By Joanna Nicolas
Home visits are a crucial aspect of social work but their value can be overlooked.
A common finding from serious case reviews is that social workers do not understand the child’s world and there is no better opportunity to develop and build this understanding than to spend time in their home.
Many professionals do not see the child in their own environment, so recognise that this is a golden opportunity and make the most of it.
Your visits should build a picture of what life is like for the child and remember that this may differ from your initial thoughts before the visit. Consider the family’s strengths, but also be realistic about risks and concerns.
When making a home visit always be respectful, it is their home and they have allowed you in. There is a fine balance to strike between being authoritative and arrogant. You may need to be assertive but you must also be sensitive.
Before your visit, make sure that inter-agency checks do not show a history of violence that could make it dangerous to visit. Make sure your colleagues know where you are and if you are concerned about hostility in the home make sure you sit near the door. If you keep yourself safe then you can focus all your attention on the family and the child.
Join Joanna Nicolas at Community Care Live for more detailed information on how best to conduct home visits in neglect cases.
To make the most of your visit and to help assess the level of risk to the child, your senses need to be on high alert and you need to think about body language. If you feel threatened and afraid, how does the child feel? How does the child react to the parent’s anger or distress? How does the adult react to the child? Take in your surroundings: what do you see? What do you hear? And what can you smell?
Smells may give you clues about the home environment. Can you smell marijuana or alcohol on a parent/carer’s breath? Does the home smell of urine and/or faeces? What about the child’s bedroom, how does that smell and look?
However, a clean and tidy home does not mean there is no neglect. I have recently seen photographs of a home in which a neglected child died in terrible circumstances. The home was immaculate. It was only discovered after the child died that none of the children slept in the beds that the professionals were shown. Instead they were locked in a filthy, cold loft every night.
Where to visit?
Which brings me to where you need to go in the home. Even if a family has nothing to hide it is entirely understandable they will not want you snooping around their house. Would any of us want that?
But it is essential that you do not remain in the room the family has taken you to, be it the front room or kitchen, for the duration of the visit. You need to see where the child sleeps and if there are concerns about neglect, the bathroom/toilet can give you a good idea of hygiene.
Do not just give the bedroom a cursory glance. If there are concerns about neglect look under the bed for food, beyond sweet wrappers, check the state of the child’s bedding and look in the kitchen cupboards and the fridge for food.
Actions should be proportionate to the concerns, so please do not think I am advising you to look in the fridge when dealing with an allegation of sexual abuse. Some families have a lot to hide and some serious case reviews have found that professionals missed evidence on their visits because they did not feel comfortable asking to see more.
There have been several high profile child deaths where it was ascertained that even those professionals who had visited the family home had little idea of the child’s living conditions. After Daniel Pelka died it was discovered that he spent much of the time before his death locked in an unheated box room, with just a filthy mattress. After Khyra Ishaq’s death it was discovered she had to sleep in a room with one mattress with her five siblings and the kitchen door was kept locked. The kitchen was full of food but Khyra was emaciated at the time of her death.
Community Care Inform subscribers can find a series of in-depth guides, practice support tools and a video on neglect to support your practice.
It is easy to be wise with hindsight but if social workers are to learn from these children’s lives and deaths then the purpose of the home visit and what can be achieved by that visit should never be underestimated.