The series of three BBC and Open University programmes, Protecting our Children, provides a unique insight into five very different examples of child protection social work.
In order to carry out the legislative duties of protecting children and promoting their welfare, social workers and their colleagues have to find ways of intervening into other people's lives. They do this on behalf of us all because that's their job and in complex industrialised societies someone has to do it.
But it is not easy and it's not surprising that social workers meet with resistance, reluctance, passive non-cooperation and sometimes active hostility. These stories of real life social work practice dilemmas are profoundly affecting and they make for compelling and frequently uncomfortable viewing.
On Damned If They Do...
Episode One, Damned if they do, Damned if they don't illustrates the tremendous stresses and strains of working with overt resistance and hostility. What started out as an investigation into how services can be provided to a family that has a 'child in need', Toby, seems to quickly deteriorate into a hostile confrontation between Mike, the child's father, and the social workers involved.
The story raises many questions about how social workers can effectively work with people that are defensively hostile. One of the problems of 'involuntary' child protection work is that there are often different versions of events and possible explanations upon which social workers and colleagues in other services, such as paediatricians, have to base their judgements.
These are not necessarily insurmountable obstacles as agreement can be reached through discussion and sharing of concerns. But they can become barriers to progress if there is suspicion and little trust between workers and parents.
Mike's way of responding to efforts to explore what is going on in this family and to help the situation can be understood, to some extent, by Harry Ferguson's notion of 'pathological communication' as described in the book Child Protection Practice. How do we make sense of his hostility and resistance to, in his words, 'being judged'?
We don't know the full story of all that was attempted in this case but we may ask whether enough effort was made to identify what the resistance is really about for him and try to work with both parents in a solution-focused way to build upon what is working well.
Sometimes, it can seem that problems have their own impetus and a way of getting bigger and bigger. In this story, despite the efforts made by practitioners, there seems to be no way of overcoming Mike's resistance and antagonism.
This failure has significant consequences as events unfold in the story and Mike's early assertion that social workers are 'trying to wreck the family' turns out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy by the end of the episode.
Could anything else have been done? Would a different social worker or a different approach have had a different result? Maybe, or maybe not; these kinds of 'what if' questions are an inevitable part of reflection upon the tremendous complexities of child protection social work but practitioners are never able to call upon the wisdom of hindsight.
It should also be argued that Mike had an equal responsibility to respond to the legitimate concerns of social services. After all, it takes two willing partners to constructively 'work in partnership'.
Professional judgements about what is best for children do not always coincide with their parents abilities to keep them safe and ensure they have the best chances of developing their potential. In this story the needs of the young child are particularly pressing in developmental speech and behaviour terms.
As the team manager makes clear, the multi-disciplinary advice is that there is only a short window of opportunity for Toby to catch up with his peers. Mike and Tiffany's abilities to meet his needs seem, in comparison, sadly inadequate.
On Expecting Trouble
In episode two, Expecting Trouble, we follow the story of Shaun and Marva and their child, who is born during the filming of the programme. The social worker, Annie, demonstrates great skill in engaging with two people who live very much on the margins of society.
There is a long background pattern of "previous" (as the social work team manager puts it) for these two people and yet every effort is made to give them a chance of becoming the parent for their child.
The feeling of 'two worlds' uncomfortably rubbing up against each other is never far away as the relatively orderly welfare services strive to 'work in partnership' with the turbulence of these two people's lives. Annie is able to work with both Shaun and Marva within the changes of circumstance that take place over the course of the filming, but the relationships are ambivalent at best.
There appears to be a cooperative working relationship with Marva but, in the end, the changes required are too much for her to sustain. The reality of the commitment needed for Marva to become a parent with responsibilities and meet the unconditional needs of her child is too much and the plans don't work out.
One of the universal messages of this story is that, in practice, there are often limits to the amount of change that people can undertake. Despite the best of intentions, it is often easier for a lot of people to resist change and revert to familiar habits and patterns of behaviour.
On I Want My Baby Back
This message is duplicated in different ways through episode three, I Want My Baby Back, as the social workers encounter different kinds of resistances. In some ways, the intervention that the social worker, Ben, makes is the most straightforward in child protection terms.
The need to protect is clear; the lack of cooperation from the child's mother is patent and the combined risks and resistance of the potential perpetrator make the need to remove the child to a place of safety imperative.
