‘Draconian’; ‘unsafe’; ‘knee jerk reaction’; ‘shoddy practice’. These are just some of the criticisms of written agreements made by social workers who responded to a Community Care survey in June.
Concerns over social workers’ use of written agreements in child protection cases – often where domestic abuse is a factor – have been evident in recent months in serious case reviews, and were raised again in a recent thematic report by inspectors. And now Community Care’s survey has also found misgivings about these agreements, while highlighting some of their benefits if used with care.
In June, a serious case review into the death of a four-week-old baby included wide-ranging criticisms of how social workers used written agreements. The author said a written agreement the parents signed was “not a safety measure” and served to “provide a degree of reassurance to social workers”. It warned against written agreements being used to “protect the agency” rather than being part of a plan to help protect children.
Another SCR published earlier this month, into the death of Ayeeshia-Jayne Smith, criticised an agreement that “was not helpful and placed an unrealistic expectation” on the mother.
The review author said: “The role of written agreements…appears to be common and, yet, it is known that women who are in situations where domestic abuse is a risk will find it very hard to comply with such an agreement.”
Community Care’s survey, which received almost 150 responses, raised similar concerns.
Some of the respondents felt the agreements were focused more on protecting the local authority than the family, with one respondent stating they were used to “cover our backs”. However, others championed the success of agreements that put local authority concerns into perspective for parents, and said that when parents contribute to and understand an agreement, it can lead to positive outcomes.
The purpose of a written agreement is to clearly set out required actions a family should undertake to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the child in the case.
The agreements can include asking a victim of domestic violence to ensure they do not have contact with their abuser, or a person struggling with alcohol addiction not to drink, or at least not to drink when the children are in the house.
From a local authority perspective, written agreements don’t have legal force but are a useful way of communicating concerns with parents, and gathering evidence on parents’ ability to change and work with them. They can be used alongside child in need plans, child protection plans and when children are looked after.
Adam Birchall, principal social worker for children, young people and families in Solihull, says these agreements work well when there is some “buy in” from the family and they are specific about what is being asked of them.
“Our service users should understand why we’re working with them, what we hope to achieve and what the expectations are. Written agreements can be great as a framework, but beyond that it’s about the substantive work that goes on,” Birchall says.
He adds: “Where social workers think a written agreement equals safety is where there is a bigger risk, but sometimes setting out in an easy-to-understand form what it is you are worried about and what you are expecting the parents to do, that can be helpful.”
Protecting the agency
Two-thirds of the children’s social workers who responded to Community Care’s survey had seen written agreements be both successful and unsuccessful, and a similar number felt a written agreement “sometimes” encouraged parents to work with children’s services.
However, 68% felt agreements were used to protect the agency and reassure social workers rather than support a family.
Commenting on written agreements, an assistant director says they are “not enforceable, are draconian and do not provide any protection for the child”.
A social worker who responded to the survey commented that the agreements were “over prescriptive” or can be “vague or unrealistic” and therefore set families up to fail. This respondent admitted to using both vague and over prescriptive agreements while an inexperienced social worker.
Another said: “They have little meaning. They provide no safety for the child. My local authority does not use them as a matter of practice. It is easy for parents to misinterpret what they mean. They are often a knee jerk reaction to provide safety without completing a safety plan or any actual change work to affect a situation. They are often used to deal with men differently – restricting contact, which is not legal for the local authority to impose when a man has [parental responsibility] for his children. I think they are shoddy practice.”
A social worker said their authority was criticised in court because of their use of written agreements.
“We were told we had ‘backed mother into a corner’ with too many conditions and rules. We obviously didn’t feel this was true. Ultimately the child was removed from her care and eventually adopted. The written agreement did not change mother’s parenting; she simply didn’t agree with any aspect of it so did nothing to keep the child safe.”
In the recent thematic inspection of multi-agency responses to domestic abuse, inspectors found widespread use of the agreements in two authorities despite “no evidence they are effective”.
Eleanor Schooling, national director for social care at Ofsted, says that written agreements in domestic abuse cases often focus “on the wrong people”.
“Some adults are asked to sign up to written agreements about not being in contact with an abusive partner or not allowing them to the house and not having contact with that partner,” Schooling says.
“It’s not really as simple as that, it might be better if the abusive person had been the one who had to sign up to the written contract rather than the one that’s the subject of the abuse. This is often then why they fall down and are not effective.”
She says circumstances like this can often lead to social workers removing children from someone who is abused because they are unable to stop the abuser doing things laid out in the written agreement.
She says in other areas of children’s social care these agreements can be used well. She gives the example of family group conferences, and how getting every member of the family to sign up to something for a child can be a positive step.
“It’s very specifically in relation to domestic abuse we think it’s not going well, because of the power relationship obviously,” Schooling says.
She says this area of practice needs more work to see if there are ways services can place the responsibility on abusers “much more clearly”.
Written agreements in a domestic abuse context were also questioned in Ayeeshia-Jayne Smith’s serious case review. The author, Jenny Myers, said: “They may be effective if the adult/s are central to their development, feel able to comply with realistic expectations, and are clear what the consequences are if they are not adhered to.”
The review added: “Good practice would suggest that written agreements are a statement of the local authority’s concerns and advice to a parent, that they are not a contract and therefore there is no requirement for parents to sign their agreement.”
Birchall takes a similar view on the practice’s merits and faults.
“I can understand why there is controversy about it [in practice]. We’re quite often jargonistic in what we do. Sometimes we don’t understand what is in the agreement, let alone families – especially when we use generic terms, such as ‘risk’ or ‘significant harm’,” Birchall admits.
However, he adds: “Every child protection plan is essentially a written agreement, every child in need plan is one… Every plan we make with a family is the same because we don’t live with the families we are working with, so we set out what everyone has to do and ask them to sign up to doing it.
“It’s interesting that written agreements are the ones that [stand out] because there isn’t a statutory basis for them, some of it goes on trust and some of it goes into what is the larger plan.”
He says good practice is about “who has written it, what are the goals, are those goals shared”.
“If you don’t think the family are sharing the same goals then you are off to a loser from the get go.”
He adds that they still have a place in child protection, because they help give professionals and services an evidence base, as well as giving social workers the opportunity to be creative with how they are used.
“I worked on a case where a mum wasn’t an alcoholic but went on horrendous benders and could become violent. We set it up that the older child, he had his own agreement, that he would call his grandma [when it happened],” Birchall says.
“That worked quite well, in terms of monitoring, but only because the young person really bought into the plan – and the family helped devise it,” he adds.
Social workers who responded to Community Care’s survey had also seen agreements used in positive ways.
“I have found it effective with a young person who has a child,” one social worker said. “It guides them and [they] are able to refer back to it when unsure about a decision they are making in reference to their child.”
Another said the process can help parents feel that they are negotiating with services, and be empowering for them to make a change.
So what is to be done with written agreements? Or is this an area where how services understand and apply them is the key issue, not the practice itself?
Birchall insists they still have a place in practice, as long as the work social workers are doing around them is good.
“If you’re equating a written agreement to safety you’re off to a bad start,” Birchall says. “A piece of paper with a signature is never going to keep a child safe”.