by David Wilkins
Asking for a second medical opinion, writing to a local councillor about fly-tipping in the local park, volunteering and being elected as a school governor, running a campaign to save the local library and making complaints about social workers. What do these things have in common? On the one hand, we might think they are all indicators of over-bearing middle-class entitlement.
On the other hand, perhaps they are examples of empowered citizens doing what they can to get the outcomes they want – for themselves, for their loved ones, and for their local communities.
Community Care recently published a short piece about research that sought explored how social workers feel about engaging ‘parents from affluent backgrounds’.
The research, by Professor Claudia Bernard, helpfully considers the issue of neglect in affluent families, and challenges the idea that neglect is something that only happens to children from poor neighbourhoods and deprived families. What I found particularly interesting in the report was the way in which many of the practitioners involved described working with more affluent parents and how their attempts at engagement would often be rebuffed.
This was for many evidently and understandably frustrating – particularly when there were concerns about the child and the worker’s only aim was to ensure their well-being.
Heart of good practice
It made me wonder about the idea of empowerment more generally, something we talk about quite often in social work. When I was in practice and frontline management, not that many years ago, social workers would often write in their assessments and plans about the need to empower children, young people and often parents too. Enabling people to do things for themselves, promoting their autonomy, is at the heart of good practice.
Yet, some of the examples given in the report made me wonder why, in the case of affluent parents, exercising autonomy in response to social work intervention was seen not as a positive indicator of empowerment, or something to be harnessed, but as unusual or even unwelcome.
For example: “Some [social workers] reflected the view that, from the perspective of affluent parents, being told what is in their children’s best interests by social workers was not an experience they welcomed.”
Well, quite. I’m not sure why any parent, affluent or otherwise, would welcome being told what was in their child’s best interests by a social worker, at least not before they had the chance to develop a meaningful and trusting relationship with them.
I know I wouldn’t (and this from someone who, because of my children’s complex health needs, has been on the receiving end of social work assessments and care plans – and very helpful they have proven to be too, for the most part).
Affluent parents were also criticised by some of the social workers in the report for having particular expectations about the services they wanted to receive: “One of the most frequently discussed issues was that affluent parents’ confidence and sense of entitlement meant that they felt they could diagnose their own needs, expected children’s social care to accommodate them, and felt that they had a right to challenge those in authority.”
As before, when reading these examples, I couldn’t help but think – and why shouldn’t they? Parents do have the right to challenge those in authority, and they are right to expect public services and public servants to accommodate their needs, alongside those of others.
At the risk of putting words into anyone’s mouths, this sounds dangerously close to saying (affluent) parents should just accept whatever service they are offered (and maybe even show some gratitude for it). In my view, the problem here is not so much that affluent parents feel they have a right to challenge those in authority – but that non-affluent parents feel they might not have this right or even if they know they do, cannot exercise it as freely.
This problem will no doubt be compounded if social workers are not operating within organisations that view parental feedback – including complaints – as an opportunity to learn, rather than a problem to be worked around or even an attack to be defended against. None of which is to suggest that working constructively with parents (affluent or otherwise) when there are serious concerns about a child is ever likely to be easy or straightforward, nor that complaints are never made in the hope of obscuring those concerns.
But good social work practice with families is about understanding the child’s needs and those of the parent. It means being curious not only about the child’s behaviour but the parent’s behaviour too. This may mean helping parents to understand and fulfil their responsibilities to the child, including helping them to understand professional concerns.
This in turn relies upon the development of collaborative relationships and ensuring that parents and children both have their rights protected, promoted and strengthened. If this means parents becoming more capable of voicing their opinion, speaking up when they disagree with a decision and, when necessary, making a complaint about a service that does not meet their expectations – these things too can form part of a good outcome for the child.
In many areas of the public sector, when people take action for themselves, they may be seen as good and responsible citizens, even if what they are doing is disruptive for professionals. It might be easier for medics if no patient ever asked for a second opinion and for councillors if local citizens did not complain about problems in the local area or campaign to challenge the council’s decisions. Some schools might prefer it if parents simply accepted the education provided to their children, rather than getting involved in the day-to-day business of the school or standing for election to the governing body.
But when the state gets involved in people’s lives, especially when that involvement is initiated by the state, we should welcome feedback and take the opportunity to learn from different opinions and even from complaints. None of which is to under-estimate the difficulty of working in such fractious circumstances.
Yet when parents feel able to disagree with social workers and have high expectations of children’s services, this sounds to me not like the actions of affluent, over-entitled parents, so much as engaged and capable parents who, critically, have sufficient social capital and resources to do what they think is best for their child. If only all parents were so fortunate.
David Wilkins is a social work academic. He tweets @david82wilkins.