Child protection: listening to and learning from parents

Published in Features on 8 Dec 2017

On 14 November 2017, an informal discussion was held at Serenity Cafe in Edinburgh around listening to and learning from parents in child protection. Stuart Muirhead from Iriss offers his reflections on the discussion, which was chaired by Maggie Mellon, author of Iriss Insight 39.

In September 2017, Iriss published an evidence summary (Iriss Insight) titled Child protection: listening to and learning from parents, authored by Maggie Mellon. This Insight, as well as outlining some of the evidence and research findings around parents’ poor experiences of child protection interventions, also goes on to explore how practitioners, teams, managers and sector leaders can improve their practice in this area. This was sent round practitioners across Scotland, as all our Insights are, and published on our website.

Maggie Melon with parents
Maggie Mellon with PAR group participants at the discussion

As well as publishing the review, we wanted to bring a disparate group of practitioners together with parents who have experience of child protection and of their children being in the care of the local authority. Hosted by ourselves, and introduced and chaired by Maggie as the author, we brought together representatives from different organisations and groups including: Children 1st, Children in Scotland, The Scottish Association of Social Workers, Parenting Across Scotland, Parents Advocacy Rights (PAR), University of Edinburgh Social Work and the Womanzone Project at Serenity Cafe.

What followed was a rich 90-minute discussion around key issues, exploring practice and relationships with people in the room sharing their knowledge and experiences of the child protection system in Scotland. I have tried to summarise this discussion below.

The background…

Maggie introduced our session by outlining a bit of background that went into the Insight, acknowledging that those who had accepted the invitation wanted to work towards a social work process that is respectful, based in human rights and one that can lead to the experiences of parents being improved. She highlighted the need to acknowledge the craft of the social worker, the skill they should have in relationship making and building, and the strong values and ethics that they should take into their work. However, Maggie also highlighted how complex it was for social workers to retain these values in a system where child protection procedures and processes often mean that parents are treated in a context of ‘muscular authoritarianism’.

Social work in popular culture…

Maggie then got the discussion going by mentioning a recent scene in Eastenders where a social worker turns up to the door of a woman with mental health difficulties, along with a police presence, on the basis of an anonymous phone call and they remove her two children to the care of their grandmother. There was a reaction on social media in response by social workers that this was an irresponsible portrayal of what would actually happen, but an equally vehement response by parents with experience that this scene was entirely credible.  Parents around our table then shared their experiences of having social workers turn up at their door because of anonymous phone calls. They described being treated, before any interaction, as someone who is guilty of not caring for their children, and that these accusations then stick, both on them and in their file. Similarly, those parents with a history of being supported by social work felt punished for having had past hardship in their lives, including having been in care as children and this magnified their feelings of powerlessness. 

One organisational representative described some of the practice described as ‘no longer being about child protection… but about persecuting people who are experiencing adversity in life’. The system was described as inequitable in how it treated different people and the way it was skewed to more negatively interact with those who experienced multiple deprivation. This could then be exacerbated if the social work intervention results in worse outcomes for the child (as multiple interventions for children can leave them in a worse place and have lasting damage). It was raised that within this context, the work environment for the social worker needs to be considered. Specifically, that they often seem to operate in a climate of anxiety and fear and find it very hard to assess risk around intervention/non-intervention. Another organisational representative mentioned that the reaction from social workers would be - ‘we don’t want to be like that’, but that sometimes systemic issues make social workers have a ‘blind spot’ for harm that can be caused by intervention, especially by sudden removal from home and entry into the care system which has such poor outcomes. The risk of doing harm needed to be balanced against the risk, or perceived risk, of a child staying with their mother or parents or within their family. It was accepted that social work intervention would be easier if there was trust on both sides and that needed to be earned by social workers. This is both trust in social work at a community and societal level, but also personal trust, borne of strong two-way relationships. Several members of the group felt that it would be more useful to talk of ‘early help’ rather than ‘early intervention.’

