Why we should want more parents to challenge social workers

David Wilkins writes about why services and social workers should take criticism and feedback as constructive rather than an attack

Photo: gustavofrazao/Fotolia

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.  

Being curious

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

More from Community Care

20 Responses to Why we should want more parents to challenge social workers

  1. dave barspool June 15, 2018 at 11:56 am #

    Having sent in a letter raising concerns about the expectations placed on a mum with disabled children and no external support, I walked into work a few days later to find that a complaint had been made about me by the social worker’s manager for daring to quote their own policies against them.

    I got pulled off the case: exactly what they wanted.

  2. Paul June 15, 2018 at 1:19 pm #

    Great article!

  3. JB June 15, 2018 at 4:21 pm #

    Interesting perspective. Claudia’s research raises important questions, but I’ve often been inclined to flip it round a bit:

    Rather than feeling defensive about middle-class parents bringing a dictaphone and a solicitor to meetings, shouldn’t we be asking: why don’t poorer parents?

    Rather than complaining that middle-class parents have high expectations of social workers and effectively advocate for themselves, shouldn’t we be asking why poorer parents can’t do the same thing?

    As a social worker of 15 years, I’ve heard colleagues make some truly astonishing comments about what they think is in someone’s best interests. I’m afraid I’ve often secretly hoped that the parents they worked with *did* challenge them and assert their rights and their children’s rights.

  4. Kelly June 16, 2018 at 3:24 pm #

    I unfortunately have social services involved with me if I disagree with lot of what they are doing if I put my opinion forward it’s known as not co operating or been aggressive

    • Anna Kornas June 27, 2018 at 10:34 am #

      Spot on….

    • Carole Marshall July 9, 2018 at 8:36 pm #

      Yip, Kelly.. That’s exactly what they do.. They label you uncooperative and aggressive.. What about removing your kids for disagreeing with school policies? Ever heard of that? Yeah, Social workers in North Lanarkshire don’t like being challenged and when they are, they orchestrate removals for trumped up bull like \”Disagreeing with school policies and your attitude to authority”…

  5. TC June 17, 2018 at 10:23 pm #

    A very interesting piece and I shall reply in full tomorrow. TC

  6. Carole Marshall June 18, 2018 at 12:21 am #


    Challenge them and you’ll be a target as I have proven by my experience.

    I’m still shocked to my core at the misconduct and unethical practice I have witnessed!

    • Paula June 20, 2018 at 9:31 am #

      Veru true

    • Kelly June 26, 2018 at 9:48 pm #

      Indeed. my persistence and increasing frustration at a lack of action and care planning has led to court papers suggesting I am emotionally vulnerable and highly controlling with a need to lash out at professionals and assign blame to them, rather than address my own failings. No one has accepted that perhaps their behaviour and lack of action was the issue, simply that I am neurotic. No one has been prepared to consider my complaints were in fact valid.

      • Carole Marshall July 9, 2018 at 8:38 pm #

        I hear you, Kelly… Loud and clear and, I’m NOT prepared to accept this deplorable, abusive and unethical practice!

  7. A parent June 18, 2018 at 9:21 pm #

    Without wishing to describe myself as affluent or middle class I am simply a mother who got a reasonable education and worked. I challenged a mature social worker who had just qualified in her early 50s. My son has a disability. What resulted was quite beyond belief. 18 months of investigation which resulted in her being removed from my sons case during which my sons actual needs were ignored and it focused on her attempting to prove a case against me. I complained to the LGO. A full investigation and compensation paid and a full apology from the Director of Children’s Service who said ‘ if we apologised every day it still wouldn’t be enough’ Damn right!! The difference between me and a mother from a proorer and less educated background is just that but I had the strength to fight – and that’s it how many people just give in to this dreadful example of social work because their lives are challenging enough- a vast amount I should imagine. And as for her line manager- it became a pack hunt. Only resilience kept my son at home – and once they had gone following the complaint – the sun came out- we got a lovely social worker who did help. So my story supports this story 100%. The very people who are supposed to support are often driven by a different agenda and culture and that frankly is plain wrong. That is ABUSE of the vulnerable

    • Carole Marshall July 9, 2018 at 8:42 pm #

      I would love to get a chance to speak with you parents.. There needs to be awareness created in regards to this.. It is unacceptable and creating trauma and causing irreparable damage to families and vulnerable people, and actually is putting more people and children at risk..

