By Richard Devine, Social Worker for Bath and North East Somerset Council
A fundamental part of being a child protection social worker is to work with parents who, quite frankly, don’t want to work with us.
There are various reasons for this, and it is important that we seek to understand them while recognizing that none of them negates the fact that we frequently must interact with parents who would prefer that we were not involved in their life and who communicate this to us indirectly and directly.
Dealing with conflict, hostility, heightened emotion, overt and covert aggression, and verbal abuse is the norm.
Negotiating these dynamics is the ‘bread and butter’ of social work.
Yet, I received surprisingly little preparation for this at university, and there is a distinct lack of research into this area of practice (Professor Harry Ferguson being a notable exception).
I was often left in doubt of my capability as a social worker when my attempts to convey unconditional positive regard and emotional warmth were painfully thwarted by distressed or angry parents.
Social work, I was told, was about collaboration, empowerment, and anti-discriminatory practice.
However, despite my best efforts, these ideals were rarely achieved, if ever!
At points, I wondered whether I was cut out for the job because of the ‘jarring disjuncture’ (Forrester et al 2012, p. 119) between the work I was undertaking, and the ideals espoused in social work training and theory.
I couldn’t live up to the ‘idealisations of the text and the high aspirations of the academy’ (de Montigny 1995, p.109 cited Turnell 2006, p.27). As a result, I felt demoralized and disillusioned.
Social work and conflict
Conflict was an ever-present feature of the work when fulfilling my role and statutory duties. For example:
- When I needed to spend time with a child, undertake unannounced visits and look in the private spaces of their home, some parents told me they didn’t want me to spend time with their children or visit their homes.
- When I spoke to a parent about the impact that their drug use was having on their functioning and their child, some parents would adamantly deny the extent of their substance misuse and disagree that it was impacting their children.
- When I shared observations about the home conditions being unhygienic and unsafe, some parents would be affronted and vehemently disagree.
- When I had to deliver a pre-proceeding letter notifying a parent that we were entering into that phase, some parents told me that all the concerns were fabricated and that my efforts should be redirected to a neighbour’s child, whose situation was considerably worse.
Primarily, conflict arises out of the fact that I am a representative of a statutory organisation, and most of the parents I work with are not choosing to work with me and the service I represent. They want freedom from state intrusion into their private life, mainly because of the fear that this will eventually result in the loss of their child.
I can’t imagine many people would want involvement with a system where this could possibly be an outcome, even if it meant access to some much needed help.
A failure to acknowledge this feature of our practice runs the risk that we become disillusioned with the profession when it doesn’t live up to our hopes and expectations. Or we blame ourselves when we are unable to cultivate the type of relationships advocated for in the literature.
As pointed out by Turnell and Essex (2006, p.48), ‘aspiring to ideal solutions leads the professional towards exhaustion and pessimism because those ideals do not equate well with the complex and contested day to day realities of dealing with situations of severe child abuse’.
Recently, I read Harry Ferguson’s classic text, Child Protection Practice (2011), and he referenced the ‘neglected contribution’ of James Barber (p.172).
In Barber’s book, Beyond Casework (1991) he has a chapter that inspired this blog, called ‘Casework with Involuntary Clients’. He argued,
‘Work with involuntary clients must begin with the recognition that the interaction between worker and client is based on conflict rather than cooperation, that social work with involuntary clients is a political, not a therapeutic, process involving the socially sanctioned use of power’(p.45).
Paradoxically, recognizing that our relationship with a parent is often based on conflict can help us understand approaches and methods that reduce the conflict.
Barber’s three practice options for contending with the challenges of establishing meaningful relationships with child protection:
In this approach, social workers will attempt to minimize or deny the fact that they are a representative of a statutory organization that imposes certain restrictions on a parent’s life.
Social workers adopting this approach feel uncomfortable with the power bestowed upon them in their role and consider it antithetical to their values. They fail to recognize that authority can be integrated into effective practice and used in a constructive way to promote change.
As a result, they seek to minimize or avoid conflict by making various types of concessions. Barber noted that newly qualified social workers were especially vulnerable to this approach as they seek to implement idealistic notions of relationship building or they refuse on ideological grounds to accept that power is a feature of being a child protection social worker.
However, as conflict is inherent in the relationship, concessions can only be extended so far before a social worker has to exert their authority. At this point, the relationship fractures.
This can cause practitioners to become resentful and bitter because, despite their efforts to make concessions, the relationship turns fraught as soon as a statutory duty has to be exercised.