‘The perfect mother’

Another parent in the discussion felt let down by social work and the discussion turned towards the weight of pressure put on women to be ‘the perfect mother’ and the responsible one in the family. It was raised that there is an expectation that it is the woman that picks up the burden, not the man, and who is always the focus of social work and societal scrutiny. Many of these expectations are based around a wealthy, middle-class version of motherhood which is impossible for poor, working-class mothers in damp, overcrowded housing with no gardens, no safe spaces for children outside and no money for food, fuel and clothes. This means that society as a whole, and subsequently social workers, instead of helping, find it easier to blame and be critical of women in these situations. One agency participant stated that when a mother tells a social worker about the real disadvantage and problems she is facing and the response is, "I am here for the child, not for you", it is a huge misunderstanding of the social work role and of the children’s rights. The pressure experienced by a mother was discussed as not only being externally felt, but an internal pressure on the mother, which resulted in a lot of self-sacrifice to provide all they could for their child. It was also experienced as increasing feelings of guilt in what they couldn’t provide, especially as this was often in contrast to what children received when they were in care (trips, cinema visits, clothes, holidays, pocket money and presents from their foster carer which are actually paid for by the taxpayer).

Where is the parental support?

Following this, an issue was raised that related to the impersonal and unsupported nature of some forms of contact and review. One parent highlighted how reports for, and attendance at, Child Protection and Looked After Child (LAC) reviews can be by people who don’t know the child or the family, have never met them, and yet whose opinions are more influential than the parents.  A parent often feels isolated in these situations and that they haven’t had the opportunity to express both how they feel and fully explain the situation that they have found themselves in. The parent knows that the professionals have all met beforehand and come to a view and will all support one another. What a professional says is always believed and what a parent says is not believed unless they are agreeing with the professional. This also leads to the situation where a parent, predominantly a mother, is left with very little support and feels unable to protect her child from the consequences of engagement with the system especially if this results in care with very restricted contact, worrying about the child but not being able to help them. This is particularly damaging if the mother is already experiencing mental health problems or struggling with an abusive relationship. One woman described this as being left with the feeling that ‘there has been a death in the family’ and that you are left with a feeling of isolation, loss and desperation.

Think family? Think love?

The Insight strongly focused on the potential for social work practitioners and influencers to take action through their own behaviours and ultimately what they do, even if there are systematic barriers that seem to hinder this. Much of this discussion was around strong skills around interpersonal relationships, conversations and the presence of empathy and understanding. The highlight there, and in this discussion, was put on thinking ‘family and not just child protection’ and understanding that child protection doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but within a societal and familial context. There was a discussion about the government commitment to bring love into the care system. It was pointed out that care was expensive and it would be better to help support families than to continue to take children into care. Parents objected to one participant saying that there could be love in the care system, saying it was not love if everyone the child was in contact with was paid to be in contact with them. It was agreed that social workers (and others) can carry out caring acts, can create caring conversations and make caring decisions. However, the parents and most of the other representatives were keen to stress that parental love can’t be replicated. Finally, there was a recognition that care and love is needed by both the children and young people, but also for the whole family, for parents, and for brothers and sisters.*

What needs to change that is shaped by parents?

  • There should be an empowering message for social workers - that they can think independently, react and act according to their professional values and ethics. Suggestions in the Insight by Maggie would not cost any money to implement. It was not proposing expensive programmes but just asking social workers, their teams and their agencies to actively seek to know what about their practice is welcome, and what offends, hurts and disempowers. This practice is normal in other social work settings but usually not in child protection. 
  • Social workers should push back against practice that puts targets and processes above getting things right for a child and family. There is a professional duty to do this.  If social workers don’t have the courage to challenge a culture that puts human relations at the bottom of the pile, they have no moral authority to demand of parents what they can’t deliver for themselves. If work is causing moral distress, then professional ethics demand that this is challenged.
  • There should be better advice for parents that is shaped by parents and their experiences and includes advice such as: engage back; ask questions; ask what the concern is; bring a friend; and write down what is said. Ask them to explain what they are concerned about, what they think you should do, what they can do to help you.
  • Many parents and children who experience child protection have suffered harm and trauma. Social workers need to be ‘trauma-informed’ in order to understand the needs of both the child and the parent and not make snap judgements about alcohol or drug use, or about criminal records. Domestic violence should not be a stick to beat the mother with and fathers or partners should be held responsible for their behaviour, and support the mother to care for her children.
  • This should be an opportunity for empowerment, for everyone. However, if practising social workers say they cannot take personal power to change things, then how can we expect parents to be able to do that in their lives?

*As with all of this piece, this is my interpretation of what was said - as you can probably guess, the discussion around love was both emotive and nuanced