Study group: How fear and risk impact the right to family life

To gather evidence for a United Nations review of the UK’s human rights compliance, ATD Fourth World has launched a two-year series of study groups on poverty, social work and the right to family life.  The preparation group includes three activists with lived experience of these issues—Angela Babb, Taliah Drayak, and Tammy Mayes—and three academics who teach social work—Anna Gupta, Simon Haworth, and Yuval Saar-Heiman.

The  first session, on 5-6 May 2022, focused on the theme of fear and risk. The 23 participants included 10 lived-experience activists, 5 social work academics, and 5 practitioners of social work or family support work. The preparation group chose this theme because of concern about the negative impact that fear of risk can have on social work decisions about children and families in poverty.

“A study found that risk-averse practitioners estimated more harm to children over time if there was no intervention […] even whilst professionals acknowledge that risk-aversion may not always be the best decision choice.”

– “Understanding Risk in Social Work”, Journal of Social Work Practice, (2017)

“Tragedies or serious untoward incidents remind everyone of what might go wrong, especially if the sensationalist media become involved. […This] is more likely to make people defensive and obscure the value of positive risk-taking. […] As well as providing simple encouragement, talking about success increases trust and hope, reminding the team of their common purpose, thus reducing risk.”
– Peter Bates and Mark Lymbery, “Managing Risk in a Risk Averse Society”, in Early Professional Development for Social Workers (Raymond Taylor, Malcolm Hill and Fergus McNeill (eds), 2012)

“The focus of children’s social care is mainly on risk of harm from parents and this often leads to a search for potential harm and a blaming approach to parents. The focus of social workers is on identifying risk rather than the difficulties faced by the family and the help needed to overcome them. This assessment of risk of harm is unbalanced focusing only on risk of harm from parents and not weighing this against an assessment of the risk of intervention such as the risk of a child being harmed when taken into care.”
– “The Way Forward“, by the Parents, Families and Allies Network (March 2022)

‘There’s no explanation’

To start the discussion, parents said:
Social workers talk to one another about risk — but to parents, they use more condemning words. They’ll say: ‘You’re harming your child’. It would be less judgmental if they spoke to us about risk. Risk happens.”
“The only time parents hear the word ‘risk’ is when you get told: ‘Your child is now on the at-risk register’. But there’s no explanation.”

An academic responded, “I’m really struck that parents say the word ‘risk’ is not often used with them because social workers talk about risk all the time. But it’s not a word that is unpacked with parents.”
According to a practitioner:

“There isn’t a consistent approach and understanding among social workers as to what risk means. If social workers aren’t really understanding it, how can you then explain to a parent what the problems are?”

Concerns about risk

  1. Poverty makes people more vulnerable to investigation and is seen as a risk
  2. There is a risk of harm caused by child protective service investigations
  3. Parents in poverty avoid asking for support from social services because they risk being blamed
  4. Risk-aversion creates a cloud of fear that permeates the social work system and breeds suspicion that trickles down from managers to social workers to parents
  5. A lack of resources, time, and common sense creates the risk of unmet need, disconnected relationships, wrongly blaming parents, and recording mistaken information in reports

Good social work practices

  1. Investing more time in building relationships and communities
  2. Moving at a family’s pace, having the flexibility for them to co-design a family group conference
  3. Partnership between social workers and parents
  4. Considering positive risks and multiple perspectives


Excerpts from the discussions

Concerns about risk

  • Poverty makes people more vulnerable to investigation and is seen as a risk

Poverty makes you fragile. If your fridge or freezer breaks and you lose that month’s worth of groceries, then you’re hungry for the month and you’re more at risk of child welfare.” – parent

Poverty is seen as a risk factor but it’s completely beyond a family’s control. Families living in absolutely dire situations feel they’re going to be judged and shamed. It’s ‘povertyism’. In the child protection system, there’s an ‘us’ and a ‘them’.” – academic

We risk being judged unfairly by social workers who think they see chaos where there’s no chaos.” -parent

