Why do home visits matter in child protection?

Child protection consultant Joanna Nicolas explains why home visits are important and what to look for.

Photo: Maya Kruchancova/Fotolia

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.

Golden opportunity

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.

Personal safety

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.

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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.

Knowledge and practice hub on neglect
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.

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2 Responses to Why do home visits matter in child protection?

  1. Shebegone.nowback September 5, 2015 at 2:16 pm #

    I think this is a helpful article but I would say that at a basic minimum if children subject to a child protection plan are not visited at home announced and unannounced, how can their world be understood and their wishes and feelings heard.
    I have a few tips of practical advice:
    When I meet the parents/carers for the first time I share with them that I have lengthy experience of safeguarding children, my role is to help support the family to address the concerns and facilitate change. My duty of care is to the children, I am the children’s SW not the parents and if I am very concerned you will see me a lot not a minimum of 1x every 2 weeks and I pop up in all sorts of places if I am that concerned – and I do.
    If I am unable to gain access to a property on 3x occasions because the parent is avoidant and preventing access where there are concerns, I tell the parent I will call the police and ask for a welfare check – More often this gains immediate access. If there are immediate life and death concerns I just call the police on the first knock.
    In cases of neglect I don’t think a sensitive nose quite cuts it, for me I check under the duvet even under the bed (I once found a chicken carcass under a child’s bed). When checking the cupboards its helpful to check there is food in the packets and margarine in the tub or butter dish etc……. I find its helpful to write a list of things that need to improve, one it’s a visual tool secondly, evidence based practice – If things aren’t being crossed of the children’s experience is not improving.
    Where there is any history of abuse/violence I was not aware SW’s have a choice to not visit children. Whilst risk is acknowledged I believe strongly that it is imperative that I work with perpetrators of abuse/violence to challenge their distorted attitudes and behaviour supportive of violence. When they tell me “it was just a tap (he broke her arm) and the children were upstairs (no, they were present and implicated in the violence to protect mum) it opens an opportunity to have helpful conversations about the perp not having anger management problems rather he focuses his abusive behaviour solely to the partner – This often gets the response of “oh never thought of it like that” – This approach works most effectively, funnily enough they rarely want to meet with me after that helpful conversation.
    I truly believe that when we have insight and understanding regarding the impact of emotional abuse, SW would feel more confident talking to children about domestic abuse/violence. My last frank conversation with a young person led to the head teacher crying, saying she had never witnessed such a powerful interview and it was – I cried afterwards but the child felt a weight was lifted from her shoulders because she could finally speak about how the children were used and implicated in the violence.
    SW’s often complain of too much paperwork, my advice is leave the paperwork get out the office and visit children at home/school. I appreciate this creates more recordings but how else do we understand the child’s world????????.

  2. Eugene Glendenning September 9, 2015 at 3:54 pm #

    Joanna Nicolas article contains some good advice. I recall a case in which the children were neglected, when the caseworker met with the psychologist, who did the testing , he reported that the children did not know the difference between a pint fruit jar and a glass and called a can a cup, therefore they were retarded. However the worker had been in the children’s home enough to know that the family us pint jars for glasses and also tin cans as cups. The bit of knowledge change the report resulting is a better plan for the children.

    I would suggest that child protection social workers have training in the are to self defense