Social workers' communication with children involved in child protection

Iriss.fm, episode 150
Published on 19 Aug 2016

This is the second of three episodes in a seminar series entitled, 'Critical perspectives on child protection'.

In this seminar, Professor Cree and Dr Morrison share findings from the Talking and Listening to Children (TLC) research. This is a UK-wide study on social workers’ communication with children. Funded by the ESRC, the research took place between 2013 and 2016.

It began with the realisation that social workers have often been criticised in child abuse inquiries for not taking enough account of children’s views and for sometimes failing even to see children. Using ethnography and video stimulated recall, the research makes a new contribution to knowledge on ‘real time’ social work practice. The seminar focuses on the ethnographic phase of the research and explores the key findings that emerged.

Powerpoint slides.

Date of recording
Audio transcript

Viv - Viv Cree
Fiona - Fiona Morrison

Viv    So, hello everybody. I'm Viv Cree, I'm a Professor of social work studies at the University of Edinburgh. I'm delighted to meet with you today and really pleased at the response we've had to our project. This is the second of three seminars within Scottish Government and in our project, which has a website. We're going to be sharing all the materials that have come from the project we're going to talk about today and the project we're involved in now because what we're doing right now is very much what's called an impact project, which is about taking forward the findings from our research. So today is one of our opportunities to do that, but we're having other opportunities to do that with talking with practitioners and indeed having two public engagement events - one in Glasgow and one in Edinburgh, where we draw in the greater Scottish people at large to talk about child protection, what does it look like and what needs to change. So, it's part of a bigger project as we're saying, and today's focus is our talking and listening to children, the TLC study and what I'm going to do is tell you a tiny little bit about the background to the TLC project and then Fiona is going to share most of the slides with you, which are the findings from the project today that we're going to talk about. How we went about it and what we found. We're going to say a little bit about why we got involved in the research in the first place, the talking and listening to children study, a bit about the research project, the methodology, how we went about it and different methods and phases of enquiry, something about the data, what our findings are based on, then the findings themselves, key messages - we've got three key messages that we're sharing from the project as a whole, and we're telling a little bit about our dissemination publication so far and initial responses and wider discussion. So, that's quite a lot to cover but I think we can do it in a reasonable length of time. So, the background. Why this research project happened in the first place. It was really very much what we've called here our current knowledge. Repeated evidence for enquiries and serious case reviews that children are not seen and heard sufficiently. All these terrible newspaper stories of, you know, the child with the chocolate on his face, a social worker saw the child but didn't see the injuries. All these awful stories over the years of what happens when things go wrong and I think, actually that's often where we start when we're thinking about child protection. We think about the cases where something went wrong and we think we're going to analyse them, therefore from them we'll find out what not to do next time and then another child dies and the same story is repeated and I think our view was that we needed to come at this from a different angle and start to think about, actually, let's have a look at practice as it is on the ground rather than looking at the cases where something absolutely catastrophically bad has gone wrong. So, everyone agrees that communication with children is important so why isn't it happening and what can we do to improve the situation, was really where we were coming from with all of this. Also aware that research up to now tends to be focussed on what people say they do rather than what they actually do. It's very easy to conduct interviews with social workers or health visitors or whoever else and ask them what they think, and they'll tell you what they think but actually, the gap between what people think they do and what they actually do can be very big and we're part, I think, of a new generation of what has been called practice-near research, where you actually get as close to practice as you possibly can and you see what's happening on the ground and Harry Ferguson's work in the last couple of years has been an example of that, but so has ours and that's what we're going to tell you about today. Some evidence too about skills and training gaps and as a result the TLC project was devised and it started really with Sally Holland at the University of Cardiff, who actually came to me and said "I'd be really interested in doing a four countries of the UK project on child protection, would you be Scotland please", to which I said "I would be delighted Sally". So, Sally Holland in Wales, myself in Scotland, Gillian Ruch eh, from England and then eh, Karen Winter from Queens University, Belfast. So, we had the four countries of the UK and what we did was we put an application in to the Economic and Social Research Council for a very grandiose four countries of the UK study that was going to, now, I can't remember the full title but it was something like Engaging Vulnerable Children in Child Protection. It was a very long title and what we decided when the project started was that we would get away from the idea of vulnerable children, because we wanted to speak to children as well. Now, what children want to identify themselves as vulnerable children? So, we changed the name to Talking and Listening to Children to be a much more neutral kind of open way of coming at this topic. So, the Talking and Listening to Children study, four countries of the UK, four academic members of staff, and what we did then was we employed two researchers and the two researchers were really the people who did nearly all of the fieldwork attached to the project, probably two-thirds of the fieldwork attached to the project. So, Fiona did all the fieldwork in Scotland, Sophie did all the fieldwork in England and Wales and Karen did all the fieldwork in Northern Ireland, but we actually have evidence from all four countries and that's what we're going to hear about today. So, because Fiona was the person who did most of the fieldwork here, she's going to do the lion's share of the presentation today. So, I'm going to hand over to you Fiona.

