Four challenges for social workers working with affluent families

A study looked at the practicalities of social workers trying to tackle neglect in affluent homes

Photo: Jenny Sturm/Fotolia

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.

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7 Responses to Four challenges for social workers working with affluent families

  1. anon May 31, 2018 at 7:40 am #

    In other words, well-educated parents highlight the failings in social workers practice and dont put up with the low standards people with less resources have to endure from social workers…and this is a problem for social workers.

  2. Cass May 31, 2018 at 12:48 pm #

    So what a see hear is not all children are given the eqile rights,
    There is assessments. For the rich
    And one for poor,
    A think it’s disgusting practice from profession to care for children, reporting it won’t help taking action agenst it will,

  3. Vicky May 31, 2018 at 4:35 pm #

    Ridiculous. If you’re not educated enough to deal with families who are, then you’re not up to the job. Quit whingeing and pipe down.

  4. Thomas Hughes May 31, 2018 at 10:10 pm #

    If they only want to speak to managers, that’s good with me. Only problem is of course, the managers don’t want to speak to them.

  5. sw111 June 1, 2018 at 5:24 pm #

    This is a challenge for the workers because unlike the parents who are deprived and uneducated and marginalised, these parents would question social workers role and rightly so and they cannot be easily topped under frightening jargons and process.
    If social worker is fully aware of the safeguarding issues and confident then it is not a problem, but when it is a paper exercise because of some vague referral and if worker is try to show that it is very serious, workers role is rightly questioned.

  6. David June 6, 2018 at 6:31 am #

    Can’t help but agree with the above comments. It is easy to be confident and authoritative with families who lack resources and who are less educated…

  7. sw111 June 6, 2018 at 10:01 am #

    Workers have to be confident about the issues and should demonstrate professionalism in tackling the matter. As discussed in the research, certainly the vague concept of neglect has to be grappled and again relationship based practice would be effective in changing the parents attitude towards social care.