However, although this dramatic intervention to ensure a child's safety is effectively executed, this is only the beginning of the story. Social workers will have to find ways of working with the child's mother as decisions about the long term future for this child will be decided through Court orders.
The second story of Louise, Wayne and baby Mercedes is very different in posing moral ambiguities. There are parallels with Marva's story from episode two in that the social work conditions set for Louise demand that she is able to sustain a change of lifestyle and choose the responsibilities of being a parent by beating her drug addiction.
The social worker (also called Louise) is very straightforward in her communication and demonstrates an example of what Ferguson calls "authoritative negotiated child protection" for which he sets out eight steps:
- recognise (professional) authority and assume conflict not cooperation
- encourage openness and honest expression of feelings
- identify what the resistance is really about and what is working well
- identify the dangers to the children
- identify what is negotiable
- identify what is not negotiable
- formulate a child protection plan
- be clear about the criteria for progress
The social worker is able to work with the painful dilemmas arising from the resistance to change from Louise and Wayne and there are some difficult conversations to be had.
The overriding consideration, in all her work with the parents, is as Louise says to the camera, "I am social worker to the child". This is the bottom-line. Whatever the resistances from adult parents and carers that social workers have to confront, their primary professional responsibility is to the child. It is this that must drive the decision-making.
There are important values in social work about working in partnership with people and 'empowering' them. Sometimes this can be done but, as these programmes demonstrate, within particular families and in the way that events unfold over time it cannot always be achieved.
Whatever the attitudes and reactions of adults, it is the needs of the child that has to be uppermost in driving all judgements and decisions about whether parents can carry on being parents to their children.
Child Protection Practice
Harry Ferguson, published by Palgrave.
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Although the social workers involved may have been following guidelines in appropriately assessing and addressing risk to the child, whilst treating all those involved with respect and dignity, not all episodes provided the viewer enough information to show that is what was being done.
Episode 2 was very good in that lots of discussion with the worker allowed us to see the reasoning behind her decisions such as identifying Sean and the use of alcohol to be two primary risk factors and Marv's decision to stay away from those tow gave her an opportunity to get her child back, but when her relapsed involved exposing the baby to her alcohol abuse and Sean again, then we understood the decision to apprehend.
However episode 3 did not provide us with any understanding of the workers ideology and reasoning behind her decisions. As such it appeared to reflect workers suspecting clients being at great risk of putting their children in harms way due to illicit drug use or exposure to a convicted child sex offender but feeling they did not have enough evidence to get the order they wanted in court, so were forced to set the clients up for failure, in order to gain information that could get their decision in court. For example a mother with lifelong drug addiction issues being asked to come off drugs and drop all support services that would help her stay clean such as a methadone maintenance treatment program, then detox all within two weeks. Perhaps the client was abusing her prescription medication, or had a unique reaction to her medicine that limited her parenting capacity, but the viewer wasn't informed of this. All the worker was aware of is that the social worker ordered she come off a program recognized as a protection strength in a very short amount of time. If the client had done as asked, the risks of her relapsing without the support would have been very high and the child at greater risk of harm. If, as the worker suspected. she knew she couldn't fulfil the obligation of dropping all support services to stay clean, then the worker gets the evidence she needs for court, e: the client refused to co-operate and meet expectations. Similarly, the aggressive judgmental attitude the male worker took when trying to help the client recognize the risks of living with a convicted child sex offender and move out the home, instead caused her to get defensive, which he made no effort to de-escelate. It was almost as if he had decided to remove the child before he even went in. When he told the sex offender that he wasn't really innocent, it was more likely the police didn't have enough evidence. That was an extremely judgmental comment (even if it was something all of us might think) based on no real evidence. He is not a police officer so had no right to comment on how decisions were made in such legal proceedings. By putting such a prejudicial comment out there, on air, he was providing the clients defense lawyers with enough ammunition to throw out the social workers application, and as such, increased the risk of the child being returned to an unsafe home.
Such a poor impression of the social workers involved in episode 3 may be due to biased editing by the BBC. Perhaps they wanted a dramatic contrast to the obviously very good worker in the previous episode and so deliberately left out footage of workers explaining their reasoning for individual decisions in unique situations. I just hope new social workers straight out of university don't look to these shows as an example of how to practice child protection work, as it would undoubtedly lead to some prejudicial decision making that inevitably puts not only the child at risk, but also, the reputation of the entire profession.