Social workers’ interpersonal skills should be prioritised with a focus on “humane” practice, even when resources are under severe strain, a new study argues.
The research, for the Family Rights Group charity’s Your Family, Your Voice initiative was based on work with families involved with multiple services. It explored barriers people face towards successful engagement with professionals, as well as factors that promote engagement.
The study found families, above all, valued professionals’ honesty, respect and empathy when building relationships.
But some families recalled less positive encounters with professionals, including social workers, which created deep frustration that their feelings were unworthy of recognition. Problems people had with services were also said to be seriously exacerbated by the impact of austerity, both on agencies and on families themselves.
Cathy Ashley, the Family Rights Group chief executive, said the report showed that “while there are structural problems that make everyone feel overstretched, families face not just a system that is at crisis point, but one where everyday humanity can be forgotten”.
The “wealth of knowledge” of families involved with children’s social care and other agencies needs to inform the design of services to a much greater degree than is currently the case, the study concluded.
The research involved 20 families, who were recruited via a number of statutory and non-statutory bodies, including three local authority children’s services departments.
The families were chosen based on having had sustained past or present engagement with multiple service areas including child protection and care proceedings.
Among a number of key findings, the study revealed:
- Family accounts that revealed “cold-hearted, demeaning and hurtful” encounters with social work professionals, which tended to reinforce resistance, negatively affecting ongoing working relationships.
- A series of concerns relating to time, including long delays in accessing services, procedures that felt rushed and professionals arriving late to or simply missing appointments.
- That fragmented services – including over-complex networks of support, and “ever-changing casts” of workers due to staff churn – were major sources of frustrations and stress.
- That families faced a dual hit as a result of the post-2010 policy landscape, with their own resources being squeezed at the same time as they were asked to work with services that were “cut, reorganised, [with] threshold criteria changed and workers moved”.
Kate Morris of Sheffield University, who led the research with her fellow social work professor Brid Featherstone of Huddersfield University, said it was important the findings were not viewed as blaming councils or social workers.
“You can’t disregard analysis of the [children’s social care] funding crisis by the Local Government Association (LGA) and Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) – it is very serious,” Morris said.
She added that councils and social workers were being forced into practising in ways that they would never choose, citing professionals’ frequent complaints about being swamped by admin that gets in the way of direct work with families.
“It’s about, ‘How do we create some alliances for change?’,” she said.
‘Negative feedback route’
Crucially, no family said they had been enabled to take an active role in service development, for instance around how services were commissioned or developed.
“For families the feedback route was largely negative – only by complaining were [they] able to provide managers and practitioners with their reflections on the services they had used,” the report said.
Participants highlighted a range of specific problems they had been unhappy with, including being stepped up and down services without apparent reason, being identified as a number or a “case”, and the discomfort of “being watched” during supervised contacts.
More generally, families voiced their frustrations around how maintaining relationships with loved ones had been reduced to a “bureaucratic undertaking”, with professionals resisting challenge from families, making them feel like “the problem”.
But, people involved in the study also praised services that managed to transcend siloed working, reducing the need for multiple interventions, as well as professionals, who made “unconditional offers” of their time. Family group conferences were highlighted as making a “real impact on families’ willingness to work collaboratively”.
“[This study] documents high levels of need and shame-inducing encounters, but it also identifies families as the source of a great deal of knowledge and wisdom about their needs, and also about services and family journeys,” the report said.
Morris said that, looking forward, families needed to be seen by social work leaders as “stakeholders with something serious to contribute around the design, evaluation, commissioning and auditing of services”.
“We are talking about big-system change, but we shouldn’t be afraid of that – many practitioners are fed up of rearranging deckchairs and want a wider conversation about what a robust child welfare system looks like for future.”
‘Right culture and expectations’
Responding to the findings, Clive Jones, chair of the West Midlands ADCS branch, said: “The report highlights how it is possible to work together in partnership with families, where social workers and other professionals have time to build strong and enduring relationships and can work with families to build on strengths.”
Jones, who is also the director of children’s and adults’ services at Telford and Wrekin council, acknowledged that, in the current financial climate, giving social workers enough time was “increasingly challenging”.
“However, what the work of the Family Rights Group shows is that it is as much about creating the right culture and expectations about working effectively with families and communities,” he added.