Equally, parents can feel betrayed by a worker who seemed willing to extend some allowance or courtesy and then, when it came to it, impose a sanction.
The second approach, in contrast to the first approach, involves the social worker embracing the conflictual nature of the role.
The social worker readily and unflinchingly imposes their expectations of what needs to change upon the parent, utilizing the power inherent in the role to intimidate a parent. A social worker can feel fully legitimized in this approach, claiming to be in service of the child’s best interests. Telling parents straight and forthrightly their wrongdoings is fully justified as a means of advocating on behalf of a child.
This can be done with righteous indignation.
As pointed out by Barber, ‘workers who set uncompromising and unilateral terms in their relationship are often guilty of trying to punish the client under the guise of social work practice’ (p.47).
The third approach attempts to reconcile the competing positions. Barber suggests that it is possible to promote empowerment while also acting as an agent of social control.
In pursuing this approach, a social worker must accept the conflictual nature of the relationship that is borne out of the inevitable conflicts of interests when social work involvement is mandatory.
Barber contends, ‘Anything less is not only self-defeating it is ultimately dishonest’ (52).
The social worker, as a representative of the statutory organization, will almost always face some resistance.
Therefore, conflict should be made explicit by the social worker. Barber writes, ‘In place of a ‘helping’ relationship, then, the foundation of social casework with involuntary clients is a ‘working’ relationship wherein client and worker are prepared to work towards a speedy resolution of the problem and reinstatement of the client’s liberty’ (P.48).
Barber identifies three aims for effective negotiation.
Firstly, negotiation involves looking for opportunities to maximize the participation and involvement of a parent, even within the constraints that being involved with statutory services imposes.
Secondly, Barber advocates for involving the client in the development of the intervention plan rather than forcing a parent to submit to a plan that has already been worked out for them.
Thirdly, a peaceful resolution, despite difficult circumstances, can serve as a template for parents to problem solve in other areas in their life, especially where there might be some disagreement.
Following on from this, Barber identifies six steps for negotiated casework (1. clearing the air, 2. identify legitimate client interests, 3. identify non-negotiable aspects of intervention, 4. identify negotiable aspects of intervention, 5. negotiate the case plan, 6. agree on criteria for progress).
Clearing the air
Barber makes an important point in the first step (1. Clear the air) that resonated a lot with my experience of overcoming the hurdles consequential of our coercive involvement with parents.
When a social worker is mandated to be involved with a parent (i.e. child protection, pre or care proceedings), then a ‘social worker symbolises the full might of the legal system and at least to begin with the worker will have no identity other than oppressor. Under such circumstances, all the social worker’s communications will be filtered through a haze of distrust, suspicion and hostility’ (p.48).
Barber suggests, therefore, that the social worker brings to the parent’s attention what brings them together. Given that there is a child protection plan or a court order, how can the social worker and parent work together to achieve the aims of the plan/order. Instead of it being a dispute between the individual worker and a parent, it is recognized and framed as a dispute between a parent and society at large (or the Local Authority).
This increases the chance that the discussion doesn’t not degenerate into personal dispute.
From this stance, the social worker can empathize with a parent about how they feel about social work involvement, and any resentment about involvement can be acknowledged. Barber suggests that ‘statements, such as, ‘you must feel pretty reluctant to work with me under these circumstances’ can be an open way to a frank and full discussion of the relationship’ (1994, p.50).
Much of Barber’s approach aligns with the work of Turnell and Essex (2006), and Signs of Safety. These ideas were revolutionary to me when I encountered them and forever changed my practice.
I used to feel personally responsible and entangled in my relationship with parents, but I realised after training in Signs of Safety that it was more effective to establish common goals and work together in establishing them.
For example, I began to ask parents what they wanted to happen. Often, parents would tell me that they don’t want social care involvement. I would respond positively, stating that we didn’t want to be involved either, and so how could we work together to show that social care doesn’t need to be worried.
From this perspective, I could empathise with how negative feelings about social work involvement (without taking it personally) and align myself with their goals to collaborate on a plan that would help them achieve the joint goal of not having social work involvement.
Barber ends the chapter by making the point that even with the approach he outlined, ‘there will always be some clients who steadfastly refuse to work towards a negotiated settlement. Such individuals cannot get past their hostility at having to submit to social work intervention and will simply restate their opposition despite whatever efforts are made to direct attention to the interests underlying their hostility’.
Nevertheless, he still suggests that we have an ethical and moral responsibility to do everything within our power to effectively negotiate a meaningful relationship with a parent with the aim of supporting the parents in safely caring for their children.
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By Richard Devine (09.09.22)