by Simon Haworth
Following on from my previous article on social work and social harm, I wish to reflect upon potential ways forward for practice within the court arena to become more strengths-based, anti-oppressive and family focussed. I certainly don’t claim to have all of the answers but do have some brief thoughts.
1: Social work is in a period of significant change, which brings understandable anxiety, but also opportunities for positive progress.
I am fortunate to be working with Tony Stanley on reconceptualising leadership within the framework of the West Midlands Social Work Teaching Partnership, based on foundations of the sociological imagination, the IFSW definition of social work and critical engagement with knowledge and research.
The IFSW definition states that social work should be promoting social change and the empowerment of people, based on principles of social justice, human rights and collective responsibility.
I conceive that leadership in social work that offers compassion, care and creativity within the sharp end of care proceedings must be through knowledge, values and research-mindedness.
Surely only this can lead to mastery of an area of practice, court-based social work, and leadership through this powerful knowledge-base?
2: I conceive that developing such specialism can then potentially support the establishment of regional communities of practice in this area of social work.
Communities of practice are based upon concepts of shared domains of interest (court-based social work), building relationships that transcend organisational boundaries to support collective learning, and developing repertoires of resources, tools and problem-solving techniques.
They can promote high quality, informed and compassionate social work practice and the intelligent integration of research, theory and core values in practice to support children and their families in more knowledgeable and confident ways.
3: Do Trusts also provide new opportunities for innovative and supportive practice? Maybe. While I am concerned about any form of ‘academisation’ of social work, I do see potential chances for progress within the current context of our profession’s apprehension and concern.
For example, can such Trusts step out of the more traditional and now highly bureaucratised local authority social work organisations that unfortunately are not consistently supporting compassionate and empowering responses to struggling families? I honestly don’t have the answer to this but live in hope.
4: Does the law itself provide some answers? Social workers in child protection need a critical, contemporaneous understanding of the law. Although the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is not enforceable, the UK has still signed up to this treaty, with its many empowering principles. Furthermore, some judgements do support deliberation and greater cautiousness in coming to early decisions. For example, in D (A Child)  EWHC 3388, the judgment states that: ‘However, bearing in mind that I am making arrangements which will affect the whole of [the child’s] life I do not believe that the most profound consequences should be sacrificed on the altar of the avoidance of delay’.
Maybe Thomas Jefferson had it right when he said ‘Delay is preferable to error’?
5: I feel that for too long social work in the UK has largely ignored the international context, probably to its own detriment. There are myriad ideas and approaches to social work with children and families, and other countries where child protection social work is increasingly viewed as rigid, authoritarian and overly procedural.
The UK is atypical in Europe in sanctioning complete severance of family ties without the consent of parents; non-consensual adoption is not the preferred option for our European neighbours. Sweden, like other Scandinavian countries, is characterised as having a ‘family service’ oriented child welfare system, as opposed to a child protection system per se.
This system has a stronger focus on the needs of the family, is considered less risk averse and gives some primacy to relationships between worker and family members. Surely we can learn from these different approaches to improve our own system?
6: Do we need to revisit the Framework for Assessment, adding a fourth side to the triangle, and including a focus on the inter-agency professional context in terms of resources, support and collective professional capacity? Then for this vital information to inform safety planning (including potential arising concerns around organisational capacities), and then a feedback loop focussed on training, increased resources and practice reform.
7: Are there viable suggestions coming from the recent adoption enquiry? I agree when the authors raise the issues that a number of families that we work with do not have access to the requisite economic, social, legal and political rights to ensure their children’s safety and wellbeing.
Furthermore, I agree that we as a profession need to locate the adoption discourse within the wider socio-political contexts of poverty and disadvantage and critically discuss the complex relationships between adoption, foster care and friends and family arrangements.
I firmly suggest only one thing at this stage: that we as a profession look to rediscover our critical voice and work collectively towards social justice. According to the Equalities Review (2007) ‘an equal society protects and promotes equal, real freedom and substantive opportunity to live in the ways people value and would choose, so that everyone can flourish’.
I believe such ideas could form the basis of constructive ways forward for practice within the pressure cookers of child protection and care proceedings.
Simon Haworth has recently moved to academia at the University of Birmingham from frontline children and families practice.