11 Social work communication with a family group
Working with a family group can make challenging demands on social workers’ communication skills. Sitting down with several family members at the same time involves multiple interactions, adding many layers of complexity to the use of empathic listening and responding, and it is not unusual for social workers to find themselves confronted by different or opposing views within a family group. Families are complex, and effective communication incorporates having an appreciation of diverse family forms and relationships. In the next activity, you will see how an experienced social worker handles a situation where she is required to make an assessment visit to a family, following a referral from a school. The school has expressed concerns about a teenage girl’s behaviour, which may be putting her at risk.
The video you are about to watch is the recording of an unscripted and unrehearsed simulation, in which a real social worker, Victoria Cavalino, briefed only by basic written initial-referral information produced for the simulation task, conducts a family interview. The family members are played by actors. Victoria did not know, had not met, nor had she had any communication with the actors before the moment the actual recording commenced. In addition, the actors had not rehearsed or shared among themselves how they might respond or react in the interview, and the actors were only provided with a very basic outline of their individual storylines in advance. Much of the information brought into the interview by Victoria was genuine news to the actors, only being revealed for the first time during the recording. The interview was filmed in one ‘take’ with none of the dialogue repeated or rephrased. So, in this video, all of the reactions and responses are authentic and captured for the recording in real-time using multiple cameras.
Note: In this course, this activity is not addressing in detail the numerous elements relating to child protection practice and the legal issues raised by the story. Therefore, try to keep your focus primarily on the interactions and on the communication between the participants in the interview, remembering, of course, that the direction and the quality of the communication are being influenced directly by the facts and the content of the story as it unfolds.
Activity 3 Working with families
Part 1 Ellie and her family
Before you watch the video, read the information on Ellie Smith that Victoria received before the simulated meeting with Ellie and her family. Make brief notes about anything that you feel might potentially affect communication in Victoria’s first visit to the family. What might Victoria have been concerned about and what might she have been looking out for, that might be difficult to raise or to talk about?
After providing the referral information to Victoria, she was asked to write down her initial thoughts before going into the video recording of the interview with the family in the simulated meeting. Read Victoria’s initial thoughts. You may be interested to compare this with your own ideas.
Part 2 Victoria’s interview with Ellie and her family
Now watch the video below and make notes about what Victoria, the social worker, says and does to manage the meeting and communicate with the family. Remind yourself of what you have learned so far about the importance of demonstrating empathy and respect, initial contacts, and relationship-building.
The following prompts may help you:
- How does Victoria start the meeting and how do family members respond?
- What does Victoria do to try and engage each family member? How successful is this?
- What does she do when different perspectives and tensions surface? What is the result of this?
- How does she respond to Greg’s behaviour and is this successful?
- How does Victoria enable Ellie to express her perspective?
- How does Victoria bring the interview to a conclusion?
- The video is quite powerful: what were your own emotions while watching it?
Transcript: Video 1
VICTORIA: So I'm Victoria, and I'm a social worker. And you must be Ellie? What would you like me to call you guys?
LISA: I'm Lisa.
VICTORIA: OK. Well, it's nice to meet you all. Thank you for letting me into your home today. Shall I explain a little bit about why I'm here? Would that be helpful?
VICTORIA: OK. So like I said, I'm a social worker. I work with Children's Services. And some information came through to us earlier this morning, Ellie, from your school. And they have been a bit worried about you. And they asked for a social worker to come out and see how you are and to see, as a family, how things have been. Have they spoken with you at all?
LISA: Yeah, yeah, they called me yesterday.
GREG: I didn't know nothing about it.
VICTORIA: You didn't know anything about it. OK. So Ellie, my understanding is that sometimes you're not at school. And so they've been a bit worried that you haven't been there and have been missing out on lessons. What would you say to that?
ELLIE: Well, it doesn't matter, does it? Because I'll just catch up with something another time.
VICTORIA: OK. So that was one of the things that they mentioned. The other thing that they were particularly worried about was that it seemed that you'd been missing over the weekend and that people didn't know where you were.
ELLIE: I was out, wasn't I?
VICTORIA: OK. Maybe we could talk about where you've been and what you've been up to.
LISA: I still don't understand, really, why you're here when we've just been called out to school a couple of times. All kids do that, don't they? She's 15.
ELLIE: I did nothing wrong. I ain't done nothing.
VICTORIA: OK. Shall I share with you what my role is? Would that be helpful?
