By Richard Devine Social Worker for Bath and North East Somerset Council… with Tim Fisher and Becca Dove from Camden Council and Leigh Zywek and Penny McKissock from Bath and North East Somerset Council.
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At a recent virtual conference in BANES we invited Professor Andy Bilson and Taliah Drayak to talk about the future of Social Work. Andy, a professor in Social Work and Taliah, a parent advocate made a compelling case for parental advocacy as a way of improving relations between social workers and families as well as helping children remain safely at home. A vast number of attendees after the conference commented on how inspirational and moving it was to hear from Taliah, which at the very least, illustrates the value of truly listening and hearing the perspectives of individuals who have been on the receiving end of the social work system. Following the conference, I contacted Taliah as I was keen to hear more about her story, her work and her vision for parental advocacy and children’s social work. She very kindly and graciously agreed. Here is the conversation we had together:
Recently, I have been reviewing the literature on Parental Advocacy and will share some key findings with the hope that others might see the value of involving parents who have experienced the child protection system not as pariahs, but as partners in our quest to help children and families (Note: I have re-worded the title of David Tobis’s brilliant book, From Pariahs to Parents: How Parents and their allies changed New York’s Child Welfare System, 2013).
I first came across the idea of parental advocacy reading Protecting Children: A Social Model by Featherstone, Gupta, Morris and White (A review of Protecting Children can be found here). Featherstone et al (2018: 163) pointed out,
‘They [parents] have built up unparalleled knowledge of the range of welfare systems and services, and well-honed navigation skills. Routine opportunities to meet and collectively share this knowledge and these skills are rare…Obvious future possibilities present themselves. These can include peer support, co-construction of services, co-commissioning and joint service evaluation to name but a few…the skills and the knowledge held by families can be utilised through a process of coproduction to arrive at transformative approaches that function at the levels of practice, service design and policy’
Following on from this I was keen to learn more about parental advocacy, in particular what it looked like and the impact that it could have. I ended up in two places. The first was reading ‘From Pariah’s to Parents’ (2013) by David Tobis. This book detailed how the child protection system in New York underwent a transformation spearheaded by parents who had been on the receiving end of services and were dissatisfied. The result was astonishing; during a 20-year period there was a significant reduction in the number of children in care (from 49,365 in 1992 to 13,781 in 2012). Of course, there was a multitude of reasons for this reduction, but it served to illustrate the effectiveness of parental advocacy as a way of helping children and families.
‘[involving parents] is not solely a matter of justice or sympathy or a desire to be nice to parents, which is an ideological point of view that we can fight about. But…as a critically important thing to do to help kids’ (p.64)
The second place I ended up, along with my then manager and Service Leader (now interim AD) Leigh Zywek was a conference held by Camden Council, and organized by Tim Fisher called ‘Relationships Make the Difference’. This was a conference like no other I had ever attended. It involved such a diverse group of people, including social workers, assistant directors of other Local Authorities as well as parents, who were also expertly leading workshops. The coalescing of these different people produced highly engaging and dynamic conversations about relationships and the challenges of the child protection system. It contained a richness, rigor, and depth that I hadn’t come close to encountering in the 10 years I had been a social worker – importantly, it provided a window into new possibilities for how we work with and help families in child protection.
Since then we have established a parental advocacy group in BANES, who decided to call themselves Building Bridges. Before going into examples of parental advocacy, however, I will summarise some of the research. Fortunately, Andy Bilson and David Tobis have recently published an International Review of Parental Advocacy (2020). They define parental advocacy as:
‘Parent advocacy is a form of peer advocacy where parents who themselves have had experience of the child welfare system help other parents involved to navigate it. In addition, they also help to develop strategies to change the system’ (p.20)
Bilson and Tobis describe three types of parental advocacy:
- Case advocacy: Parent advocates provide support and guidance to navigate the child protection system, especially at critical points such as when a parent is subject to a child protection plan, or pre/care proceedings are being instigated.
