By Richard Devine (16.12.2020), Social Worker for Bath and North East Somerset Council.
On 07th October 2020, we held a debate at Bath and North East Somerset Council between Brid Featherstone and Donald Forrester. This debate was inspired by an article each of them wrote for the COVID2020 online magazine. Very briefly, Forrester advocated for ‘Radical Non-Intervention’ whereas Featherstone and her colleagues, Gupta and Morris expressed caution about this, instead advocating for different and radical ways of working with children and families, such as collective strategies that promote community work, locality-based approaches and peer support.
So, we decided to invite them to our social work conference to expand upon their perspective, underlying rationale, and explore areas of agreement and disagreement. The ensuing debate did not disappoint.
This blog is divided into three. Firstly, I have provided an overview of Fox-Harding’s four value perspectives (see here). This part will detail the debate. In the third and final part, I will provide some thoughts and reflections on the debate between Forrester and Featherstone, who from here onwards I will refer to as Donald and Brid.
For this section I will shorten the terms used by Fox Harding:
Laissez-Faire and Patriarchy – Laissez Faire
State Paternalism and Child Protection – Child Protection
The modern defence of the birth family and parents’ rights – Family Support
Children’s rights and child liberation – Child’ rights
Professor Donald Forrester
Donald provided an overview of Fox Harding’s value perspectives. He focused on the first three (Laissez-Faire, Child Protection, and Family Support). He posited that these could be categorised by their view on the state and their view on the family (see below diagram – based on Donald’s slides):
Laissez-Faire is positive about the family and negative about state intervention. Child Protection is negative about the family and positive about the role of the state. Family Support is positive about the family and positive about the role of the state.
Donald argued that since the 1970’s there has been a strong emphasis on the child protection approach. A culmination of factors, (i) such as the death of Maria Colwell, and other Serious Case Reviews, (ii) increased recognition of what constitutes child abuse and research that illustrates the harms caused by substance misuse, domestic abuse, and mental health, and (iii) Ofsted, who focus on failure to identify risk rather than a failure to close, or sensible non-intrusion.
There have been intermittent attempts to push back against this as the primary approach, examples include ‘Sure Start’ and elements of New Labour, and some more recent practice models such as Restorative Practice and Reclaiming Social Work. More recently, this approach has been advocated persuasively by Brid Featherstone and her colleagues. Despite these efforts, Donald contended that child protection remains the dominant way of working. He identified three problems with this:
- The number of children subject to an investigation, subject to a child protection plan, and removed from their parents has been increasing, almost consistently, for at least the last two decades. He highlighted that even preventative initiatives such as sure start increased rates of referral to children’s services, instead of reducing them.
- There is accumulating and powerful qualitative evidence illustrating the harmful effects of social work involvement on the lives of children and families. In one forthcoming study, in which they reviewed over 700 recordings of practice, Donald and his team found at least a third of social workers acted punitively and/or authoritarian with the parents they worked with. A lack of clarity regarding the purpose of many visits was also observed.
- There is increasing evidence that social work involvement disproportionately affects poor, female, and ethnic minorities, and thus reinforces structural inequalities.
It is the context of these concerns that Donald advocated, in some cases, for ‘Radical Non-intervention’, that is, an emphasis on Laissez-Faire. In pursuit of this approach, Donald put forward two supplementary key ideas. The first is an enquiry about the role of children’s services and the second is a public health approach.
He argued that a key element of a free society is protecting individual liberty, and thus coercive intervention should be avoided at all costs. As such, a wide and diverse range of parental behaviours should be tolerated. Parents should be free to do what they want as long as they do no harm. He argued that the rise in state intervention is akin to the concept of mission creep, which refers to the incremental expansion of an intervention, or mission beyond its original scope. The evidence, from various sources indicates that this may have happened with the child protection approach and it may be doing more harm than good a lot of the time. Evidence of this is provided in the rates of children in care, which has grown incrementally over the years, in good and bad times. A perverse aspect of our system, Donald highlighted, is the state involvement of children whose parents have grown up in local authority care – that is, the removal of children from their corporate parents. In summary, the role of social work is to uphold rights, especially for freedom from state intervention.
