she returned, engrossed in the toys that he was playing with. Although no major concerns were raised in her interactions with him, Sam was clearly not engaged with his mother and seemed almost as comfortable playing with the stranger as with her.
In contrast, Sam’s father engaged very well with him, getting down to his level and trying to stimulate his speech by pointing at things and naming them. He selected and took out a small number of toys, allowing him to ensure Sam was not overwhelmed and could focus better. Throughout his play, Sam would look at his father for reassurance and interaction, which he consistently offered and Sam was able to continue playing happily.
When Sam’s father left the room, Sam froze for about 10 seconds, before looking around at the stranger and then continued playing. Sam looked up at his father when he re-entered the room, but did not go to him, and then carried on playing happily.
Of course, these observations were not the only thing that informed the decision in my section 7 report – which is such an important and life-changing one for this little boy – but it did help me get a real picture of how the mum and dad were with him.
They seem like such simple tasks but they gave a real insight into how Sam’s parents were with him in real life, day-to-day situations, and what their interactions with him are like, in terms of play and stimulation. These are techniques that I will definitely be using again in my practice, and not just for section 7 reports.
For further information on these tasks, see Community Care Inform’s Guide to applying attachment theory in social work practice and Guide to assessing attachment in children and young people.