Fiona    So, a bit about the research. As Viv said, it was practice-near research, it was about research as it happened, as it takes place and it was qualitative research. We used ethnographic observations and this thing called video stimulated recall, which sounds very grand but I'll tell you a little bit more about that. We had three phases to the research and I guess we're now in phase four. Phase one was ethnography, where we were based in social work teams and we observed visits that social workers have with children. So, these were visits that took place at home, in schools, in police stations, in hospitals, in cafes. A range of different venues. And before each observation what we did was we interviewed the social worker about what the visit was about, what they were hoping to get out of it, any concerns they might have had about their visit. Then we observed the visits, and then we interviewed the social worker afterwards about how they felt the visit had went, if anything had surprised them and what they might do differently in future. Phase two was the video stimulated recall. Sorry, it's important to say that ethnography took place with children that social workers didn't know very well. So, this is maybe the first, in some cases, the first time he'd ever met the social worker, in other cases he'd maybe met them about three or four times before. So, they were very new relationships that children had with social workers. The video stimulated recall looked at established relationships between children and social workers and what we did was we filmed a meeting between the child and social worker and then showed parts of the film back to the child and social worker separately and asked them about what they thought about what was going on in their interactions. That was a bit more of a complicated part of the research and we won't really be focussing on that too much just now but that's what we did. Phase three has been involved in looking at developing CPD material for social workers and trying to really use the findings from our research and some of the data that we collected in our research, to develop materials that will support social workers in their practice in communicating with children. So, we're in the midst of that. We're hoping that they'll be available in the end of Summer, early autumn. End of Summer we'll say optimistically, end of summer and those will be fully available for people to look at and it's really about social workers' communication with children. So, we're in phase four just now, which is the impact project which is why we're here today, but I'll go on and tell you a bit about yeah, what we did. So, phase one as I've already said was the ethnography. We were based in eight social work teams across the UK. In three of the sites they were based in a disability team and then in a child protection team, or an area team if you like. We were based there for 6-8 weeks in the office, observing what kind of happened, what the conversations were like in the social work teams, and then going on the visits with social workers. Eighty-two visits altogether across the whole of the piece, so, involved one hundred and twenty-six children and young people. So, we've got a huge qualitative data set. If you can imagine ethnographic observations that are about five pages, six pages for each visit, we've got a huge amount of data that we're kind of working our way through.

Viv    Can I interrupt a minute, because I just want to reinforce that because we interviewed before ...

Fiona    Yep.

Viv    ... and then we had the interview itself, and then we had the interview afterwards with eh, to find out how they felt it had gone. You've effectively got for eighty-two visits, you've got one hundred and twenty-three. What's ...?

Fiona    We had about two hundred and forty bits of data ...

Viv    Yeah, eh I think its ...

