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.