VICTORIA: OK. We are there to try and support families and to try and make things better if there are things that we're worried about. Right? So that's our first goal.
Today, I'm here to just ask some questions to hear what you think. Obviously, the school have shared some of their thoughts. But I haven't heard from you guys.
Ellie, I'd like to hear what you think has been going on. And so we can try and get to the bottom of maybe why the school are worried, maybe some of the things that have been a bit difficult, and to see if there's any way for us to move forward together. OK?
LISA: All right.
VICTORIA: Ellie, do you want to fill me in on what you've been up to over the last weekend and where you were?
GREG: You know where she was, right?
LISA: Well, she said to me she was staying with Emily, her friend.
VICTORIA: OK. How do you know Emily?
ELLIE: Through school.
VICTORIA: Yeah? Is she in your year?
VICTORIA: OK. And what were you guys doing together?
ELLIE: Just hanging out. Then I watched a movie around her's.
VICTORIA: So you hung out with Emily. You watched a film. Did you guys go out at all?
ELLIE: Mm, well, we went to the park, and stuff, just hung out there.
LISA: Ellie, I do think you should probably say the truth as well.
ELLIE: I'm telling the truth.
GREG: What do you mean, the truth?
LISA: I thought she was with Emily. But I think she was also out with a couple of other people as well, maybe that Darren.
GREG: Who's Darren? Who's this fella, this kid?
LISA: Her boyfriend.
GREG: So why haven't you told me that?
LISA: I didn't-- I only just found out about it.
LISA: I just found out about it--
LISA: --just yesterday.
GREG: Why? So you found out about it yesterday, and you haven't told me.
VICTORIA: All right.
VICTORIA: Ellie, why don't you fill us in on who else you've been with?
ELLIE: I told you. I was with Emily.
[PARENTS ARGUING IN BACKGROUND]
VICTORIA: Was anyone else there?
LISA: It's OK.
GREG: (WHISPERING) Stop it. No. If this stuff, you're not telling me--
ELLIE: Oh, my gosh, stop, all right?
LISA: I don't want an argument, not when this lady's here. Please, come on. Just be nice. It's all nice and calm now.
GREG: No, it's not nice and calm, because suddenly, once again, I don't know anything that's going on.
LISA: OK. She's going through a bit of a phase at the moment.
ELLIE: I'm not.
LISA: Just a little bit of a phase where she's keeping a few secrets. But it's what teenagers do, isn't it? She was with her friend. And also, I think she might have been with a few other people and with her boyfriend. But she was all right. She's all right with them.
VICTORIA: So you've been hanging out with your friends. And so that sounds like maybe you're having fun with them. What about how are things at home?
ELLIE: Mum's been drinking, so--
LISA: Hey, just one. But just a couple, I ain't nothing-- I don't know what she's making it out like. Ellie, it ain't like I've got some kind of a problem, or anything.
VICTORIA: No one's saying that you've got a problem. But like I said, I'm here to try and find out what's been going on and maybe why you guys are struggling to get on sometimes.
GREG: You've gotten easier on all that.
LISA: I ain't gotten easier.
GREG: We're in this situation because of her, so that won't help.
ELLIE: I ain't done nothing, so I don't understand.
VICTORIA: Ellie, from what you've said, it sounds like maybe you're not very happy about your mum's drinking. Why do you think your mom is drinking?
ELLIE: I don't know, probably because of him, isn't it?
LISA: Hey, no it ain't. It ain't.
ELLIE: Well, I know you slapped her.
GREG: You didn't see nothing.
LISA: You didn't see the row, did you?
GREG: You didn't see nothing.
LISA: You didn't see the row.
GREG: You didn't see nothing.
LISA: Ellie, we're talking about you here, OK?
VICTORIA: OK. But I'm also aware that whatever's happening to Ellie will be affected by what's going on at home as well. So it sounds like you guys had an argument. Do you want to tell me about that?
GREG: No. No, we don't.
VICTORIA: Hey, Greg, I'd like to hear what Lisa was saying.
LISA: We just had a row. It was both of us. We were just arguing with each other. And it just got a little bit heated. And I actually did-- I pushed him. And then he pushed me back. It wasn't a hit or anything like that.
LISA: No, I'm just trying to-- I'm just explaining, OK? It wasn't nothing. That's what I'm saying. He's never hit me. He's not like that. He's lovely. He looks after us. And because she thinks she's in trouble, she's trying to make it out like it's something different.