When poverty is involved, children are not receiving what they need. But it’s not because the mother is intentionally neglecting the children. This is situational neglect.” – academic

“When my son’s Child Protection kicked in, I was homeless. This was discussed in the meeting. I’ve seen the way social workers work. It was about: can this father be consistent in his contact? You felt like you’re being pushed out, nobody’s trying to allow you to be involved.” – parent

“The social work system just isn’t working for people in poverty because you get looked down upon because of the way you look, or act, or where your family lives. You’re not being valued and respected, so it blocks any trust from being built. There’s the threat of being persecuted for your situation that’s no fault of your own.” – parent

When you throw poverty in the mix, it gets even harder. Parents are trying to do their best without the means to pay for someone to help with their child’s mental health. The parents get blamed for it even though they’re not intentionally neglecting their child.” – parent

“When I asked for support, I kept being told that it’s the parent who has to do everything. It’s as if people are insane for asking for help.” – parent

“A couple of local authorities are using computer systems to predict the risk for each family without any professional involvement. Care leavers would be high on the list and single parents would be high as well. Certain categories are viewed as posing a risk to your child.” – academic

  • There is a risk of harm caused by child protective service investigations

“We worry about the risk of our children being removed from their family. We’ve seen our children be endangered, or treated like slaves by carers the court assigned them to.

We’ve seen our children get physically abused by adopters we had a bad feeling about, but we were ignored.

Social workers have blinkers that come down when we speak and they just don’t want to know. We do know what our children need, but we’re not listened to by carers or social workers.” – parent

Our kids go through trauma when they have social work involvement or the removal of themselves or their siblings. My girls always say that the worst part was watching me break, seeing me come back broken time and again from hearings. I was trying to hide it. I wanted to be strong for them. I was so worried about how they were being affected; while they were worried about me. Nobody ever talks about how kids want to protect their parents.” – parent

“My mother was forcibly removed into care and raised outside of her ethnic and cultural identity.

This trauma lasts for generations.”  -practitioner

Being removed as children made my kids worry about becoming parents themselves. When their child gets the slightest bruise, they’re terrified they won’t manage to prove to a social worker that it was an accident.” – parent

“If you’ve been in that situation and then have a kid of your own, you automatically fear that removal is going to be the same response.” – activist

“Social workers say ‘I’m not helping the mother with her housing because I’m the social worker for the child’.

But children live in families and have relationships, you cannot just be the social worker for the child.

The harm that the system does to people is not recognising that children are not separate from the family.”
– academic

“We keep saying it’s child-focused, ‘the child is at the centre of everything’; but afterwards you just start talking to all the carers and so again, we have moved away. We’ve made an initial assessment and that’s the path that we are going down. The guilt and the judgement sometimes drive you to make certain choices for
children which may be seen as risky.” – practitioner

“Care-experienced children say that being removed impacts their entire identity.” – practitioner

The risk is what this highly intense child protection investigation is going to do to them as a family. People living in poverty — often with parents who were in care themselves — were already vulnerable and fragile before going into proceedings.

In family court, parents often get cross-examined very harshly but no one goes ‘object, object!’ like it is on telly.

One young man who lost his child was put on the stand and the solicitor spoke about this man’s own childhood in care: ‘Do you remember when you were taken away from your family? Do you know why? Do you ever talk about it with your parents?’ He had to say in front of us all: ‘I was the only one taken away, I can’t talk about it with my parents because we don’t talk about it and I don’t want to cause problems’. Afterwards he was just crying.  It is traumatising and the parents and the kids feel what that means.” – family support worker

“Risk is happening at the top and it seems to trickle down the food chain. If you put the parent at risk, that risks the child, because the child and parent are deeply connected.” – parent

  • Parents in poverty avoid asking for support from social services because they risk being blamed