- Program advocacy: This involves trained parent advocates working within Local Authorities to ‘design, plan, evaluate and strengthen the program and to assist parents who are struggling to raise their children safely or to be reunited with them’ (p.20). Parents shape service delivery, lead parenting groups and lead on training sessions or workshops.
- Policy advocacy: ‘This involves parents: a) acting politically to change policy, legislation and resources for family support; b) participating in governmental and NGO advisory boards, speaking on panels at conferences, teaching in classes of social work and law, writing about their experience and recommendations; and c) working at the grassroots and community levels to organize and advocate for change’ (P.20).
In reviewing over 100 studies, Bilson and Tobis found the following effects for parental advocacy:
- Reduction in maltreatment and increase in protective factors
- Improved levels of engagement with social care and the court process
- Reduction in entry of children into care and increased likelihood of reunification and/or placement with family
- Benefits for advocates, including improved self-esteem and confidence.
Of course, the studies reviewed by Bilson and Tobis vary in the methodological quality of the research, and the findings are extracted from several different types of parental advocacy making the casual relationship between parent advocacy and outcomes difficult to precisely understand. Nevertheless, the accumulating evidence added with the ethical soundness of this approach makes it a highly promising and desirable way to help children and families. We need all the help we can get in our quest to improve outcomes for children and families. Parental advocacy is an opportunity to utilize hitherto untapped, unrealized potential from parents who have experienced the system, whereby they can significantly help others whilst simultaneously developing their own skills, knowledge, and confidence.
What could this look like? Here are 3 examples that hopefully illustrate what it might mean to value the experience and expertise of families; to blur the boundary between the helper and helped.
- Camden Conversations and Relational Activism by Tim Fisher
Camden Conversations saw parents with lived experience of child protection leading an enquiry into local child protection practices, an alliance of national expertise Professor Anna Gupta and Annie from Surviving Safeguarding supported the local Family Advisory Board * in Camden to do the work, with the research design and analysis.
An innovative project that aimed to redress some of the power imbalances by involving parents trained as peer researchers to interview both parents and professionals about their experiences of the child protection system. Commissioned by the Camden Local Safeguarding Children Board (CSCB), it was a restorative process, premised on the belief that building dialogue and co-constructing services offers a means of opening up new knowledge and collaborative responses to protecting children and supporting families.
Parents and other family members were centrally involved in the design, implementation and recommendations. Family members were interviewed and had focus group discussions with family members and (separately) social workers and managers . The interviews were analysed and preliminary findings were discussed with the Family Advisory Board. To change the stories, perhaps we need to change the storytellers? The “rich, untapped resource” to help children and families is being noticed and Helping human services should be all about bringing together networks of support. The London Family Group Conference learning partnership have created an OCN accredited qualification in parent advocacy which parents from London had completed in a first cohort of advocates, we are beginning to conceive parent peer advocacy and lived-experience peer support as something that adds value.
For parents, it might mean having someone alongside you who gets how it feels to be you, with valuable insight and knowledge of the world you are currently inhabiting and, critically, how to navigate it. For professionals, it might mean enriching the helping network with unique expertise, and doing so safely, ethically and respectfully in a way that helps a parent, child and family to move forward with their journey. Nothing in those last two sentences stands contrary to the values of our disciplines or presents as an unethical enterprise.
*In Camden, the citizen-led Family Advisory Board is now in its 8th year. This parent group has given a platform for participation, inclusion and the co-construction of services which has been very useful to the local authority.
*The final report has already led to real change, for example, parents now lead monthly “learning exchange” workshops, sharing with practitioners their experiences of subjects such as domestic violence and of being in state care. The relationship between the independent chair of the child protection meetings and the family is being improved; the chair now keeps in contact with the family between meetings so the family has the opportunity to give feedback and build a trusting relationship so they can speak openly and honestly.