ELLIE: I'm not. I'm just saying.
VICTORIA: OK. Do you want to tell me what you saw or what you heard?
ELLIE: Well, I didn't see it. But when I came in the next day, they were talking, and stuff. And then when I walked in, they just stopped talking. And then I could see it on her face. It was bruised right here.
VICTORIA: When was this? When did this happen?
ELLIE: Last week.
VICTORIA: OK. And how often does this happen?
ELLIE: I don't know.
LISA: That's it. There's just been one. There's just been one big row. That's it.
GREG: I thought you come around here to talk about her not being at school or where she was at the weekend.
VICTORIA: But whenever there are concerns about a child or young person, there's always a bigger story. And it will be relating to what else is going on in their lives. And a big part of that is family and what's going on at home as well.
So although you guys might feel like what happens at home and what happens at school are different things. My guess is that, for Ellie, those things are related, which is why what we're talking about now is important and why I do have some more questions about that.
GREG: So what about Ellie? What about what she brings to-- she creates most of the hassle we have in this house. Disappearing for the weekend, we still don't even know where-- where was you?
LISA: We do. We just went there.
ELLIE: I told you.
VICTORIA: OK. Perhaps--
GREG: Who is this boyfriend? Who is he? Well, and so we're all right with that, are we? So you're all right with that, just going off with someone.
LISA: [INAUDIBLE]. But she's 15. She's going to have a boyfriend.
GREG: Who is he?
LISA: He's Darren.
GREG: How old is he?
LISA: She said he was 17.
GREG: She said--
LISA: What, Ellie?
GREG: He what?
ELLIE: He's 23.
LISA: Oh, I didn't know he was 23. How was I supposed to know? She said he was 17.
GREG: Because you don't know anything, because you don't ask her anything. Because you let her get away with everything, that's why. No, because you don't bother asking any questions. 23?
VICTORIA: Greg, can you hang on a second? OK. Ellie, talk to me about Darren. Who is he?
ELLIE: Some guy I met. I don't know.
VICTORIA: Where did you meet him?
GREG: He's a nonce. 23?
ELLIE: Would you just shut up?
LISA: Ellie, please, he's just worried about you.
GREG: You know nothing. Absolutely, you know nothing. Is he the one that's bought you that phone? Is he the one-- is that where that phone comes from? That phone she had the other day, is that where that's come from? Where is it? Is it in here?
ELLIE: Stop touching my bag. Get off.
VICTORIA: Please, Greg.
LISA: Greg, stop. Stop, please. Come on, stop.
VICTORIA: Can I ask everyone to calm down? OK, thank you. Ellie, sounds like you've got a new phone. What happened?
LISA: Ellie, just talk to the lady, please.
ELLIE: For heaven's sake, all right. So he gave me a phone so we could text, and stuff.
ELLIE: What's wrong with that?
VICTORIA: There might not be anything wrong with that.
VICTORIA: What's Darren like?
GREG: A nonce.
ELLIE: He ain't. Would you just shut up? Stop calling him that. I don't know he's like. Nice. He's really kind, and stuff. And--
LISA: Calm down.
ELLIE: --just makes sure I'm all right. And I'd rather be at his than here. I don't know, he's just--
VICTORIA: So you enjoy spending time with him.
VICTORIA: OK. I think it sounds like your parents are worried because he's a bit older. And I've got a few questions because he's a bit older as well. OK. Can you talk to me a bit about the kind of things that you do together?
ELLIE: So I go out and hang out a bit. I don't know, he took me to a cinema.
VICTORIA: One of the things the school have been a bit worried about is that maybe you've been using drugs. And they wondered if a boyfriend might be involved.
ELLIE: Well, it's--
VICTORIA: OK, hang on a second.
ELLIE: --just I tried it once.
VICTORIA: What did you try?
ELLIE: I ain't using. I ain't using.
VICTORIA: What did you try?
LISA: Oh my, let it stop, please.
ELLIE: Just gave me a bit of weed.
VICTORIA: OK. When was this?
ELLIE: A couple of weeks ago.
VICTORIA: Has he given you anything else?
VICTORIA: What about alcohol?
LISA: Ellie, you've got talk to the lady.
ELLIE: My god.
VICTORIA: What does a shoulder shrug mean?
ELLIE: It was just a little bit. But no, we don't get really drunk, and stuff, not like this.