In addition to advocating for liberty and freedom from state intrusion, he also put forward a public health approach (see below – based on Donald’s slides).
He is in favour of a robust welfare system that endeavours to provide aid in the form of financial welfare, good quality housing, education, and access to universal services. For families with specific needs, either individually or within small communities, targeted support is required. The family support approach advocated by Brid would be situated within this tier. When problems are pervasive, intractable, and cause significant harm to children, then we should consider child protection, that is, coercive state intervention. At this point, however, Donald suggested we should be asking ourselves: Is our involvement likely to help? Am I justified to be involved? Are their harms associated with my involvement? Will I make a difference? Are we keeping a case open because we are worried, instead of questioning whether we are being helpful?
He acknowledged that it can be hard to accept that our own practice, and the systems we operate in, cause harm to others because no one comes into social work other than to make a positive difference. Such an approach does not preclude our duty to intervene when necessary, as for some children, removal from parents is required. Donald suggests that child protection social work is like chemotherapy; lifesaving when needed, but dangerous (especially if not required) and with serious negative side effects. To take the analogy further, Donald suggested that our current system, at times, operates like a doctor recommending chemotherapy because someone has cancer (irrespective of type, severity, etc), as opposed to evaluating the severity of cancer and a risk-benefit analysis of intervening.
His main point therefore was that laissez-faire and patriarchy are politically, broadly right wing. However, given the significance and increasing evidential structural oppressions involved then we should revisit the idea of radical non-intervention – to see doing less of the statutory work as part of a radical orientation within children’s services. The public health lens helps provide a way of doing that – because (unlike laissez faire/patriarchy) this reimagining sees a place for minimal intervention AND a place for more support and reform.
In concluding, Donald made a few remarks. For any social worker to adopt one perspective out of the four provided by Fox-Harding is probably dangerous and unethical. Relatedly, we need social workers who can make wise decisions. In order to do this, we need to critically evaluate our personal and organisational values to understand the tacit presuppositions that influence our practice.
Professor Brid Featherstone
Brid began the talk by explaining ‘what we do matters’. She reflected on COVID, which highlighted the interconnected nature of our existence as humans, and how the behaviour of one person effects another, even if there is no direct relationship. She emphasised the importance of moving beyond individualism, including a disproportionate focus on individual freedoms, rights and liberties in order to acknowledge our interdependence. Brid marked this as an important distinction from Donald’s perspective.
She moved on to describe Fox-Harding’s value perspectives. When describing ‘family support’, she identified herself as an advocate of this approach. In a book she published with her colleagues, ‘Re-imagining Child Protection’ they argued that the state should be neither ‘hands off’ nor paternalistic. To this effect, the state should be more responsive and less top down command and control. She recognised the harmful implications of state involvement and cited domestic abuse as an example in which attempts to reduce this complex social harm through state and police action has largely been unsuccessful and created unintended unhelpful consequences.
She returned to the topic of individualism, and how this approach fails to help. The idea that as long as we do no harm, in her view, has been undermined by COVID, because the failure or unwillingness of one person to take responsibility and adhere to government guidance increases risk of infection, which in turn, may amplify risk to multiple others. Furthermore, because the consequences of the virus disseminating are not spread evenly, this will affect those already disadvantaged the most. Brid argued that the collective approach required by COVID ran counter to the dominant and prevailing narrative of individualism within our culture, politics, and our policies (including child protection policies). In other words, individual solutions to this pandemic were insufficient and the government was compelled to provide a wealth of support on a collective level. These responses has reinforced her view that we need the state and it can be used for good.
Brid reiterated that we live in a settlement that has elevated individuality, and this is reflected in the child protection system, which divorces families’ problems and difficulties from their social context. It is the parent’s failure, pathology, individual history, and capacity to change that is evaluated, not the environments in which they inhabit. Brid contended that the current child protection system deals with individual harms, but these are in fact symptoms of larger harms, such as poverty, inequality, male violence, and racism.