“I’m from a family that have said my whole life ‘you can’t trust social workers, they just want to take your kids’. That’s ingrained. It was very much around me, kids being taken. I guess if you’re from middle class and stuff, it’s very different but people from the lower classes have seen it. It’s quite scary with all those outside perceptions of ‘they’re here to take my children’.” – activist

“As a parent, you try to keep all your pain to yourself because you don’t want them with their rigid system to judge you as unfit. But parents have needs too. Parents who have been through domestic violence have trauma and depression. Your mind is deeply affected and your body freezes. You sit and cry. If your house looks dirty, it’s not because you’re neglecting your children. It’s because you yourself need help — but if you say so, you risk being blamed.” – parent

  • Risk-aversion creates a cloud of fear that permeates the social work system and breeds suspicion that trickles down from managers to social workers to parents

“Everyone in society is feeding the ‘risk monster’.* Social workers fear being blamed for mistakes. So it trickles down because social workers look for risks instead of looking for needs. It’s not only about how each one of us sees what risk is; it’s the question of who has the power to decide what risk is? What kind of power do parents have?” – academic

“Social workers today feel they don’t have a partnership with anyone. They are dealing with their own worry of risk and being in the papers and being told off by their managers, and they have lots of families to work with.

Risk is powerful on both sides and people will feel emotionally in fear of each other. Social workers are frightened, and the families are frightened, and it’s a big cloud of fear.” – practitioner

“I worry about the risks of power in the hands of social workers. In the Stanford prison experiment, ordinary people who were given power over others became harsh and brutal. There would be less risks to our children and our families if all social workers used the principles that we try to use as good parents. Criticising and shouting never makes anything better. When our children are struggling with something, we try to calm them down by being nurturing and loving. That’s the approach we need more of from social workers.” – parent

“To hold risk in a supportive way, social workers need to be held as well, but usually risk and fear and blame permeate the whole system, starting with inspections by OFSTED [the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills]. In some local authorities, they use traffic light systems. If you haven’t got the reports done, your name gets flashed up in red.” – academic

“On a board with names, staff can see each other’s progress. It’s upsetting to see how you’re performing in comparison to your peers when you might have outstanding cases and targets, perhaps in red. That puts the pressure on you to turn the cases over and make decisions and therefore you’re not giving that focused time. Time is so precious in children’s social care and that’s a commodity that we must give to our parents and children; but we don’t because we are so driven by targets, on our timescales, just processing people through. It is very risk averse.” – practitioner

“Your traffic light system is horrible and abusing the social workers. I would suggest that abusing social workers is only going to give them abuse to hand on. Whatever we give them, that’s what they have to give. When I think about parenting, some of the worst decisions we make as parents are based on our perceptions of being judged by other people. You feel like you need to take control over that situation, to show that you’re doing something — and that suddenly sounds a lot like social work.” – parent

“In the UK, there is so little trust towards professionals. A lot of the decision-making is transferred from the professionals into the procedures. Everything is procedure-ized, which leaves very little place for professional judgment. This hierarchical system in English society seems to reflect the class system and the lack of familiarity that upper classes have towards those below. Something in this whole system breeds suspicion. In hierarchical bureaucracies, blame is always pushed downwards. Blame is pushed towards social workers; and from them is pushed towards parents. This whole system is very connected with the class system. These practices are deeply embedded in the social cultural fabric.” – academic

“For years, social work has had recruitment and retention crises. On average, social workers work 10 hours per week above their contracted hours. They have to make decisions with massive impacts on the lives of families within this context of being chronically understaffed, under stress and working really long hours. Social workers also suffer from moral distress. The decisions they make weigh heavily on them.

