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Expert’s Corner: Kelly Berkeley

Independent Social Worker Kelly Berkeley on the importance of experience when carrying out complex parenting assessments.

Social workers carrying out parenting assessments need to be able to engage with people they have never met before quickly and develop a rapport with them, an expert in parenting assessments has said.

Independent Social Worker Kelly Berkeley says those carrying out parenting assessment need to have boundaries, have good analytical skills, be able to process a lot of information quickly, have good report writing skills, and be able to make a good evidence-based assessment in a short period of time while keeping the child’s best interests at the heart of the process.

“Independent Social Workers are best placed to carry out complex parenting assessments. Frontline social workers have so much work to do and with a caseload of 20 children, that is a lot of paperwork involved, and they just do not have the time to go into the depths required of a complex parenting assessment,” said Kelly. “Particularly for families who have been known to a local authority for a long time, there are strengths to having someone independent reviewing all of the case history and it is helpful for families to know that person is independent and not linked to the local authority who may have issued care proceedings as it provides them with an opportunity to put ‘their side’ across.”

Complex family dynamics

Kelly has 10 years’ post-qualification experience as a social worker within children and families’ services teams, and prior to qualifying, gained experience in the youth justice system in youth offending, youth work and advice/guidance within secondary schools. She has two years’ experience working in a Community Mental Health Team, case managing patients with Personality Disorder, suicidal ideation and self-harm.

Furthermore, Kelly has experience in working in a busy safeguarding team completing parenting assessments, viability assessments and Special Guardianship Order Assessments within short timescales. She also has four years’ experience as an Independent Social Worker writing parenting assessments, and SGO Assessments and she currently carries out independent social work for WillisPalmer alongside part-time work for a London Borough where she works in a non-statutory team delivering ‘Early Help’ interventions where they receive referrals from children’s social care.

“The families I work with regarding parenting assessments in my independent work often have complex family dynamics,” said Kelly. “They are parents from a variety of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, single parents, families who have problems with mental health or substance abuse, inexperienced parents and others with a long history of involvement with children’s social care.”

“A common theme is mental ill health and parents who have had difficult histories themselves with past trauma and either sexual, physical or emotional abuse in their history,” she added.

Kelly has a list of instructions from the court with specific questions that need answering, such as, do the parents have the capacity to parent their child/children in the short-term and long-term, what support can be put in place to enable the parents to meet the child’s needs, do the parents understand the concerns that the local authority has about their parenting and how likely are they to engage with other services to improve their parenting capacity.

“Despite a text reminder, I turn up after an hour’s drive to find the family ‘out’”

Firstly, Kelly reads the history of the family from the local authority and any other assessments that may have been carried out such as psychological or psychiatric assessments and the relevant chronology from the local authority. She then calls the family and arranges to meet them, explaining that she is an Independent Social Worker, separate from the local authority, and there to assess their capacity to meet the needs of their child(ren). She stresses that this is an opportunity for the family and schedules 4-5 sessions each 1.5 hours long and two parent/child observation sessions. Kelly provides the family with a copy of the schedule.

The interviews are carried out in the family home and are face-to-face. Kelly is trying to gauge their parenting capacity by exploring whether they have a support network, what their experience of being a parent is and how they were raised, whether there are any environmental stressors such as poverty or housing problems, whether they are accessing and engaging with any services.

The child/parent observations focus on the quality of the relationship, their play skills and how attuned they are to the child.

“You can pick up a lot from the observations. I speak to the families when scheduling the sessions to ascertain whether there is any history of learning disabilities or borderline learning disabilities or any additional need which may make a 1.5 hour session difficult and in which case we could make it shorter or longer to give the parents more time to explain things,” said Kelly.

While she has been fortunate in that all families have engaged with her, she has experienced other difficulties.

Despite providing the families with a schedule of the sessions and texting a reminder beforehand, she has driven for an hour for a session only to find the family ‘out’ which she believes can often be deliberate. On other occasions, she has asked direct questions but had parents being very evasive and who will “talk about just about everything apart from the question being asked”.

“Sometimes they can’t provide a coherent narrative of events and you can’t get to the bottom of the issues which I believe is a tactic used to avoid certain issues. Otherwise, you ask them about their experience of school and they just say ‘I can’t remember,’ but that just raises more questions such as what are they are trying to forget,” said Kelly.

