by Annie, Surviving Safeguarding
The Care Act’s statutory guidance defines co-production as: When an individual influences the support and services received, or when groups of people get together to influence the way that services are designed, commissioned and delivered.
Usually associated with Adults’ services, my professional experience tells me that co-production is not always easy to implement when working with children and their families, particularly at the sharp end of child protection.
As a birth parent who has experienced several concurrent sets of public law proceedings in respect of my children, I can safely say that during and directly after our interventions the very last thing I would have wanted to do was co-produce as much as a cup of tea with a social worker. They were the enemy; they had taken my children. It took time, and therapy, to become more objective, more balanced and to better understand why those interventions had needed to happen.
Research shows us that families involved in the child protection system taking an active role in co-construction of services is “uneven” at best. Families feel shame and have fears about being judged, that by being positioned as “risky”, their voices are already marginalised, and the stigma silences possible contributions.
So, how does a local authority authentically incorporate the voices of those families, who feel such shame and stigma, into service design and delivery?
Enter: “Camden Conversations”
Back in 2014, the Camden Safeguarding Children’s Board (CSCB) encouraged the formation of a “Family Advisory Board” (FAB); a small group of mums, dads and grandparents who had experienced the child protection system within the authority. The motivator was the idea of learning from the family’s experiences to better inform and improve practice.
Then, in 2016, “Empowering Families” was launched, a one-day training session and learning exchange for children’s social workers I co-designed and delivered with Tim Fisher, service manager for Family Group Conferencing and restorative practice. We brought the FAB group into the session where they were able to talk about their experiences; the good, bad and the ugly. We designed exercises where families worked alongside the social workers, both listening to the other. By the end of the session we weren’t “social workers” and “service users” – we were just “people”.
The feedback from staff was overwhelmingly positive. The training was recommissioned and the CSCB started to explore how much further we could go with the notion of learning from families in the context of the child protection process.
What if we empower families with experience of the system to interview other families and professionals? What if we could celebrate what was going well in Camden, and find solutions to what needed attention, from the very people both using services and providing them?
A family-led child protection enquiry
Employing a participatory approach, family members were involved centrally in the design, implementation and recommendations of the enquiry. Parents who had had good and bad experiences within the system came back into it from an entirely different perspective; to design an interview process which would inform our recommendations to CSCB on what was working well and what needed improvement.
Then, supported by an FGC Coordinator, family members conducted the interviews themselves. Because we wanted to get an overall picture; our participants in the interviews were both family members who had experience of children’s social care – from Early Help right through to adoption – as well as Camden’s own workforce – from family support to senior management.
One family member participant said: “I lost everything when Camden removed my children following an abusive relationship. I didn’t know what to do or who to turn to…then I heard of the family led enquiry. I quickly jumped at the chance to have input in some quality work, in the same local authority that removed my children. A part of me [did] it so other voices can be heard; I knew I was able to get information needed out of family members and professionals in a relaxed conversation about their experiences and how they feel about child protection. The other part of me wanted to do it because my heart was ripped out by this local authority and yet here I am walking in the building, being heard and also listened to by the same people who thought I wasn’t capable of parenting adequately and able to protect my own children. It’s the system as a whole that is flawed not the individuals – this is exactly why those that use it should be involved in helping change it for the better.”
This was a new level of “empowering families”, one which has not taken place before. It was bold and innovative. At times, as I sat transcribing the interviews of the professionals and the family members, it was difficult to listen to. As Brene Brown says, “we are hardwired for connection”, and while listening to their stories I could feel the pain and the frustration seeping through, from all sides.
At other times, it was an unadulterated joy; hearing successes with families and good examples of practice; “I loved my social worker” “they nurtured me”. But what really shone through was the shift in power dynamic, and the effect this process was having on both practitioner and parent. If you’ve previously been “done to”, being listened to and worked with can be life changing. Feeling part of a solution was uplifting, for all.
Tim Fisher said: “For me, having people who have experienced services lead the research was key. It was thrilling to see the conversations develop and for the dialogue to acknowledge what’s happened, think about why, but then look to the potential for the future.
