Child Protection: Building Trust in a Climate of Risk and Fear – Study Group 7

Family members at ATD Fourth World UK with direct knowledge and experience of poverty and child protection examined this difficult question together with academics and social work practitioners at the ATD Fourth World National Centre. This is a study group that has been focussing on a series of thematic workshops which contributes to the Social Worker Training Programme and the development of critical social work practice with children and families. To date the study group of between 15-20 participants have worked on the following themes: poverty and shame; the impact of material deprivation; the politics of ‘recognition and respect’ (Lister, 2004); social work expectations and home visits; and re-imagining child protection. The study group has also contributed to published academic articles.

The meeting was co-chaired by family member and activist Kathy with ATD Fourth World and Anna Gupta, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Social Work at Royal Holloway, University of London. Jo Warner, Senior Lecturer in Social Work in the University of Kent’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research author of The Emotional Politics of Child Protection was invited to take part in this study group.
The first half of the meeting focused on the influence of the media and politics on social policy, how risk is defined and the relationship between risk and trust.

Two members of ATD Fourth World gave their perspectives on the lecture they had participated in, given by Professor Nigel Parton at King’s College on the contemporary politics of child protection. The lecture spoke about the recent history of child protection dating from the Children’s Act of 1989 and how it has become increasingly politicised in a climate of blame and failure, and marked by high profile cases such as Victoria Climbie and Baby P. The family member who took part underlined that parents need support and made it clear that for her: “A child needs to be protected from harm, but parents need support. Without support, how is a family supposed to survive? …Asking for help should not mean that social workers have to make a judgement that you can’t cope. This is why people are scared to ask. Asking for help should be seen as a positive thing, that you are trying to control the situation before it becomes a crisis.

Jo Warner’s presentation, “The Emotional Politics of Child Protection: Risk, Trust and Blame”, highlighted how a focus has been turned on individual families and certain kinds of families living in poverty. She shared how they are blamed, stigmatised, stereotyped and judged particularly for being dependent on the welfare system. These families are seen as posing a major threat to wider society exacerbating a climate of fear and blame. She spoke of the groundswell of emotion and feelings fuelled by the media and politicians around child protection and how these have driven decisions and policies. Jo underpinned the need to put this into context and understand the links between risk and trust around child protection and how this trust can be built or broken. She sees this trust operating at three different levels:

  • State level – how the government works and its relationship with its citizens
  • Organisational level – between organisations such as social work departments, councils and health care services and the service users
  • Individual level – individual social work practitioners working with individual service users

The discussion that followed included family members sharing current situations and how they could feel undermined as parents with social work interventions. A family member spoke about the visit he recently received from a social worker after a “Signs of Safety” had been flagged up for his son at nursery. “The social worker came to the house and he then told me he didn’t know why he was here, but he had to visit because of one report. How was that going to make me feel? I felt undermined….” Another family member posed the question: “If social services want people out of poverty, why am I being asked to give up work for three months to look after my child? If I do that and go to JCP, then I will be sanctioned…

Social work practitioners and academics contributed to the discussion and points that emerged included:
It can be very confusing because all the guidance uses the right language about relationships and also talks about strengths. But how many times do we meet families? We all want to empower families, but now it is about having families recognise they need to change behaviours to get us out of their lives. It has come down to individual work, but no real services are there. I would love to change that. ” Social Work Practitioner.

“…There is a direct link between poverty and child protection. Poverty is key. So how do we change that argument? Why are we looking at how families fail every day rather than how they succeed each day to get by?” Academic.

The second part of the meeting was introduced with a short film of a family member’s experience with social services. The mother spoke of the emotional impact of changing social workers all the time and how hard it was for her to have to explain her situation over and over again. She said how this left her feeling undermined, worthless and not in control. She said that there is a need to build respect between social workers, parents and children.

Working in peer groups (a family member’s group and a professional/academics group) helped us to explore further our different perspectives on this question of how trust can be built in a climate of risk and fear.
In the academics/ social work practitioners peer group, feedback included that the word “risk” in itself is completely wrong as it sets up the idea that the parents are dangerous and it doesn’t define what the risk actually is. The need to stop risk being individualised also emerged in the discussion, where parents are all too often blamed for what is happening to their family and their socio-economic circumstances are ignored. Being transparent and honest to the parents about what social services need to know and to find out before making a decision was also a point discussed. They also shared the concerns they have on the risks they face to protect themselves as professionals and the system. They said how it can be overwhelming when social workers start out and realise the weight of responsibility they face and how challenging it can be to put their theory into practice.

The family member’s peer group all shared a common experience of having gone through the child protection system. They can strongly relate to the deep emotional pain and suffering that their peers go through. They spoke of the necessity that the relationship with social workers should be one of looking at how they can support families before reaching the point of crisis. In case conferences, parents are fearful and might be angry because they know only too well that the risk for them is losing their children into the care system. This anger itself can also be perceived as a risk and it may go against the parents. The social workers may not realise that this anger can be coming from both love and fear. It was emphasised how important it is for practitioners to understand just how terrifying it is for parents to be assessed on their failings and not on their strengths.

The meeting ended on a key point by one family member  speaking on the important role that peer support can play in helping family members to cope when they go through the child protection system. The support of a peer when going into a case conference or being there when a child is taken into care can be invaluable. The participant underpinned that this kind of peer support needs to be encouraged and developed on a much wider scale collaborating with social services as a way to accompany families through the care system.
While no conclusions were drawn at the end of the meeting, it was clear that the discussion raised some key issues that can continue to be explored. In agreement with the participants, the meeting was recorded and a transcription and thematic analysis is underway contributing to the ongoing collaborative work in the Social Worker Training Programme.