When I was a student social worker – it’s seared on my brain, it will never leave me – I had to facilitate the final contact between children, toddlers and mum. In my heart, everything felt wrong about that. That was 23 years ago and that trauma has never left me.” – practitioner

  • A lack of resources, time, and common sense creates the risk of unmet need, disconnected relationships, wrongly blaming parents, and recording mistaken information in reports

“That lack of resources is a big one because you don’t get the time to build relationships.” – activist

“I’ve heard the terminology ‘carrying the risk together’ and many hands make light work. But that means that you have the resources or support team. An unsupported social worker’s not going to have that. So many professionals are isolated, so many pots of money are isolated, so many families are isolated, and that increases risk.” – parent

“In child protection, risk has resulted from unmet need. It started with a need within a family that social work needed to support but didn’t. Then after five, six years, maybe that has turned into a risk. We need to reflect on whose responsibility that is.” – academic

“We’ve got the lack of resources: you haven’t got the children’s centres that were supporting families 10-15 years ago; you haven’t got the youth centres. You’ve got austerity. You’ve got the media that’s going to make accusations.

And you’ve got a political ideological system and the child protection system that have increasingly been focused on harm to children by parents.

The system has been created in that way. It’s become even more focused on parents as the more supportive elements get withdrawn. We need a reconceptualising of harm.” – academic

“There’s a fear of being stabbed in the back by social workers by being told you’re doing everything right — but then when you go into a case conference there’s a load of bad stuff written about you that is totally not true.” – parent

“The social worker gave me a report on the day of our child protection case conference just before the meeting was going to start. But I need time to read through things, not ten minutes before the meeting. I feel like that is not doing the job properly. And in the report the names and dates of birth of my children were wrong. That was not professional. I was told that I was wrong for focussing on that and not the rest of the report. But these are my children. It felt personal to me. Social workers cannot afford to get that wrong.” – parent

“It’s a massive shock to be handed a report after everybody else has already read it and there’s information in there that shouldn’t have been shared. For example, in one of our child protection conferences, information about our daughter was shared that was confidential from her counsellor at school. They put her at risk and they recognised that and now she’s received compensation for it. But in that particular local authority, this still happens. There’s no accountability for it, and practice is inconsistent. It’s a postcode lottery.” – parent

“There’s a risk of you writing a report that is really wrong and inadequate and misinformed. Social workers have to know that if somebody doesn’t have any carpet or curtains, it’s often because they don’t have the money and they’re really struggling. Before you write in your report after a half-hour visit that they can’t have their child because they don’t have this and this, ask them about it. Before that goes into court and the report maybe helps a child be taken away, ask this person: ‘why have you not got a washing machine?’ It might just be because they don’t have the money.” – family support worker

“We see the risk of being judged by a case file that is often wrong. A file where they’ve gotten our children’s dates of birth wrong ought to be thrown out of court — but it never is. And case files never have anything written about our positive efforts and our aspirations for the future.” – parent

Good social work practices

  • Investing more time in building relationships and communities

“When I was younger, we had a social worker because we were technically homeless. The social worker was the same one throughout. My brother is 12 now and the same social worker was there when he was 4 to 7. Once you’ve got that trust, having someone that was always there really helped, even now really. It’s only when you see that trust built over time that it works to build a relationship.” – activist

“Good social workers slow things down so that you can make really good decisions and think things through.” – practitioner

“Time is so precious with children and families. If professionals felt comfortable and relaxed themselves they might be able to feed that vibe to the family, like: ‘I’ve got all the time in the world, we’re going to sit here until we find a solution together’. Like with family group conferencing, you’re building community around the person. That almost divides up what the risks are.” – parent

“We need to support a family with the underlying issue. If we go underneath and spend that time and manage those risks and then afterwards do the necessary supporting, coaching, mentoring and training, then afterwards we may have a more harmonious or more balanced family approach for that child.” – practitioner

  • Moving at a family’s pace, having the flexibility for them to co-design a family group conference

“Family group conferencing is a no-brainer. We see issues so let’s bring in the extended family and the best friends around and then see how can we all support you. We need to see how we can manage what’s happening early on when it’s small and manageable and the risks are more containable. Family group conferencing is about social workers being trained, being a lot more aware, and being given permission to explore all these things at the pace of the family members because we are not always working on their
timetable, on their scale.” – practitioner

“For a family group conference, it depends. For one, they scheduled it at 2 p.m. The woman went ‘but my brother’s working then’. The brother was going to look after the baby, but he couldn’t get time off because they held it at 2, so it was just me and her. But for another family group conference,

they asked the parents, ‘where would you like to have it and what time would be good?’ They said they’d like to have it in their church in the evening because that’s when their friends and family were available. So we did it in the evening. The church gave us all teas and coffees and gives so much more support to parents and their kids to be with friends and hear everyone talking in a lovely way about the parents.

