By Richard Devine, Social Worker for Bath and North East Somerset Council
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I was recently granted the privilege of participating in a webinar with Siobhan Maclean and the Student Connect Team. I was delighted to be part of a series of highly engaging, informative and practice-relevant webinars that I had been watching over the past several months. Siobhan and the Student Connect Team go to great lengths producing high quality social work content and it’s a testament to their character that they do this with their own time and share for FREE! I find their contribution to the social work community inspiring.
Professor Theresa Lillis, Professor Emeritus, English Language and Applied Linguistics, has undertaken research into the role of writing within social work and has found that social workers spend more than 50% of their time writing. In a recent webinar, Professor Lillis referred to social work as a ‘writing intensive’ profession. Writing therefore is a core part of our work, however, surprisingly little attention is given to the topic of writing.
This webinar, in my opinion, is a good place to start. Along with some esteemed social work colleagues, we explored good recording and report writing. The other speakers were exceptional and I learnt a lot from them about the importance of effective recording and sensitive writing. I would highly recommend the webinar, whether you are a student, newly qualified or experienced practitioner.
For my part, I talked about 5 ideas that I have developed over the past 10 years on writing an effective report. These ideas were from a previous blog I wrote on chronology’s. I would like to expand further on some of the slides I presented and explore some ideas I didn’t have time to share.
When I refer to patterns of behaviour I am referring to domestic abuse, substance misuse, mental health, physical abuse, neglect etc. As I mentioned in the webinar I think understanding the duration, severity and frequency of a pattern is the most effective way of evaluating risk. Assessing risk is a a central component of social work in children and I believe this is one the most effective ways to do so.
To expand on this further, Eileen Munro, in her excellent book Effective Child Protection (2008) proposes that assessment of risk needs to include two factors; evaluation of 1) probability and 2) desirability. Understanding the duration/chronicity of a behaviour will give you the most reliable information about the probability that it will continue whereas understanding the severity and frequency will provide you important information about the desirability. Analysis often involves bringing the two together. For example, if the child has experienced neglect for the past several years (duration/chronicity) it would reasonable to make the assertion that the probability of the children continuing to experience neglect is high. Imagine, in our hypothetical example, that the severity of neglect is mild, albeit a constant feature of the child’s life (frequency). In this instance we could consider desirability (on a scale from low to high) as relatively low. That is, the child is highly likely to experience neglectful care and this is mildly undesirable (for his/her quality of life, development and outcomes) and this judgement will feed into an overall analysis.
In respect of support, I wish to add two further points. I have found it useful to conceptualise support as being divided into psychological (or individual) and sociological (family, community, professional). When we offer psychological support we are encouraging the individuals within a family to address their problems. For example, a parent misusing substances is encouraged to access support to reduce or abstain from the substance misuse. Often, this necessitates them to explore the reason for their addiction or problematic substance misuse to enable them to address the underlying causes. However, in addition to this, we should also seek to support the family sociologically, especially if, for whatever the reason the parent is unable or unwilling to address their substance misuse.
This idea is beautifully illustrated in Working with Denied Child Abuse by Turnell and Essex in their picture involving light bulbs. This might involve looking at what support the family or professional network (via FGC’s) can provide to ameliorate the harmful effects of the parents substance misuse. Perhaps this is an obvious point, but I do have to remind myself sometimes, our job is not to eradicate risk. To believe so is to place an insurmountable expectation and burden upon ourselves. Instead, our job is to lesson risk sufficient enough in order to enable the child to not be exposed to excessive high levels of harm.
The second point is that when we provide services to families, and these services don’t yield the changes that we desire then instead of blaming the parents perhaps we should more frequently evaluate the match between the parents level of need, readiness to change and appropriateness of the service provision. Elsewhere, I have explained that in our desperate attempt to help families we provide a plethora of services for every single issue, often overwhelming them (and setting them up to fail). Instead, our efforts might be better served identifying one key issue and working with the family to resolve that issue.
When I attended a 5 day Signs of Safety residential with Andrew Turnell several years ago, I was impressed by his ability and tenacity in extracting out strengths with social workers or with families that social workers spoke about. It was his contention that ‘50% of safety planning is finding strengths’. In other words, co-producing a plan that improves child safety is, to a large degree, finding out exceptions to the problems and the strengths within the family. By asking questions about times the parents have overcome adversity (e.g. when a mother or father decided to separate from an abusive relationship; a parent took the children to the park instead of using drugs: a family member cared for the child when the parent was depressed), we develop an understanding of past examples and times when the parents or the wider family system has been able to function in a way that protects the children from danger. With this understanding, we can begin to exploit the families pre-existing coping strategies and strengths in a way that gradually improves the safety of the children. This constitutes not just a technique but rather a paradigm shift in which you proactively seek out latent strengths within the family and facilitate their growth such that transformational change is encouraged.
I would also add that there is utility in understanding the function of underlying behaviour that we consider a risk. For this, I have found the Dynamic Maturational Model by Patricia Crittenden exceptionally useful for this. Crittenden points out that many difficulties parents who come into contact with child protection services experience are often strategies developed in childhood. Strategies that helped them cope with adversity. These strategies are often carried forward into adulthood, albeit without awareness, and even though the childhood conditions that elicited them are no longer present. For example, a ‘perpetrators’ need to control and coerce an intimate partner may reflect the continuation of a strategy developed in childhood. Perhaps, when a child, the ‘perpetrator’ experienced their caregivers as highly unpredictable and at times, dangerous. The child could develop a self protective strategy that involved being highly anxious, fearful and desperately needy (to encourage the unpredictable parent to be more predictable) as well as quick to defend against danger. This strategy improved their safety in childhood. Now, however, it is harming others (and themselves). Understanding parents problems in this way could help us acknowledge the strength, courage and ingenuity of a persons survival strategy. Of course, we can not condone the behaviour and we need to encourage adaptation, that is, helping them update their strategy to the current circumstances. However this is more likely to be achieved when we begin from acknowledging their survival skills.
By Richard Devine (14.05.21)