LISA: Ellie, that ain't fair, is it?
GREG: Don't stop being [INAUDIBLE]. Answer the questions.
ELLIE: I'm trying. I'm trying. Didn't you hear me? I just said--
VICTORIA: OK, Ellie, I will come back, and I've got more questions for your parents, OK? But it would be helpful for me just to hear about what's been going on for you and where you've been spending your time.
ELLIE: Well, I just said, I was with Darren.
GREG: It makes me sick.
VICTORIA: Were you spending your time with him, as well, this weekend?
GREG: Just lying-- lying the whole time, and you take it.
ELLIE: Just stop butting in, all right? Ain't got nothing to do with you.
VICTORIA: Can we pause again? Can I share with you what I'm hearing, so far? And you can correct me if I'm wrong, OK?
What I'm hearing is that there have been arguments. Sometimes that's become quite aggressive at home. It sounds like there's also been some drinking of alcohol, which maybe Ellie has not been very happy with. We can talk more about that in a minute.
And then, Ellie, it sounds like, at school, you've been spending time with some friends. And you've been introduced to an older boyfriend as well. OK.
Ellie, can I ask you a question? If you were to tell me how you feel at the moment, with 10 being that you're really happy all the time, everything's going really well, and 0 is that you feel sad all the time and really low, where would you say you are today?
ELLIE: Don't know, like 2.
VICTORIA: That's pretty low. Why is it a 2 today?
ELLIE: Well, it's just that it just kicks off all the time, not-- it just come on in a minute. It's just in your face the whole time.
GREG: Well, you do that.
ELLIE: I don't.
GREG: You come out, and you kick ass.
LISA: It's not all her, Greg.
VICTORIA: Greg, if I was to ask you the same question, where would you say you are?
GREG: I don't know. I don't know.
ELLIE: Go, just pick a number between 1 and 10. It's not that hard.
GREG: I'm like 3, something like 4, I don't know.
VICTORIA: OK. So you're also feeling maybe more low?
GREG: I'm more-- yeah, it's just this crap I don't have to-- don't want to put up with.
VICTORIA: All right. Lisa, can I ask you the same question about how you are feeling?
LISA: Well, today, probably 1, because this is all worrying me out of my mind now. It's stressing me out. I don't think we need social workers around here. I think, well, we have to sort this out, and now, don't know.
VICTORIA: OK. You've all shared with me lots of really important things today. And I do think that we probably need to meet again and talk. Ellie, I'd like to come and see you in school, maybe, and talk to you more about what's been going on for you and how you've been feeling.
And Lisa and Greg, I'd like to see you guys as well, maybe together, maybe separately, to talk about what's happening at home. I'm worried about your arguments and that they've become physical at times.
LISA: It was only once.
VICTORIA: OK. But we might need to talk a bit more about that.
VICTORIA: And Lisa, I'm a bit worried that I'm hearing that you're drinking, because it sounds like things have been strained for all of you. And if social workers are there to try and help to make things better, we need to know what we're trying to make better. OK? So if it's OK with you, we'll make plans to come and see you. And so we can continue those conversations. Would that be all right?
GREG: Ain't got much choice, do we?
VICTORIA: Greg, I know that this is difficult. And our goal is not to make things more challenging for you as a family but to try and help.
LISA: We could sort you out.
VICTORIA: OK. Thank you for letting me come and see you today and for talking with me. I appreciate everything that you said, OK?
VICTORIA: Thank you.
Victoria seems to show empathy, skill and sensitivity in handling this challenging interview. Even though it was simulated, Victoria commented that it was realistic (except that she had to conduct the interview in a much shorter period than usual).
Part 3 Victoria’s reflections on the experience
Now listen to the audio below, in which Victoria reflects on what she was trying to achieve, on her performance in the interview, including the decisions she made about risk during the interview, and about how she might have wanted to work with the family in future were this a real family. Victoria refers to one of the theories that have influenced her practice: systemic family therapy, and in her preparation notes, Victoria mentions the concept of family scripts which is a concept used in the family therapy approach. These are underlying messages and expectations affecting how a child or adult thinks about themselves. Although Victoria does not mention an approach called solution-focused theory, she seems to use some of its techniques – for example, in the scaling questions, which provide a powerful insight into the self-perceived seriousness or intensity on an imaginary numerical scale of 1–10, of individual family members’ feelings about specific issues raised in the interview.