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Child Protection Practice: Learning from reviews and suggestions of practical changes you can make to your practice

By Lucy Hopkins, Head of Practice

Two weeks ago the ‘National Review into the Murders of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson’ was published. These reviews are always difficult to read as social workers and professionals who work with children, because we can identify with those at heart of the inquiries.

Arthur Labinjo-Hughes

We have all worked with children who are at significant risk of harm and have all worried about what might happen to a child when we go home at night. The recommendations from these reviews can feel overwhelming and another added pressure to what is already a stressful and challenging job. However, they are so important, and although sometimes some of the recommendations are dismissed as learning that was recommended from previous reviews or are things that require decision making at a senior level to be addressed, there are things that we can do as social workers, on a personal level, that do not rely on organisational change to put them into action.

Following the inquiry into the death of Peter Connelly one of the things that resonated with me was in relation to what I could do differently during home visits to children. One of the things I ensured I routinely did was to pick up babies and young children, to physically engage with them, to see how they move, to see how they react, to see if they were experiencing any pain or discomfort. I would watch children as the parents engaged with them, for example, during feeding and changing nappies, for the same reason. This was something I was able to do to make an improvement to my practice in relation to safeguarding children and I would document it clearly in my case recordings.

I have read many serious case reviews and inquiries over the years, and when I read them I often find myself thinking about the issue of whether social workers are always inquisitive enough. I acknowledge this is not the case for all social workers, of course, but I think it is a theme that is starting to become more noticeable. There are many reasons why social workers may not challenge parents where they should, for example; social workers are short on time, social work departments are short staffed, there is sometimes a high turnover of staff, social workers have so much to do and so much paperwork to complete back at the office. These pressures have never gone away and I will always sympathise with all social workers who experience them.

I wonder if there has been a change in practice, with social workers moving towards a more strengths based approached and that this focus on building on positives, which is often so useful for families, but that this could potentially mean that in some cases the assessment of risk diminishes. This may also be as a result of many social work teams being staffed by relatively newly qualified social workers who have only ever practiced in this way, without the experienced members of staff around them to impart their wisdom and knowledge from a time when practice seemed entirely focused on risk, a time I remember well following the death of Peter Connelly. I think this is part of the thinking in the recommendations from the ‘Independent Review of Children’s Social Care’, published in the same week as the ‘National Review into the Murders of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson’, in relation to an experienced practitioner framework and only those who have evidenced five years’ experience being able to undertake child protection enquiries. In addition, there is always the issue of being so involved with a family or so involved in child protection practice, that we become desensitised and less aware of the risks in front of us; our sense of danger changes and if we become less aware of the danger posed to us, there is the risk that we become less aware of the danger posed to a child living in the family home. This is one of the reasons why reflective practice is so important.

Star Hobson

I can only speak from my own experience, having worked as a Local Authority social worker, Family Court Adviser and Children’s Guardian, and now as Head of Practice and undertaking Child Abuse Litigation work; my different experiences have allowed me the opportunity to really reflect on practice and what I can do to improve the work I undertake with children and families in terms of safeguarding. Here are some suggestions you could consider…

  • There is a clear message for us as social workers to build on relationships with families as we know relationship based social work leads to positive outcomes for families in respect of engagement and change. However, it is important to also bear in mind the issue of disguised compliance and the danger this poses. Some people are skilled in manipulating social workers and professionals, and we have to be mindful of this. Do not take everything that is said to you at face value; check it out with other sources, whether that be the child’s school, healthcare workers, police, or family members. It is only then that you can provide a proper and balanced analysis of the issue.
  • It might feel uncomfortable to challenge parents, particularly when you are trying to form relationships with them so that they share information with you and allow you into their home to see them and their child. But we need to challenge, we need to ask questions, and we need to do this for the sake of the child, to ensure that we are confident that we have done everything we can to ensure their safety and wellbeing is maintained.
  • Speak to schools, healthcare staff, the police, and family members. Some of these people will come into contact with children and families much more often than we do as social workers, so they will hold a wealth of information about that family. Ask them specific questions and to share any information they have, however minor they think it may be; they are not social workers so we should not expect them to know what we want to know to do our job – you have to ask them.
  • When talking to parents, tell them why you are concerned about their child. Do not just tell them you are worried their child is not going to school or is unkempt when they do attend, but explain to them what this means for their child and how it will be affecting them. Some parents will never have had this explained to them. Do not assume they know or understand just because you do. They are not social workers and have often experienced their own childhood trauma which impacts on their awareness and understanding. Tell them why as a social worker you need to look into what else is going on in the child’s life so that you can get a really good understanding of what life is like for their child in order to be able to offer the correct support services or recommendations about what needs to be done to change things and address the concerns at the heart of the matter not just the presenting problem on the surface. Tell the parents that to do their child justice and write the best assessment you can for them, you need to understand them in the context of their own environment and make sure that there is nothing missed.
  • Ask yourself questions such as “would this be okay for my child/my relative’s child/my neighbour’s child?”. If the answer is no, then think about why it is okay for this child and what you might need to do about that.
  • Always focus on your analysis. You are the expert. You are the person who is able to connect the dots, join together the information shared by all other agencies, and tell the story of the child. Don’t just write assessments that deal with factual information, but explain what this information means for the child, the impact on the child, what will happen to the child in the future if things do not change, what type of behaviours might they start to display as an adolescent and into adulthood. Use the factual information and evidence to support your views, your opinion, your analysis and your recommendations. Remember, when a child grows up they sometimes request to view their Social Care files so they too could one day be the reader of your assessment. Tell the story of the child and make it jump out from the page so that anyone reading your assessments or reports, whether it is your manager, another professional, a judge, or a parent, can really see what life is like for that child.

And finally, if you are not already aware, WillisPalmer has launched a campaign #Respect4SocialWork because we want to raise awareness amongst the general public about what social workers really do. We want them to hear the positive contributions social workers make to their communities and the positive change they bring about each and every day. But we need your help. We need you help us spread the word – sign up, get your friends and family to sign up, post positive examples of what you do on your social media pages or whenever you are responding to something negative about social workers that is written in the media or on television. People won’t know about the good things we do unless we tell them. If we are going to make positive changes about how others view the social work profession it has to come from within the profession itself and every little bit of positivity helps! 

Lucy
Working Together For Children

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