by Simon Haworth
Since the early part of this century, there has been a constant withering of support for families and redefinition of what help remains into investigations of families and increasing removal of children into care and adoption.
A new report, Children’s Social Care – The Way Forward, from the Parent Families and Advocacy Network (PFAN) and five other family-focused organisations, sets out ideas on making the system more supportive, humane and inclusive, and ensuring families’ needs are met early, with advocacy a core feature.
It also argues for immediate changes, led by parents and children with lived experience of social care. The report is based on the experiences of some of these parents, with input from allies who work in children’s social care or are social work academics.
The report suggests in its introductory summary:
“To transform the system, we will need to nurture and test out a range of strategies which shift the power from government and public services to parents, children and communities. Alongside this immediate changes are required to children’s social care led by parents and children with lived experience of children’s social care.”
What needs to change
Briefly, the main issues our report identifies are:
- Social work with children and families has become engulfed in child protection processes and care proceedings, with associated heavy bureaucratic demands. It focuses almost entirely on risk, at the cost of meeting needs. This is embedded in Working Together to Safeguard Children. Blame permeates the system for families, but also for social workers, when things go wrong.
- For a variety of reasons, there is constant change and a lack of stability in the system. As a result, families do not experience continuity of services. Further, there is a focus on assessments and meetings, but not enough on offering and providing support.
- Legal representation for parents and children does not function effectively in many family court cases. Further, the lack of investment in therapeutic services for parents involved in care proceedings can effectively set them up to fail.
- Current responses can leave mothers who have experienced domestic abuse doubly oppressed, by being subject to domestic violence while being threatened with having their children removed. There is a need to better understand and accept how the state and its agencies can reinforce oppression.
- Many families with a disabled child are forced through safeguarding assessments when there is no indication of neglect or abuse, and don’t receive the help they need.
- The prioritisation of adoption means too many children lose all family ties.
- The system lacks champions to develop new ways of inclusive partnership working with families.
Away from a culture of blame
We argue for a cultural shift from parental blame to genuinely fostering partnership and the participation of families and communities. Our organisations need to move from a culture of risk, suspicion and blame to helping families and communities to find their own solutions.
We know social work is at its best when it adopts a relationship-based, proportionate and humane approach, and gets to know and work with children and their families. For this to happen, practitioners need to be given the time to work directly with families and communities within a culture that focuses on root causes and does not individualise problems.
Parental advocacy, delivered by parents with lived experience, has been shown to be a powerful way to change our working cultures, build bridges and improve the focus and scope of support for children and their families. A range of mainly US studies show, for example, that advocacy improves outcomes in child protection conferences, alongside legal representatives in care proceedings, as part of substance use programmes, and in child welfare agencies. Parents are employed or volunteer directly in social work agencies, in legal practices, or in independent agencies and funding depends on the nature of involvement and the model used.
We need genuinely family-focused guidance to replace Working Together, which places a singular focus on risk of harm, whether discussing early help, children in need or child protection investigations. Many parents tell us their experience of asking for help is demeaning, and one of being treated with suspicion.
Children in need and early help guidance should instead focus on the parents’ and child’s concerns and the co-production of plans and their implementation. Even where there is a child protection investigation, families should be treated with dignity, and assessment and planning for the child and family’s needs should be included.
Making the legal process fairer
We provide examples of positive and supportive work with children, families and communities that can be built on, such as Leeds council’s focus on providing timely and focused support and Camden’s creative use of family group conferences and developing parent advocacy.
We argue for the development of a social model for domestic abuse, where practice pays careful attention to the individual stories of pain and trauma within the wider contexts of societal inequality and disadvantage. Under such a model, support and help would be offered in partnership with new ways of working – such as motivational interviewing – being used to genuinely share control, empower and work together.
Many parents also see defence lawyers having ‘cosy’ relationships with the local authority and not challenging their positions strongly. We need to develop a panel of lawyers who demonstrate their independence by not taking on cases on behalf of the local authority, not forming close relationships with local authority representatives and actively challenging the local authority’s case.
Again looking to the US, in many places law firms employ social workers and parent advocates, who are involved in case planning and ensure parents understand the process and that commitments are feasible for parents and children to undertake. Research shows this can reduce the numbers of children in care with no increase in risk of maltreatment to children and considerable savings to overall expenditure. Here, legal teams including both parent and child advocates could be funded as an alternative to the CAFCASS role and might better protect children’s rights.
Finally, adoption should be a genuinely last resort, and permanence should in the vast majority of cases be open. As our report proposes, “where permanent alternative care is needed, it should be legally possible to use special guardianship for children in care [which] would leave open a flexible approach to contact and the possibility of changing levels and approaches to parental and wider family involvement”.
We can build on these foundations to develop and deliver co-produced services that offer hope and compassion. Our report concludes that “in the present situation, change should emphasise the need for reconnecting communities and professional systems, partnership with parents and children and have a clear prioritisation of proactive and preventative practice”.
We would love you to join us on this journey.
Simon Haworth has written this piece on behalf of PFAN. He is a lecturer at the University of Birmingham. He is also a core member of (PFAN) and founding member of the Best Interests of the Child Review (BIC Review). He tweets @SiHaworth.
Children’s Social Care – The Way Forward was prepared by Professor Andy Bilson, with the input of key PFAN parents and allies, and based on consultations with parents and allies by PFAN, Love Barrow Families, New Beginnings, Parent and Carer Alliance, Southwark Family Council and Parent to Parent Peer Advocacy.