‘Social work is about promoting participation – social work research should be too’

Social work lecturer Robin Sen explains his and others' ethical objections to the recently published study into the effectiveness of family group conferences in preventing children from going into care

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David Westlake’s July 2023 article for Community Care argued for more randomised controlled trials (RCTs) in social work research and the merits of the recently published RCT on family group conferences (FGC RCT).

As one of the academics who opposed the FGC RCT – commissioned by What Works for Children’s Social Care (now Foundations) and designed and carried out by Coram – I want to explore some of the concerns I, and others, hold about its conduct.

Academics’ opposition to the FGC RCT was not an absolute objection to the use of RCTs in social work research.

RCTs may be largely uncontroversial in some contexts and the ethical issues involved in one which, say, evaluates a training course are different to those concerning a trial that denies a family an FGC when their children are on the edge of care.

They need to be explored on a case-by-case basis.

Objections to randomly allocating families a service

Our objections to the FGC RCT centred on the point at which, and the manner in which, families were randomised into an ‘intervention group’ offered an FGC and a ‘control group’ who were not.

The randomisation occurred when families were referred to pre-proceedings under the Public Law Outline (PLO), meaning there was a good chance the local authority would subsequently apply to court to place their children outside of parental care.

The randomisation also occurred without families’ knowledge and consent.

Those in the ‘control group’ were denied the chance of choosing an FGC at this critical moment in their family’s life and were not routinely informed that other families in similar situations in their local authority were being offered an FGC.

Other viable research designs available

There were other viable research designs for the study, instead of randomisation.

These included comparing data for families before or after the FGC service was set up, and during the period when the service was running; or, comparing data between families who chose to have an FGC and those who did not.

Crucially, these alternatives would have preserved families’ ability to choose an FGC when that service was available within their local authority. It would also have meant evaluators could be transparent with families about the study’s design.

How the study handled ethical concerns

The decision to carry out an RCT for the FGC study was taken by What Works for Children’s Social Care (now Foundations), with the study design drawn up by Coram and then signed off by What Works.

The study protocol listed as an ethical risk the fact that randomisation would deprive families in the control group of the potential benefits of an FGC, such as strengthening family ties and relationships and reducing the power imbalance between families and statutory social work services. It said this risk was mitigated by the fact that:

  • The FGCs delivered through the study would not otherwise have been provided had Department for Education funding for the evaluation programme of which the RCT was a part not been made available. So, the families in the control group were not missing out on a service they would have normally been provided with.
  • FGC provision across the country is uneven and families have no say in whether their local authority offers this service. Randomisation is no worse than this and may be a fairer way of allocating the scarce resource of an FGC.
  • The study team said it would suggest to local authorities that they consider offering families in the control group an FGC at the end of the study evaluation, should this be appropriate.

Study design ‘contrary to social work principles’

The way this RCT was undertaken conflicted with the International Federation of Social Workers’ Global Social Work Statement of Ethical Principles.

This stipulates that social workers should support the self-determination, and the participation, of those with whom they work, wherever possible.

It also conflicted with Social Work England’s professional standards, which state that social workers should:

  • respect and promote the human rights, views, wishes and feelings of the people they work with, balancing rights and risks and enabling access to advice, advocacy, support and services (standard 1.2); and
  • work in partnership with people to promote their well-being and achieve best outcomes, recognising them as experts in their own lives (1.3).

Some researchers may argue they are not bound by social work ethical codes.

However, it is not obvious why it should be acceptable for researchers to design a study of families receiving a social work service in a way that would be considered unethical if applied in everyday social work practice.

Doing to – not with – families

Notably, the FGC RCT study protocol stated that if a court decreed that a family in the ‘control group’ should receive an FGC, then the local authority should respect this judgment and offer one.

The study’s randomisation process could therefore be broken on the say of a judge, but not at the direct request of the family whose lives were involved. Far from ‘nothing about us without us’, this was ‘everything about you without you’.

Foundations has failed to recognise the irony in it proclaiming the FGC RCT as a ‘landmark study’, which provides validation of the value of ‘working with families’, when the study itself ‘did to’ families.

Why should such a disjuncture between the methods used to research families, and the methods advocated for practising with them be deemed acceptable? The ethical concerns I describe mean that for some of us, the study will continue to constitute a low mark, not a landmark.

Robin Sen is a lecturer in social work at the University of Edinburgh and co-editor of a recent book collection, The Future of Children’s Care, Critical Perspectives on Children’s Services Reform

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