    • Carole Marshall July 9, 2018 at 9:03 pm #

      To A parent…… I experienced the exact same thing…. And I’m not letting it go!

  8. sw111 June 19, 2018 at 12:44 am #

    The culture of being more accepting of criticism as constructive criticism rather than as an attack by parents should be promoted by social care. However this is difficult to achieve when the management is averse of challenges of the practice/policy by social workers. The workers are stifled by the prescriptive attitude from top down so how can the workers promote a different perspective. Impossible.
    The management has to model such an approach rather than being tokenistic in involving the front line workers. The picture is really bleak.

  9. Jo June 19, 2018 at 11:12 am #

    I was a poor parent when I had to endure family court and social services because I was hospitalised because a prescribed drug caused me to be unwell. I knew what to challenge and what not to challenge. It took 10 months of separation from my child to prove that I was a fit parent for my child. Unfortunately that 10 month separation has now caused separation anxiety in my child. My lived experience has now landed me a job as a peer support worker. I am not so poor now, but my challenging has not changed. I used the children’s act quite often to challenge social workers and I asked for support. When I was told that I didn’t need any support was when I replied so give me my child back then. Affluent parents have more power and professionalism than poor parents. The poor can lose the challenge just for being poor. They are looked down upon and viewed as being defiant if they try to challenge a social worker. It’s an unlevel playing field for the classes.

  10. Snowman June 20, 2018 at 1:13 pm #

    The bottom line, in my experience is that social workers may call themselves professionals; but parents who belong to the traditional professions do not see social workers as professionals, as they do not work to the required standards:

    1. to live by a high moral code – ie don’t lie to parents, etc
    2. to have a duty of care to clients – and not just to their budget
    3. to work long hours, way beyond the contracted 35 hours per week, on unpaid overtime, without moaning about it. Accept long hours go with the territory in the professions
    4. to explain the law to clients, and what they are legally entitled to (not what social services think they can afford), rather than trotting out the party line of the LA’s own unlawful policies (such as panels need to authorise all care packages)
    5. arrange meetings with clients at a mutually convenient time, rather than just what is convenient for the social worker
    6. give clients their direct landline, email address, working hours and work mobile no. – how many parents have to go through call centres to speak to their child’s social worker?
    7. make sure they are on top of the ever changing law, professional standards and guidelines, relevant to their profession

    Why do social workers expect respect from parents, who are professionals, when they say stupid things to them, exposing their own ignorance? Its reported in Community Care fairly regularly how a service user’s care package was cut without a proper reassessment; or no care plan was ever produced, or the LA attempted to charge top up fees unlawfully….Its social workers, who actually do these things – so why do they expect parents to respect them? Parents, who are used to studying law, etc are quite capable of looking up the relevant community care law (its not rocket science) and see how social workers have lied to them!
    They look like lackeys of the LA; not professionals, who actually would have the family’s best interests at heart!

    Trust and respect have to be earnt; they are not a given? How often do parents want to record meetings with their doctors, lawyers, architects, surveyors or accountants? They don’t, so why do they want to record meetings with social workers – because social workers take what they say out of context, or misrepresent what is said in the minutes of meetings? Those are not the actions of professionals!

  11. JL1 June 20, 2018 at 7:54 pm #

    Good article. Perhaps children from less affluent families will grow to feel entitled to challenge authority?

  12. Anna Kornas June 27, 2018 at 10:52 am #

    I have challenged social services for the last 8 years. They do not accept any other opinion than one that has already been decided and formed…be it by them or the courts. They are unable to consider what is before them. Are unable to challenge themselves! They refuse to speak up even when they believe the parent is right and therefore they themselves are putting children at risk. They do not put children first…they put their organisational procedures first for fear of ‘rocking the boat’. Maybe they should learn a little more about child development and the long term psychological harm they are causing on future generations….

    • Carole Marshall July 9, 2018 at 8:44 pm #

      Well said, Anna