A recent research study looked at the difficulties faced by social workers trying to identify and work with neglect when working with affluent families.
The study, carried out by Goldsmiths University, conducted interviews with 30 social workers from 12 different local authorities, and found a number of practice challenges posed on them by more affluent families. These were grouped into four themes:
- Recognising and addressing neglect
In affluent families, factors that may indicate emotional neglect were “not well understood”, the research found.
This could have been because of the emotional neglect’s “vague and ambitious nature”, as well as preconceived ideas that associate neglect with poverty. “Because the children who come to their attention have affluent home environments including excellent housing, a nutritious diet, first-class educational opportunities and access to a range of enrichment opportunities, it was often difficult to differentiate when their home environment lacked emotionally-nurturing parenting behaviours,” the research said.
The children affected in these cases often experienced “inadequate parenting from emotionally unavailable parents”.
“Some participants expressed that the parents’ detachment from their children were often a contributory factor in the emotional and behavioural difficulties that brought them to the attention of children’s social care, and that parents were often affronted that the quality of their parenting were being questioned, or that they were being accused of neglecting their children.”
The research added that some social workers who took part in the study felt the children’s schools, often fee-paying ones, were reluctant to report the signs of abuse because of “transactional arrangements” with the parents.
- Privilege and entitlement
Participants broadly said the social class of affluent parents placed them at an advantage over social workers, and created a barrier to the level and depth of intervention.
These backgrounds meant they were knowledgeable about organisations, and had a “sense of entitlement” which gave them greater confidence to challenge child protection processes.
“For example, some participants spoke of being belittled and humiliated by parents in meetings, leaving them feeling as if they had to prove themselves and establish their credibility,” the research found.
“Some also pointed out that certain parents felt that, if they had to have any social work involvement at all, they should only have to deal with managers.”
The research said some demands these parents made it difficult to retain a focus on a child’s needs, and social workers reported a need for “extra effort, skill, and time” to involve affluent parents due to the level of scrutiny.
- Barriers to escalating concerns
Social workers said they could feel “intimidated” by parents and would rely on good support from managers to carry out robust risk assessments.
“More often than not, parents prevented practitioners from seeing and listening to the child. Therefore, practitioners were often left with insufficient evidence to progress to a section 47 investigation, resulting in drift and delay in some cases,” the research found.
The study’s findings suggested that good outcomes for children stemmed from a social worker’s direct contact, especially with older children who were more able to express themselves and discuss what it is like living in their household.
- Factors that make a difference for authoritative practice
Perceptions of authority became increasingly important in cases involving affluent parents and social workers reported they paid “much more attention to how they presented themselves as an expert and authority figure”.
“This included paying attention to how they dressed and spoke, as they perceived such elements [to] form barriers to engagement with affluent families.
“There were two examples given of practitioners being removed from cases by their managers due to complaints by the parents that they could not understand the social workers’ accents,” the research said.
It added to be taken seriously, practitioners needed to be clear about professional authority and demonstrate a good working knowledge of relevant legislation and statutory guidance.
“Practitioners named elements such as organisational cultures of support, purposeful informal conversations about the case with colleagues, good supervision, knowledge and confidence and responsive managers, and themed learning activities, as key to their ability to work in this complex field,” the report said.