Some of the illustrations in the report show the mutual thinking and good intentions of family members and professionals that took part; I would like to believe that we are people within a system that gets in the way sometimes.”
Having the expert input of Professor Anna Gupta (Royal Holloway) kept our research authentic and creditable – albeit brand-new (and some may say, radical!), and said: “The co-production of knowledge and services is a crucial way forward in breaking down barriers, encouraging dialogue and developing effective policies and practices to support families to care safely for their children. The Camden Family-led Enquiry will hopefully be an encouragement for others.”
So often in children’s social care we hear that word: “outcomes”. It’s a bit of a bug-bear of mine, I don’t mind telling you. But, the biggest “outcome” in this whole project was that what the family members and the professionals were saying about the system, what they valued, what worked and what they wanted to change was broadly the same thing.
CSCB were clear from the beginning; this was not a tokenistic exercise. Camden is a rare beast in my eyes, a local authority that wants to be citizen-led and truly values the input of residents and the users of services.
Our recommendations to the Board included peer advocacy, changes to the way child protection conferences are held, and reviews of the way language is used, feedback is gathered and supported is offered to families before, during and after the child protection process.
From our practitioners, their rich learning began as soon as their interview did, with one telling us: “To be interviewed by a family member who had experienced the child protection system themselves was a daunting experience. In giving my responses to the questions, I reflected upon the usefulness of the reversal of the power dynamic in prompting self-reflection. Whilst I was the one giving the answers to assist the enquiry, the interview experience encouraged me to consider my own practice from the perspective of the family member, in the moment and as I was responding. After the interview, I reflected with my peers about how the experience had given me a renewed sense of responsibility to continually re-evaluate my own practice and that of my organisation.”
Better, children-led professionals
The Children Act 1989 puts children at the very heart of social work, safeguarding and protection, and most practitioners, quite rightly, operate with a “children first” approach. However, as a birth parent, that can often feel like your input is not valued and your voice is not heard. Our Enquiry demonstrated that workers can be better children-led if you start from partnership working with families. We are, after all, the experts in our own family’s life.
CSCB commissioned us to innovate, to explore, to research and to listen. But ultimately, what was important was action. “Camden Conversations”, our report from the enquiry, launches today, the 12th of April, but the impact of the family-led child protection enquiry itself, pre-launch, has already borne fruit.
- Independent advocacy is beginning to be offered to parents by using the established group of Family Group Conference coordinators in London, those that have advocacy training and can offer advocacy in child protection conferences as a distinct role.
- “Helping hands”, is a meeting between a parent with experience of the child protection process and a parent right at the beginning of it who wants to talk. Facilitated by an FGC coordinator. Feedback has been gathered and parents are positive, social workers are reporting that the advocacy is helping to build trust and relationships. These types of advocacy support are a potential stepping stone to developing peer advocacy which the report recommended.
- Monthly learning exchange workshops have begun, led by parents who share their experiences of subjects such as domestic violence with practitioners. Six-monthly free “Citizen-led” international events have begun, the first of those was held in November 2018, where a parent and social worker facilitate the whole day.
- Child protection Conference Chairs and the Quality Assurance Unit are bringing their own discussions and conversations about being participatory in their approach, with examples of recent practice such as bringing families into Conferences first and making sure they are comfortable.
This type of research cannot be evaluated in the traditional way because of the pioneering way in which it was conducted, however we will be able to report further on progress made in due course and at the next citizen-led international event on the 26th of April. This event is about starting conversations with, and learning from other “pioneers”, such as Leeds, Stockport and Hertfordshire.
“Camden Conversations” represents a movement towards more participation within the design and delivery of the child protection process by the very people who are at the heart of it; the families. This could not have happened without the unwavering support from CSCB, and the families and professionals within Camden who gave their time, their experience and their wisdom. Thank you to them, and to Sandra Howgate who provided the original illustrations throughout the report.
You can read our full report here, and we’d welcome your questions, comments and feedback.
Annie, the Parent and Relative Representative for the Family Justice Council, writes Surviving Safeguarding, undertakes social work training and consultancy and is one half of the Project Coordination team for The Transparency Project, a legal education charity. She tweets @survivecourt.