In a new guide for Community Care Inform Children, Yvonne Shemmings looks at how to represent a child’s lived experience using evidence from the direct work. Inform Children subscribers can read the full guide, complete with practical examples. Below are some tips from the guide.
Direct work with children is a vital way to ensure a child’s wishes and feelings are taken into account in decisions about their future care. Including an account of direct work in a case record or court report brings a child’s experiences to light, and it may be something that the child reads at a later point in their life, as a way to understand their history.
What to include in a case record or court report about direct work
- Reports must be clearly presented, relevant, evidenced, specific and precise, and this is also true for the presentation of the direct work conducted with the child.
- The report should have already indicated how many occasions the family has been seen, alongside the outcomes of those meetings.
- Similarly, a description of the individual child would have been presented in the report.
- State clearly that you are not a ‘play therapist’ (unless you are) but that you have experience of using methods and tools, alongside talk and play to help children express themselves, and that as a social worker, seeing a child alone to undertake direct work is a key function of children and family social work.
- In addition to these details, the report should reflect how often the child took part in specific, individual direct work sessions with their social worker (or family support worker).
- Dates should be shown, along with the duration of the session.
- The venue should be included if it is relevant, for example, if the child has been noticeably different in the home setting as opposed to the school setting or at a more neutral or relaxed setting such as a family centre.
- It is not necessary to note swearing unless it is part of a description of a child’s distress.
- Be careful with the use of language, for example do not say the child was ‘uncooperative’, ‘difficult’ or ‘refused to engage’.
- Avoid the words ‘clearly’ and ‘obviously’. Use the strength of the argument, because it is usually neither ‘obvious’ or ‘clear’, and this will likely be challenged in the courtroom.
- A summary should be presented with a brief description of some of the ways the direct work was conducted for example, games, stories, toys or methods used.
- It should conclude with an analysis of what has been learned from working with the child. Be tentative but not vague.
How to summarise your direct work sessions
When writing up the direct work session, it is vital to show your working (certainly this phrase will bring back memories – hopefully not too negative – of maths teachers impressing this advice at school). It is, however, crucial for any record or court report, especially in direct work with children and young people.
Firstly, set the context and background. In other words, explain, succinctly and specifically, why it was important to do this piece of work. To address this you’ll probably want to cover the following questions:
- What was I looking to find out? Don’t just say “the wishes and feelings of the child” because this has ended up a catch-all term that can leave the court pretty much in the dark. Instead, for example, say that “I wanted to find out how the child experienced her/his mother, father and older sister, especially with how they relate to each other when there are tensions and arguments (but also what good times look and feel like to the child)”.
- Which methods did I use and why? Get into the habit of using different methods and techniques that are most likely to help you find out what you’ve stated you’re looking for. Remember that ‘smiley faces’ ‘emojis’ and other pictorial emotion stimuli will only get you so far.
- What actually happened? You now have to explain what the child did during the session but not as a lengthy descriptive section of the report. Here you need to use analytical skills, you need to make what you write count. Be precise and periodically explain what something the child said or did might mean (I expand on this below).
Lord Laming in his review of the death of Victoria Climbié wrote, to the effect, that the child “could not be ‘seen’ in the file”. In other words, from reading the entire set of records, he didn’t know much about what her short life was like. It is in this section of the court report that you should aim to correct this: metaphorically we have to bring the child into the courtroom.