2. Camden Family Change Makers Project by Becca Dove
Changemakers is a participatory design project that brought together Camden parents and family members with service design Masters students from the University of the Arts London College of Communication to co-create a design vision for good family help after COVID. The parents and students worked together to describe how good help should feel and what good help should be, and created a set of design concepts to bring the vision to life.
If you’ve got a spare 8 minutes, have a watch of this about the Camden Family Changemakers co-design project where local families decide what good help looks and feels like (spoiler alert – everyone can help and be helped and the help feels)
3. Building Bridges in Bath and North East Somerset Council by Leigh Zywek (Interim Assistant Director) and Penny MicKissock (CEO of Southside)
Building Bridges is a project co-produced by Southside and B&NES Council Children’s Social Care working with a group of families who have experience of going through Social Care and Child Protection. Leigh, Interim Assistant Director had a vision of a more collaborative child protection system that pro-actively involved parents in providing feedback as well as being involved and influencing practice and processes. She thought parental advocacy seemed a promising way to achieve that. Penny, who has run a community-based family support charity, Southside was keen to join forces in this endeavour. She recognised the difficulties that many parents her service supported experienced with social care and wanted to help build alliances.
This team of remarkable volunteers called the project ‘Building Bridges’, the name was chosen by one of the volunteers as together, they are all now ‘building bridges, not walls’. Crittenden (2016: 152) suggests that, ‘being a bridge means linking two realities by having one foot on each side of what seems like a chasm of difference’. One parent who has spent considerable time in prison and has had a social worker since birth said ‘It’s fantastic, we feel like a team working together to improve things. Not them and us’.
The Building Bridges team members are providing valuable insight from their personal experience of disadvantage, trauma and particularly the child protection system. They are experts in their own right: from their lived experience, they know what has worked to support them and what needs to improve.
The Building Bridges team meets regularly with staff from Social Care and Southside. The meetings are very honest, positive and enable the Building Bridges team to provide constructive feedback on challenges they have found in the social care system, what worked well for them, what caused barriers and more trauma. To give two examples:
- At a service-wide conference held at Bath and North East Somerset Council, the Building Bridges members stood up in a room full of social workers and family support workers. They articulated their desire to form a different type of relationship than that which many of them had experienced themselves and they put forward their intention to re-present the meaning of children’s services so families may be more inclined to ask for help; ultimately their ambition is to figuratively and literally ‘build bridges’.
- A small number of Building Bridges group members recently met with newly qualified social workers. There was a defining moment when one group member who had been verbally aggressive with one of the social workers in a telephone call said ‘please understand that I would rather be angry than sad. My whole life has been about terrible sadness’.
Currently, The Building Bridges group is halfway through a training programme they have called Match Fit which is focussing on preparing the group for their accredited Advocacy Training which will start in the autumn of this year. The training has built confidence in the group who have not taken part in any kind of training before and will accelerate the effectiveness of the advocacy programme.
There are many ways to get involved with parental advocacy:
- Follow individuals like Annie from Surviving Safeguarding, Taliah Drayak, Clarissa Stevens and the many others on social media.
- Check out and consider joining Parents Families Allies Network (PFAN). I would also recommend checking out Re-Frame and Rise Magazine. This video on ‘tips for supporting parents in supervised visits’ is an excellent example of how parents who have been through the system can help other parents.
- Invite advocates to conferences, staff events or training sessions. For the past few years we have held conferences 2, 3 times per year with multiple speakers, always someone with lived experience and these speakers have consistently received the most positive feedback from staff attending.
- Speak to colleagues or senior management about parental advocacy. Share with them the International Review of Advocacy published by Tobis and Bilson and make an evidential and ethical case for the merits of this approach.
- Make a start…
If you have any questions or queries about this please do not hesitate to get in touch. My e-mail address is: Richard_devine@bathnes.gov.uk. I would be happy to answer any questions.
By Richard Devine (16.07.21)