Fiona    ... for phase one so its giant. It's really, really big. Yeah, so we're working slowly through that. Phase two, three researchers that were involved in that, Viv, myself and Sophie, and we did video stimulated recall with ten children across, it's actually two settings in the UK, not three, but we, the video stimulated recall method, it was really to try and get children's perspectives and to look at, critically, their perspectives on the communication that took place. That was a bit more complicated as you can imagine, trying to use film in meetings that might be quite distressing. So, the method was adapted to kind of suit the children and social workers that we were working with. From our very large qualitative data set we've got sort of three different kinds of evidence that are really emerging. The first one being about the context in which social work in practiced across the UK and how the organisation of social work really influences and shapes communication with children and I'll tell you a bit more about that as we go on. The second kind of evidence really about the profession, how social workers feel about doing their work, how they feel about communicating with children and the third one, which I guess is what we thought the research would be about, only about, but actually we've got all this other stuff too, was just about what actually happens in, when social workers communicate with children. What gets in the way of good communication and what helps good communication? So, those are the sorts of evidence that we have. I want to just say, these are all very kind of high level and I'm going to give you one example from the ethnography but these are just the very high level things that we have. So, the social workers, we observe social workers to make connections with children through a range of settings and a range of methods. So, as I said, in police stations, at home, in hospitals, in schools, in parks, in cafes, in the car. Like, the list goes on and on and on and on. So, it's a very dynamic thing that's taking place and social workers do this for a number of reasons, whether it's to gather information, to try and convey information to children, to develop relationships, to develop rapport so, when they're communicating with children they're doing it in lots of different places and for lots of different purposes. There's not this one way that social workers communicate with children. We saw social workers using things like Lego, crafts, talking, using their body, walking, in parks playing, so lots of different ways that communication took place. Also, there was this mismatch sometimes between what social workers wanted to do, what they understood would be good for communicating with children, what was good for developing rapport, and what they actually were able to do in practice. So, what was happening with the organisation of social work and sort of, practice and personal factors that could also impede communication. So, that sounds a bit convoluted, but a good example of the way social work is structured and how that can affect social workers' communication with children has been the advent of agile working, which people may know about. This move towards hot-desking for social workers, and we found that meant, that was very complex and it sounds quite straightforward in, well, how does that affect communication? Well what it meant was that social workers were trying to organise all their visits to take place in one day because they couldn't get a car parking space because there was hot-desking. So, if you are having a day of visits that are all kind of lined up, you're timetabled from nine until five or whenever, what happens when something goes wrong, when you're trying to squash everything into one day? So, these really affected relationships that social workers had with children and the communication that took place. People were moving on to their next visit. How social workers are perceived by children, for some they're seen as a threat, the enemy, for others a support and a friend. We found parents to be particularly important in this, whether the parent had supported relationship between the social worker and child and that obviously eased the communication that took place. Where there were other occasions where parents were very resistant to the social worker being there and that affected the communication that the social worker was able to have with the child and how the child responded and reacted to the social worker. The last thing to say in this slide is really just that social workers need opportunities to reflect, to get support and get training. When I started doing this research I was slightly concerned that social workers really wouldn't want me to come on visits with them. Why would they want a researcher to come and hang out and really just watch what they were doing and take notes? But actually, often times social workers appreciated having someone else there so in the interviews we had before you know, when we were going to the visit, when we talk about what it was that they were going to be doing on the visit, what it was that they would be asking the child, how prepared they felt, and then talking to them afterwards. There were several social workers who said they didn't have time to do this in, you know, in their normal practice. They didn't have someone to talk to, where they could kind of plan and think through what it was that they were going to be doing with the child and then to reflect afterwards about what had happened. So, that's something that was very important. Okay, so I'm going to go on to talk about some of the findings and there's some people who were at a seminar I was at before so this will be familiar to you, the example that I'm going to talk about and I'm just going to try and explore in-depth this issue about the mismatch between knowledge and what social workers have, actually do in practice, and I'm drawing from the ethnographic part of the data here, and this is a sixteen year old girl called Rachel, and she's been admitted to hospital following attempting suicide. Rachel's been in hospital since Monday and it's now Thursday and from that time, from Monday to Thursday she hasn't had any contact with her parents. They haven't tried to speak with her. So, the social worker who has been qualified for five years is going to kind of meet with her. The hospital basically can't keep the girl in hospital any more, and it's to try and find out where she has to go. That's the purpose of this visit. So, this extract here is taken from the ethnographic field notes and up to this point she's obviously not seeing everything, the only thing the social worker has said is "hello" and introduced herself. So, Helen asks how she is. Rachel says that she's feeling pretty low. She says that she's spoken to her council workers and she doesn't want to go home. Rachel nods and asks the name of her worker. So, from the very outset of this meeting Rachel is really kind of articulating what it is that she wants to happen or not happen. She doesn't want to go home. She's set the agenda; she's set the tone for the meeting. She's made it pretty clear what she wants to happen. As the meeting progresses the discussion between Rachel and Helen is dominated by where it is that she's going to go. The girl's saying that she doesn't want to go home and she does this verbally and non-verbally, she shakes her head when asked where she wants to go. She closes down the conversation. So, Helen's asking how she feels about going home, a nice open question, Rachel nods her head and, emm sorry, shakes her head and says "no", so it closes that bit of the conversation. Again, there's a kind of, what we'd need to change, this is later on in the conversation, for you to go home. Rachel says "everything". Eh, I think what happened in this meeting was that there was constantly the social worker asking where to go, trying to move things on, but there was nowhere for this girl to go. Helen really trying to find solutions to this problem, trying to find what it is that she can do, and doing all the things that we hope, asking open questions, being respective, being responsive to what's being said, but it's really quite difficult because there's nowhere to go. In the last extract from here, and I'm sorry there so much text, we're used to bigger screens I guess, at University. This is what happened in the discussion between the social worker and the researcher post-interview and it's really highlighting her unhappiness about what's happened in the meeting. So, Helen looks at me. She raises her eyebrows, takes a big breath and slowly blows out. She shakes her head. Helen says to me that she hates situations like this, that ultimately, she has to try and convince Rachel to go home. She says that she'll need to speak to her manager and see if there's any other options but probably there aren't. And then we go on about the different things that she could do but she says that with social works' involvement it could be different with the family, things might change, but she can understand why Rachel doesn't trust or believe her. So, we can see the limits of what the social worker's role is, what it is that they can do, what they can offer children and how this all goes on to affect the communication and the future relationship that child is going to have with the social worker. I'm only going to show you that one extract from that one interview who we have a huge amount of data and lots of in-depth, as in-depth as that, but really just to kind of bring you back to looking at some of the key messages from our research really, and I think we can't stress this enough, is just how complex communication is between social workers and children. I think we had hope we might come up with some top-tips for social workers, if you could do this, if you could do that, it'll all be great. But actually, when you see how complicated the situations that social workers are practicing in, the issues that they're dealing with, it's really, really difficult. Social workers need to use their skills sensitively and creatively to make spaces for communicating with children and young people and we saw really good evidence of that, of social workers doing that and we really want to showcase that with our research, and certainly in our phase three materials we don't want to paint a doom and gloom picture, there's amazing innovative practice taking place. The last one really is about when our research was obviously focussed on communication and there was a danger that we could go down looking at real micro-communication, what happens when you say this? What happens when you pause here? How does this affect the way social workers or children respond to each other? But what we really found was ... people might say things wrong, they might say the wrong words, they might not get it right, but if you have a good relationship, if the child and social worker has a good relationship then that's forgiven. These things, basically the relationship is king all the time. Or Queen. I think we're back to you Viv on dissemination. 

