by Surviving Safeguarding
“M was a LAC herself because of CSA/CSE and family breakdown, before she became a parent at 16. Her FC and LA felt the pregnancy destabilised the placement and placed her in a women’s refuge after which her case was closed to the LA. During a later, difficult pregnancy (in which she became known to the perinatal MH team), M needed extra help; the LA held a TAF L1, which (after a MASH meeting) was later escalated to an L3, after which M’s children became subject to S.17, and the CIN process. FGC not offered.”
Understand any of that?
Unless you’re a social worker, I’d hazard a guess that you don’t. Most parents wouldn’t either, unless they have learned to speak the language. Because, unfortunately, to navigate your way through the child protection system requires a crash course in social work training during the most difficult time of your life as a parent, and the most vulnerable time in your life as a child.
The “chronology” above is, simply put, some of my life in acronyms. No context, no strengths identified and written in gobbledegook. I could have gone on, talking about ISW’s, investigations and PPOs.
However, this is not the only place “jargon” causes problems.
A recent article warned of children in care who are being bullied and singled out as they adopt “social work jargon” into their everyday language. Fiona Duncan, chair of the Independent Review of Scotland’s Care System, backed by Duncan Dunlop, chief executive of the advocacy charity for care experienced young people Who Cares? Scotland, called for an immediate end to social workers talking to children in this way.
“Workers just don’t think”, Dunlop states.
‘Exercise in humiliation’
Sadly, I can recall many “contacts” with my children in the care system as an exercise in humiliation, as we attended “contact centres”, normally situated in buildings which housed council-run childcare, or within the community.
The other parents, who were there to pick up their children after their working day, would often stare. Parents who are attending “contact” with their children stick out like a sore thumb. The contact supervisors, or social workers, wear very conspicuous name badges, or lanyards, quite rightly to identify them as professionals.
However, this makes other people look over and wonder what horrible misdemeanour you have done to warrant not being permitted to see your children unsupervised.
Sometimes, we wouldn’t know the person supervising, and were expected to form a rather quick relationship with them while they watched over us, making notes. If you’re suffering from depression and anxiety in the first place, this hardly helps matters.
Undoubtedly, my children felt uncomfortable too, being picked up from their school by a supervisor or social worker, while their peers were collected by their families. I will never forget the utter glee on my child’s face when I picked him up, alone and unsupervised, after having to fight for the right to do so in court. “No social workers??” he asked.
“No social workers son, just me and you.”
I’m not sure who coined the term “contact”, but its use is divisive, demeaning and devoid of feeling. I don’t have “contact” with my children who remain in the care system; we have “family time”, we have time together, quality time. “Contact” has not “broken down”; we’re just not seeing each other at the moment because that’s what they want.
I’m not here to “promote contact”, my door is always open when they want to see their family again.
Social work terms creep into every meeting, every report, every encounter you have. There is nothing more isolating as a parent caught up in the child protection system than sitting in a meeting listening to professionals using language or jargon you don’t understand.
You’re already frightened, you’re already acutely aware of the power dynamic; it takes the strongest and most confident of us to speak up in front of professionals and confess you don’t have a clue what they’ve just said.
Because when you’re in the child protection system, it feels like everything has a consequence. If you say you don’t understand, they may think you’re stupid, or ill-educated, or illiterate – more reasons to take your children away.
So, you sit meekly, and listen, and allow the professionals to continue to speak in their own language, hoping you might be able to translate the minutes of the meeting, when they come. I have been that person.
However, I learned to be the person I am now only by strength of character and courage fuelled by love for my children. Now, I will take notes in a meeting. If I don’t understand something, I will request the meeting is stopped and whatever I don’t understand broken down and explained to me in layman’s terms.
So, social workers, senior social workers, team managers, conference chairs, independent reviewing officers – any and all health and social care professionals, I implore you:
- Get rid of terms like “contact”, make your supervisors or social workers put their badges away whilst overseeing a parent’s time with their children, or whilst collecting children from school. Unless necessary, notebooks and clipboard should not be used during this precious time together.
- Call family members by their names. “Siblings” are “brothers and sisters”.
- Refer to where a child lives as their “home”, not a “placement”, or a “unit”. Avoid labelling a child as LAC, or a carer as an FC. They have names, use them.
- Think about the language you use while compiling reports or during meetings. Parents and children don’t have years of training and aren’t privy to your acronyms. Don’t make a difficult time even harder. We’re all human beings, treat us with dignity and respect.
- Create an environment where a parent or a child can tell you if they don’t understand something. This requires trust; earn it by practising humanely. If a parent or a child needs extra help to understand, find creative ways to ensure that happens. Use visuals, employ a translator, or a learning disabilities advocate, or anyone who may be able to bridge the gap between you.
- At all times, make sure a parent knows their rights and responsibilities, and your rights and responsibilities as a local authority. We do not know what a Section 20 is, or that a Section 17 is voluntary. Make sure everything is explained.
For the most part, we all want what’s best for the children who we parent, or with whom we have a professional relationship. Language is the most powerful tool we have. Let’s use it well.