Learning from History : Lesson 5 :Realistic Expectations

In the August 2007 edition of the Webmag, we explained that a study of social work files covering the last three or four decades had suggested that there were lessons for today’s practitioners. For the purpose of this series, six topics have been chosen, and in each case, David Lane describes what he has found out from the files, and Chris Durkin comments from the viewpoint of current practice and teaching about social work. Earlier Lessons covered the need for good standard practice, the value of comprehensive assessments, forms of abuse and treating abuse. It should be emphasised that the Lessons all focus on general issues, and do not disclose any confidential information.

David Lane :

In making claims that the local authorities responsible for their care were negligent, people who were formerly in care often state that the Social Services provided them with no one whom they could trust and to whom they could talk. This issue will in my view always present social workers with a problem.

On the one hand social workers no doubt wish to be trusted as confidant(e)s of the children and young people with whom they work. On the other hand, they often have to take enforcing action to remove children from their families or to place them where they do not wish to be.

Social workers also face the problem that they may visit children in care on a monthly basis, but if they stay in a job for a couple of years (which appears to be fairly typical), the amount of child contact they will have had will probably have been insufficient to gain a child’s trust, and in terms of hours of direct contact, it may well be less than a foster carer would have in a week.

There are, of course, exceptions. Some social workers stay in post for many years and may be the constant figure in the lives of the children and young people they work with, but it has to be acknowledged that these are the exceptions.

I do not recall a single instance, for example, when a child or young person in care confided first in their social worker about the abuse s/he was suffering at the hands of a foster carer or residential worker. Some gave hints, hoping that social workers would pick them up, but their bonding was not strong enough to overcome their fears of retribution by the carer. Usually the children told a teacher or a friend, who then told someone else till the allegation reached the Social Services.

When allegations of abuse in the family home were made by children in care, the files indicate that there were few instances when children and young people chose social workers as their confidant(e)s. They tended to speak to those who lived with them, such as foster carers and residential workers, perhaps because they shared the more relaxed moments, such as bedtime, when the children felt able to talk.

So what about the claim that local authorities should provide social workers whom the children can confide in? It is my view that local authorities have a duty to appoint qualified registered social workers, who should have been trained in communicating with children and adolescents (learning how to listen, for example), but authorities cannot reasonably be expected to find workers whom the children and young people find acceptable and trust. The building of trust depends upon the personal chemistry between children and social workers, the circumstances in which the relationships between workers and clients are formed, the clients’ attitudes to authority, and a host of other uncontrollable variables.

Very often children and young people who have been abused refuse to disclose, even when their siblings have done so and when there is medical evidence that they themselves have suffered. There may be many reasons, such as a sense of guilt for having participated, or strong loyalties to the abuser, despite the abuse.

Intervention by the child protection professions is not always welcome. It exposes children to unpleasant examinations, and may explode their families and their worlds. It is unsurprising that some would prefer their world to continue, even with the abuse, than to have it shattered. It may be more of a surprise to find that as young adults quite a number return to live with their abusive parents. Social work is an inexact science.

The message arising from these considerations is that social workers need to have modest expectations about the depth of relationships which they may be able to build with the children and young people on their case loads, perhaps needing to work through the people who have greater daily contact such as foster carers. Equally, looked after children and young people need to have realistic expectations of what social workers can do for them, unless they themselves are prepared to be open and trust.

Chris Durkin:

David has once again highlighted a difficult area. It calls into question what is the role of the social worker. Social workers in the enquiry process are called upon to interview the child about issues of abuse (a forensic role), whilst at the same time think about the future care of a child (a caring role). Nobody else in the enquiry process plays such a contradictory role; the Police, for instance, have a purely forensic role.

As I said in last month’s column, the DfES (2006) document Working Together to Safeguard Children: A Guide to Inter-agency Working to Safeguard and Promote the Welfare of Children clearly lays out the enquiry process for cases when a child wants to disclose, including both the interviewing process and how a child should be interviewed. But, as I pointed out, as workers we so often forget the sanitised nature of these procedures and that we are asking a child to reveal their most intimate secrets to a professional who is an adult and with whom he or she may have had little contact, other than monthly visits. It highlights so clearly the contradictory nature of the social worker role, and although our perception of ourselves may be as a kind caring person, the young person may see us in a different light – as part of the system, a person that makes decisions, a powerful authority figure that can move a child at the stroke of a pen.

Frequent placement changes and different social workers make it difficult for children to form attachments and have enough confidence to talk about very difficult emotionally traumatic subjects. Equally, we must ask the question whether sometimes we are more concerned with ‘managing’ cases than providing the therapeutic input needed for children to make sense of their problems. What we so often forget is that a child in the care system is likely to feel disadvantaged and ‘different’ from his or her peers, and if we are truthful is often treated differently by professionals.

What we must remember is that a looked after child is likely to remain in contact with birth parent(s) who may have been the abuser or is likely to know the abuser. In this context the role of the local authority as corporate parent is crucial, with the most significant part of the corporate parenting team likely to be the local authority social worker.

The Green Paper published in 2006 expressed the view that it was important “…to explore how we can encourage a more consistent lead professional role with one person remaining consistently in a child’s life and staying with them as far as possible throughout their time in care and beyond” (DfES 2006p17[i]). To be able to talk to an adult about these issues, a child or young person needs to have the confidence and knowledge that they will be listened to and involved in any decision making. Frequent changes in staff and placements reduce any chance of this happening. As a starting point staff need to recognise the reality of the situation and at the very minimum help the young person identify an appropriate adult whom they can trust and give them permission to talk to them if need be.

To try and identify a way forward, the Government commissioned a report to look at Implementing the social pedagogic approach for workforce training and education, which was published in April 2007. This proposed a pedagogic approach to residential care, using a method prevalent in much of continental Europe and… “relates to a system of theory, practice and training that can be defined as ‘education in the broadest sense of the word’. Pedagogues work with all age groups and in a range of settings, including residential care for young people and adult services. They usually work in group settings and are trained to be conscious of the dynamics of group life, and to see everyday activities – play, meals, homework -as meaningful, not routine. Pedagogues also value the individual: listening to children, respecting their views and working with their talents as well as with their problems”[ii]. Such an approach may, if adopted, begin to address some of the issues identified by David and also improve the status and reduce staff turnover in the residential sector.

[i] See Care Matters: Transforming the Lives of Children and Young People in Care http://www.everychildmatters.gov.uk/_files/Green%20Paper.pdf (accessed 22/12/2007)
[ii] http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/…/publications_1997_to_2006/social_pedagogic_report.pdf (accessed 22/12/2007)

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