Viv    I'm aware that the example that you chose, or we chose, to share with people is one which is unsettling because it's showing you if you like, the powerlessness of social work faced with situations where there aren't resources or there aren't alternatives and I think it kind of leaves I'm aware, of a lot of faces thinking "couldn't we have done better than that?" That example wasn't in Scotland. Would Scotland have got it any better? I don't know. We can maybe think about that. That would be quite an interesting one to think about. But it certainly wasn't a Scottish example, but we saw millions of examples of when social workers knew what was needed and tried to do it but actually for all the kind of reasons which are to do with resources and are to do with the context and the situation, it's impossible to do what you know to be right and true, and where your values are and all the rest, and we also saw situations where people didn't get it right all the time as well of course. So, anyway. Dissemination. What we've done so far is, we've so far submitted two journal articles which have been accepted for publication. One in the British Journal of Social Work, one in Child and Family Social Work and what I've done is prepared two briefing papers on the basis of the first two articles. So, what I've done is to get some very complex material into two sides of a piece of A4 paper. So, do take one of these each and the full reference is at the bottom for the actual articles and when they come out in the next few months. That's the first two articles. We've actually got at least six more coming because when you've got a team of four academic staff and two researchers, six people in other words, it's quite easy to get half a dozen articles because you can work on them all together. So, we've got lots of articles to come. Fiona's said materials for practitioners, students and managers on our project is still a work in progress. That's what we're trying to do just now. Our hope had been that we would have that finished before the impact project began but guess what? Life doesn't always happen that way. What we're also going to do is give feedback to all the teams that participated in our study so we've been very careful not to say where we located the study in Scotland and I'm not going to say any more about that, but we will be feeding back to the councils that were so generous with us to actually allow us to be based in their offices, watching what they were doing and taking us out as well. So, we're going to be doing that in the next six months really and we've got this project and the University of Sussex is also doing an impact project and we're going to have all kinds of other things going on as well. That's the publication so far. So, we want to thank of course all the families and children, local authority social workers and managers who supported the project and gave us access to their lives and work. We need to thank our funders and the Universities and thank you for your attention.