By Richard Devine (18.12.2020), 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 debate did not disappoint.
This blog is divided into three. Firstly, I have provided an overview of Fox-Harding’s four value perspectives. Secondly, I detailed the debate. In this third and final part, I will provide some thoughts and reflections on the debate between Donald and Brid.
Part 3: Reflections of the debate
Donald and Brid’s talk, despite offering differing views, prompt us to think about what is to work in children’s services? What should children’s services be? Is social work helpful, or harmful? If it’s harmful, should we be more cautious about intervening? How do we decide when to intervene? What should our intervention be?
It is easy to think that the different ways of working in children’s services outlined by Donald and Brid, don’t apply if you are an individual practitioner. That’s what I thought when I first read their articles and listened to their talk. Two academics describing abstract concepts about the overarching system, and various approaches, for which I have little control or influence over. However, I make two brief points to this:
Firstly, becoming aware of these different approaches has helped me realize, that I had a proclivity for one approach over the other. After qualifying, I was embedded, without awareness, into a ‘child protection’ orientated system which focused on addressing parenting inadequacies, and in instances where harm was evident, and ‘support’ didn’t yield change, removal was pursued. I just assumed that this was the way it was. There is a parable by David Foster Wallace that bears relevance here:
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
Recognizing that you are in water, or work within a system that encourages a way of working, is an important first step in being able to evaluate the water or the way you work
Secondly, I have noticed that over the years my perspective has shifted – I have become much more cautious about the ‘child protection’ approach because I have seen the consequences of removal of children into alternative care, and on occasion, the outcomes were worse than what they were when they were living at home – in other words, no intervention might have been better.
Recognizing that there are different ’approaches’ to child protection, and these different approaches have different philosophical underpinnings, advantages and disadvantages, facilitates our ability to be critically reflective about these different ways of working. Including critically examining how we currently work.
With our good intentions, and for many, working excessively long hours, in a resource deprived context, it can be difficult, painful, and disheartening to acknowledge that the way we currently do social work causes harm. A parallel can be drawn here with parents; they often work tirelessly, under extremely challenging conditions, to do the best for their children – our role is to acknowledge all that they do well, whilst also encouraging them to examine how their functioning is not serving them and their children so well, and consider alternatives. Similarly, Donald and Brid helped us examine our way of working, what is working well, and whether there are different, radically different even, ways of improving what we do.
With regards to who won the debate? I think all of us that was able to be part of the conference won (and hopefully those that have read this blog about the debate might feel the same too). The issues that social workers, managers, and senior leaders address in our field are extremely complex, and there are multiple levels of analysis that can be applied. Often, we get trapped into thinking that is there is only ‘one right way’, when in fact there are many, each with benefits and disadvantages. Both Brid and Donald talked about the need for wise practitioners, and I think having such conversations as this one, facilities wisdom. Wisdom requires reflexivity, critical thinking, humility, an ability to hold and grapple with multiple and even contradictory perspectives, and a willingness to challenge our pre-existing ways of knowing the world so that new ideas and ways of understanding can emerge.
As pointed out by theoretical physicist, David Bohm, in a wonderful book titled ‘On Dialogue’ (1996: 53-54):
By Richard Devine (18.12.2020)
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