Having the flexibility to ask ‘what suits you, what works for you, how can we be in this together and be a bit more equal?’: that goes a long way.” – practitioner

“Parents deal with risks every day. You don’t call them risks necessarily if you’re in the parent’s shoes but you’re dealing with them and therefore your ability to cope becomes higher. We professionals have a threshold and we’ll think ‘oh my God, that’s so risky’ but if you’ve got enough experience then afterwards you are able to manage and cope with risks at a different level. We have to move at the pace of the person we’re working with.” – practitioner

  • Partnership between social workers and parents

“We did have a good social worker once. I went to social services and this is exactly what I said to the guy: ‘One, I don’t trust you; but two, I’m willing to work in partnership providing you give me a social worker that will work with me and not against me, that won’t go writing things down behind my back. I want them to tell me straight to my face where I’m going wrong. That’s when I had a good social worker.” – parent

“For the partnership to work, you need trust and resources, You need it to be two-way, where the parents can teach the social workers what they need and how to understand their situation—a shoe on the other foot sort of thing, so that they have some empathy and help remove the barriers.” – activist

“As social workers, one of the most important things we can do is break down these artificial barriers between the professional and the personal. We expect them to share such intimate parts of their life with us, and we don’t give anything back. So we need to get past our fear to share a bit of who we are as human beings to build more understanding and empathy.” – practitioner

“In one local authority, we used to get all our reports given to parents in advance. Then afterwards the reports were tailored or amended or there was a difference written in: ‘social workers’ views are A and B; but parents’ views are C and D’. The reports were signed and parents always had those copies so I think there is good practice out there in some places.” – practitioner

It’s been brilliant when a report was co-written, to a degree, with the family. It’s contentious but the family’s views were put in there in a different colour, so at least they had had a chance to discuss it and to know in advance exactly what was going to happen at the conference and the hearing.” – parent

  • Considering positive risks and multiple perspectives

Not all risks are bad. We all take positive risks in life, or else we’d all just sit on our sofas all day no and go nowhere. Whereas once we get our social work gaze on families, we expect all positive risks to be taken out of the equation as well.” – academic

“The volcano phenomena is where people in social work offices are always talking about cases bubbling over or blowing up. It creates the idea of hovering because you’re sure the risk is there and uncontainable. But positive risk-taking is important. When my daughter was young, we were by the sea. There was a concrete jetty sloping up out of the harbour. She was running up there. Looking up from the beach, I’m like, ‘Oh, bloody hell. This looks proper dangerous’.

I was really worried about that risk. But there were lots of other people around her and they could see that she wasn’t close to any of the edges. You needed that kind of view from lots of multiple perspectives. That’s why family group conferences can help.

You’ve got relational networks of compassionate people that
are holding others in mind, looking out for other people, maybe sometimes monitoring risk if there are people in the community that do need special help. The sharing of the risk is important and finding that family member or friend who’s a compassionate interferer who likes getting involved in mediating in the family, sticking their oar in. There is potential for the child protection response to not be this one professional or single agency that sticks the blue light on the top of the car. It’s much better to go out into the community to build a wider response where people are still alert to risk but from multiple perspectives. When you spread the risk, you can be more nuanced about it.” – practitioner

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*1 Featherstone, B., Gupta, A., Morris, K. and Warner, J. (2018) “Let’s stop feeding the risk monster: towards a social model of ‘child protection’”, Families, Relationships and Societies, vol 7, no 1, 7–22, DOI: 10.1332/204674316X14552878034622