You can buffer the trauma

“One of the main things I am trying to ascertain is, if the parents need intervention and support services, and, from the child’s perspective, can they make adequate changes within the child’s timeframe?”

For example, in terms of new born babies, between the ages of 0-5 years old children’s development is at an accelerated rate and six months for a parent to turn themselves around is quite a long time in a new born baby’s life. It is when attachment is formed and if the parent is not present or attuned to the needs of the child in order to help them to meet their milestones, this can have a huge impact on the child’s developmental trajectory, so interventions would need to be sooner rather than later.

“Children can recover after trauma if parenting is then of a high enough standard. Attachment relationships can be restored and repaired. The impact of the trauma is buffered if the parent can overcome their own difficulties,” said Kelly.

Kelly uses the Assessment Framework for Children in Need published by the Department for Health. She has also undertaken Solihull training in parenting intervention which focuses on attachment and brain development and techniques in supporting parents with containment. She has also carried out training in Signs of Safety, Five to Thrive; an early years’ development tool, training in systemic practice and a variety of training courses in the London Boroughs she has worked at.

“Social workers have a toolkit that we can draw on including things we have learned in the workplace over the years,” she adds.

After Kelly has carried out the interviews and observations, drawing on her experience, training and toolkit of interventions, she calls the social worker holding the case to discuss their views on the case. She then writes up the report which can be up to 40 pages long and 10,000 words, being careful to answer the court’s specific questions and make conclusions around each point based on evidence.

“I have to focus on the child and see their lives through their lenses, some may have witnessed domestic abuse or seen their mum being arrested. I also need to take into account the child’s needs. Parenting a child with additional needs is difficult enough but if that parent has issues themselves, have they got the ability to put the needs of the child first and foremost?”

I came away feeling very sad for everyone

Kelly says you have to be open-minded and sometimes she has read the history and been horrified, but when she has met the parents they have seemed relatively balanced. She uses a strengths-based approach, focusing on the strengths the family rather than the negatives and sometimes she sees the good qualities that the parents have and feels optimistic that they can turn things around. However, sometimes the risks are too great.

“For example, I was working with a young woman, a care leaver who had been taken into care after experiencing physical chastisement at home. She got her GCSE’S, some A-levels and was going to start a degree but she became pregnant. As a young person, she was keen to learn about parenting and wanted to care for her baby and read up about raising a child. However, she had a psychotic episode when she was 18, received counselling and treatment and was diagnosed with a serious psychotic illness and was told she would be on medication for the rest of her life. She really struggled with the diagnosis and wouldn’t accept it and said that everybody had got it wrong. She was in a violent relationship with the baby’s father and was refusing to take her medication as she couldn’t accept the diagnosis was about her. While she was keen to learn about how to be a good parent, there was no support network to help her and the baby and, coupled with the abusive relationship and denial around her mental health, it was just too risky a situation for a new born and the baby was taken into care. I came away feeling very sad about the situation for everyone involved,” Kelly explained.

Kelly says carrying out a complex parenting assessment is not straight forward and, as an independent, “there is a lot of responsibility to carry”. “You have the support of the quality assurer at WillisPalmer which is great, but you are doing the work and coming to the conclusions yourself. You don’t have the peer support of a team and that is why you need to be confident in your abilities,” said Kelly.

In fact, she says it is her expert training, knowledge and experience in a range of settings which provides her with the confidence to carry out this kind of complex work. “It is helpful that I have a wide range of experience in a lot of settings. I’ve worked in youth justice with high risk young people, I have knowledge of Child Sexual Exploitation and gang culture, I worked in child protection as a frontline social worker for six years in inner city London Boroughs as well as more rural areas in Kent. I have two years’ experience in adult mental health and have worked as an adult social worker alongside a children’s social worker who was providing child protection intervention while I worked with the parent’s mental health. I now work in an early help setting trying to prevent problems from escalating in a bid to provide better outcomes for children. We are based in a children’s centre and so I have understanding of 0-5 work, health visiting and Speech and Language Therapy services.”

“The more experience you have, the more depth you can bring to a parenting assessment,” Kelly concluded.

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