by Simon Haworth
I left the frontline four months ago, and the recent adoption enquiry has prompted me to reflect on the moral and ethical struggles I consistently felt as a court-based social worker.
I relate these experiences to the concept of social harm, which I believe should have more prominence in contemporary social work, where practice is taking place within an increasingly unequal society.
As a court-focussed practitioner my primary role and remit was to work with children and families whose cases were in care proceedings, or in the Public Law Outline, often about to enter care proceedings.
During this time, questions consistently arose around the ethical foundations of child protection practice and dominant approaches within the UK.
I worked with many children and their families, and I felt only sadness and hollowness when care proceedings concluded and the child/children were removed, even though significant – or risk of significant – harm was evidenced.
It was commented that my practice was fair, compassionate and empathetic; that I adopted a risk-tolerant and relationship-based, as opposed to risk-averse, approach; but this practice was situated within an increasingly authoritarian system seemingly unable to effectively support children within their families.
I was there at the end of a process, and often when authoring chronologies, I would question: ‘If support had been more timely and appropriate would this child and their family have ever reached this stage?’
Feelings of sadness at the conclusion of proceedings increasingly morphed to feelings of guilt and, sometimes, shame.
I found that shame can be a dominant and consuming emotion for children and parents involved with care proceedings, coming from internalising harm and negative messages about themselves, their capacities and hopes. However, at the end of the process we would perhaps all be feeling shame; and we must surely question if this can be justified.
This is where the concept of social harm emerges. Simon Pemberton, in his book Harmful Societies, proposes that within capitalist societies social harm emanates from the dominant relationships, discourses and structures that make up our societies, generate inequalities and serve to deny the needs of people, often those most disadvantaged.
Social work complicit in social harm
He states that many dominant narratives in our society, including the underclass discourse, seek to individualise the causes of harm and blame people for essentially socially derived harms, often stigmatising them in the process.
A question is whether social work is in some ways complicit in social harm. Do we deny the needs of vulnerable people? Or safeguard and promote their needs and challenge such socially-produced harm?
There is probably no singular answer. However, my concern is that in child protection we have veered towards a more socially harmful approach.
Pemberton identifies that poverty is most likely the largest source of social harm, causing myriad suffering, misery and death. Figures from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reveal that 30% of children live in poverty, rising to 36% for children in lone parent families.
Meanwhile, Bywaters et al (2016) suggest that poverty can be viewed as a pervasive factor in child abuse and neglect.
So what are we doing within child protection and care proceedings to combat this unnecessary harm? Are we amplifying or countering the feelings of shame, powerlessness and alienation that often come with poverty? Are we blaming families for enduring social harm, or looking to address their poverty and disadvantage?
There are no easy answers to these questions, but Bywaters et al (2016) advocate that child protection practice currently pays insufficient attention to the influence of poverty in child abuse and neglect and that insufficient material assistance is provided under the guises of family support.
At this point, it is worth considering some influential case law from 2007, and requoted by Sir James Munby as recently as 2015:
“society must be willing to tolerate very diverse standards of parenting, including the eccentric, the barely adequate and the inconsistent. It follows too that children will inevitably have both very different experiences of parenting and very unequal consequences flowing from it. It means that some children will experience disadvantage and harm, while others flourish in atmospheres of loving security and emotional stability. These are the consequences of our fallible humanity and it is not the provenance of the state to spare children all the consequences of defective parenting. In any event, it simply could not be done.”
This can make difficult reading for those of us who want the best for all children, but for me is pertinent and perhaps more realistic than some of the standards we expect parents to achieve in deeply difficult circumstances of poverty, disadvantage, alienation and social harm.
We must analyse as a profession whether we are in agreement with significant expenditure on costly care proceedings (over £2000 for an application alone) not being spent earlier to offer support for meaningful change.
We should ask ourselves how many children would have their legal rights to private and family life better protected through supportive and anti-oppressive approaches that address the glaring inequalities in our unequal society.
Some of these questions have been persuasively highlighted in the recent adoption enquiry. These questions of course all take place within the context of significant cuts in services and funding, which are falling disproportionately within the most deprived areas and on early years and help services.
Are we swinging towards social engineering?
Academics argue child protection has become intensely focused upon risk to the exclusion of wider socio-political forces, perhaps most notably poverty and deprivation.
These views are perhaps captured in the fact that once we have removed the child we often cease statutory involvement or supportive work with the parents. At least until they have another child when the process can often start again in a clearly socially harmful system.
I know that I worked as a part of this system, and was made to feel somewhat subversive when parents would come to see me after proceedings had concluded and my remit had effectively ended.
It is explicit in government policy that there has been a drive towards more and faster adoption. We must ask whether this is taking place to the detriment of a social work model that favours family support and interventions to keep families together. Can we expect parents to address chronic difficulties within the 26-week time limit?
My feelings of guilt or shame have been consistently amplified by being humbled by the fact that parents have shown me respect and humanity when my work with them has often led to intense loss, grief and anguish.
Perhaps, adoption of a relationship-based approach, predicated on creating safe environments where discussions of difficult, taboo and traumatic subjects can be held, feelings can be explored and stigma can be countered, has gone some small way to promoting trust and care in these working relationships. Even if it has, they have shown significant graciousness in remaining civil with me.
How will social work look back on our current child protection and care proceedings practice, fondly or with disapproval? I worry it will be the latter.
I do not wish to criticise social workers or social work; I remain very passionate about, and dedicated to, social work and the potential it has to offer those considered to be the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society.
Rather, I wish to advocate for practice within the high stakes world of court-based social work to return to more anti-oppressive and critical approaches.
Simon Haworth has recently moved to academia at the University of Birmingham from frontline children and families practice.