Brid highlighted that we are at the intersection of multiple paradoxes in our work in child protection. There is no happy ending, even when the right decisions have been made. In other words, whatever you do, you cause harm. For example, research states that outcomes in adoption can be favourable, but Brid asked us to think about what that outcome looks like for a 50-year-old. In her research, she spoke to older people who remain traumatised by separation, and desperately yearning a relationship with their birth family. Brid provided an example of one older person, who had fantastic adoptive parents, yet continued to worry and wonder about his birth parents. Because he didn’t want to upset his adoptive parents, he didn’t search for his mother until his adoptive parents died, however by that point his mother had died, and he lost the chance to have a conversation with her. Brid argued that it can be difficult to address these realities, however, there are steps we can take to mitigate against these harms, such as open adoption and reflexive, critical conversations, such as this one.
It is Brid’s contention that we need to confront our interdependence nature and collective responsibility. She believes that good government can make a big difference, especially if collective arrangements can be established. It is her argument against individualism, and her critique of the current child protection system, that leads Brid to advocate for a social model of child protection, instead of a public health approach. The social model approach has been heavily influenced by the social model of disability and mental health, in which, a bottom up approach is adopted and people who access the services say what they need and what is helpful. Instead of highlighting what is wrong with someone, and trying to fix that, start with what do they need in order to live a good life and think about what can be done to maximize the probability they can live the life they desire.
In her own research with parents and families, they asked for practitioners that were; responsive and provided timely help, consistent and willing to listen, genuinely cared and provided what was needed.
These characteristics however need be situated within a system, which understands and values what families need on a broader and systemic level, such as good quality housing, good neighborhoods and adequate access to money; the latter point being emphasised given the research identifying the likelihood that children are much more likely to be removed from poorer families than richer families. Brid identified the following ideas that are consonant with this approach include:
- Families co-producing services (FGCs, Camden’s Family led Child Protection Enquiry)
- Improving our understanding of the communities that families live in: strengths, connections, and vulnerabilities.
- Restorative approaches
- Supporting advocacy and human rights
- Poverty proofing practice
In concluding, Brid remarked that the answer is not to move away from helping and leaving families to it, rather building a better and more helpful system.
Donald began by emphasizing their agreement, namely their shared interest in the evidence about the harms caused by the child protection system, the increasing numbers of children in care, and issues of injustice, such as children from poorer backgrounds being removed at a considerably higher rate than children from wealthier backgrounds. He identified two areas of potential disagreement, but I will only recall one of them here: Personal and Professional politics.
Personal and Professional politics:
Donald outlined his struggle in reconciling personal responsibility as a social worker employed by an organization, and our personal politics. He considered this apprehension in merging the two being an underlying factor in the differences between him and Brid.
He gave an example about obesity, which is rapidly rising and is evidentially linked with disadvantageous social conditions. However, Donald noted if an obese person attends his/her GP, then the GP has a responsibility to respond and help that person. That doesn’t mean as a profession, though public health, or more broadly through social policy the GP doesn’t try to address this (if she/he so chooses), but sometimes help must be offered to the individual and in that way deal specifically with the consequences of social disadvantage. This, in his view, leads him to conclude that a social work practitioner must deal with individual issues and rights, and the profession, collectively deals with broader issues.
Brid responded, and wait for it…she agreed! Brid is an advocate of individual rights, although she added that they need to be situated within a context. For example, a victim of domestic abuse must have the right to prosecute against violent behaviour, but must also have the right to make the decision in the context of their relationship and family, and thus may conclude that it is not the best course of action. In other words, she believes we should exercise our rights, but this needs to be considered within a context. In her advocacy of ‘poverty proofing’ she believes that social workers and Local Authorities should consider the economic position of families, and complete financial health checks to clarify whether the difficulties in the family can be ameliorated by addressing this issue. She accepted there is limitations in what Local Authorities can do, for example, it is unlikely to be able to address the job market, even though outside of our professional roles and duties as a social worker we may seek to address this via political means. However she argued that shouldn’t negate the responsibility for the Local Authority to take into account the impoverished conditions families live in to ensure they are not being unduly and unfairly criticized via a child protection lens for factors outside of their control, or for which they have limited control.
In the final part, I will provide some thoughts and reflections and the debate (Feel free to sign up to receive it directly via e-mail).
By Richard Devine (16.12.20)
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