By Richard Devine, Social Worker for Bath and North East Somerset Council
NOTE: If you are receiving this via e-mail it may be cut short by your e-mail programme and/or the graphics may be distorted. You may wish to click the link and view it in full.
These are five books that have profoundly influenced my social work practice. These books have been selected for their practical usefulness in our endeavor to be better, more effective social workers. I have not listed them in rank order. I am going to share one every day this week.
One line review: A highly practical, accessible book that provides tools and a framework to effectively work with parents in cases of denied child abuse.
What I learned from this book: I read this book relatively early in my social work journey, and it completely transformed my approach to working with parents. The ideas, for me at least, were revolutionary and almost counterintuitive. Turnell and Essex explain that we often spend excessive time caught up in denial disputes as social workers. Denial disputes involve the parents denying or minimizing the seriousness of the concerns, while we attempt to disprove them and encourage them to accept our concerns. This is done under the understandable yet, misguided notion that admission or complete agreement with our concerns is required before we can do any meaningful work. Turnell and Essex point out that this approach overlooks the ‘many strong social and interactional pressures that make denial a compelling response’ (p.29). For example, parents may fear telling the truth for fear of reprisals from social care (real or imagined) or feel too ashamed to admit the extent of their difficulties.
In this book, the authors make the persuasive case that safety within a family can be achieved, even when parents vehemently deny the concerns, and provide an exceptionally useful, highly practical, and strengths-based framework to accomplish this. The approach advocated involves working collaboratively with parents to entertain multiple perspectives and develop a safety plan that is responsive to the central concerns.
Turnell and Essex provide this helpful illustration to show an aspect of their approach visually.
I learned from this that there are two ways I can help a parent and increase safety for a child. Firstly, we can support the individual (i.e., the faulty bulb), for example, encouraging a substance missing parent to access treatment for their addiction. Secondly, we can create safety that lessens the risks derived from a parent’s behaviour. To use the same example of a substance misusing parent, we could look at support via a Family Group Conference, consider the child accessing extra-curricular activities, and Safety Planning.
Central to this approach is involving the child. Turnell and Essex point out that many children don’t know why child protection social workers are involved with their families or why they were removed if they are in care. Without an explanation, children will hypothesize or imagine mistaken reasons. Given their developmentally appropriate proclivity for ego-centric thinking, they will often assume responsibility and blame themselves. Turnell and Essex provide a tool, ‘words and pictures’; a framework that helps social workers, in conjunction with parents, explain to the children about the concerns and describe what the family and professionals are doing about the problems. The words are accompanied with matching pictures to help children’s understanding further. This has been the most important and helpful tool for direct work with children that I have encountered. Even when I don’t use the tool fully, the underlying tenants have featured in almost every piece of work I have done with a child.
‘In a ‘denial’ dispute, the professionals try to convince family members usually the parents of the ‘truth’ they believe has happened. Counter to this, key family members, including the alleged perpetrator, argue that the professionals are wrong, or they simply resist conceding the professionals’ position. Cases caught in a ‘denial’ dispute can often escalate to a point where enormous amounts of professional time, resources and energy are poured into them…admission becomes the only portal by which safety can be achieved, and when the parents maintain a position of ‘denial’ the professional imagination about what to do becomes exhausted’ (2006 p.8).
Post published note: After I published this blog, Donald Forrester helpfully shared this article from Family Law Week. Barrister, Patrick Gilmore provides a very useful summary, drawing upon a recently published judgement. Click here.
A question: What has been the most influential book, in terms of practical usefulness you have read? Please get in touch or leave a comment below.
An invitation: If you read any book I recommend and you are interested in sharing your learning, I would love for you write a blog post. Just get in touch.