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Expert’s Corner with Gretchen Precey - Parenting Assessments

Gretchen Precey on what skills and experience ISWs bring to parenting assessments

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Independent Social Workers conducting parenting assessments should remain neutral and put any preconceptions they may have about the family to one side, a fellow ISW has warned.

Gretchen Precey says that a key skill for social workers undertaking parenting assessments is to keep an open mind when reading up about a family’s case before you meet them so you don’t adopt the stance of deciding the outcomes before you interview the family.

Speaking exclusively to Children First, Precey also highlights how during parenting assessments it is important to:

  • Have impressive inter-personal skills to build good relationships with parents
  • Try to enter the world of the family to get a real insight into their situation
  • Have confidence in your assessment skills
  • Be ok with feeling confused during the assessment and changing your mind on what your outcomes will be
  • Use your instinct while allocating time to the three core aspects of parenting assessments.

If you can’t take the heat, get out the kitchen

Precey herself grew up in an unusual environment. Her parents were both social workers and her father was the live-in supervisor of a large children’s home in Detroit – which she likens to the former Barnardo’s complex in Barkingside here in the UK – meaning she grew up in a children’s home along with her two younger brothers and parents.

Having been raised alongside children from troubled families and seeing the impact this has on children and their development – along with her parents’ chosen social work profession – this naturally influenced her decision to go into social work herself. Having moved to the UK with her English husband in 1971, Precey studied a degree in sociology at Leeds University before the CQSW and Diploma in Applied Social Studies and started out as a social worker at the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at St. James Hospital in Leeds.

She held a number of social work and senior practitioner posts in the children and families field and specialised in child protection and Child Sexual Abuse. In the mid 1990’s, her career was based at a child protection unit in Brighton where she worked her way up into management. “I had been working at the frontline in child sexual abuse for a long time and there is only so much of that work you can do,” she explains. “I was in a managerial role for three years and I wasn’t sure if I was cut out for management.”

“This was at the time that Labour came into power in 1997 and I found much more involvement/interference from the government about how social work should be done and how assessments should be carried out. It became more prescribed and I am a firm believer that if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen. So I got out of the kitchen,” adds Precey.

We are not that much further on in tackling CSE

From there, she set up her own company and became an Independent Social Worker, trainer and consultant in 1999. Despite her vast experience in child sexual abuse and the recent rise in prominence of Child Sexual Exploitation, Precey insists she is not an ‘expert’ on the matter.

However, she concedes that she does “know a lot about CSE” from her experience and says the notion that CSE is a relatively new phenomenon is not the case as children have sadly been exploited for many years. She says that unfortunately, we are not that much further forward in stopping the rate at which children are sexually exploited, despite CSE being the main theme of recent Joint Targeted Area Inspections and its rise to the spotlight within social work following the report into CSE in Rotherham by Professor Alexis Jay and subsequent reports from government and committees.

“Because some local authorities have wanted to get their ship in shape prior to Ofsted inspections, they have commissioned me to come into the local authority and take a 360 degrees look at what’s going on in the authority and their approach to tackling CSE by interviewing children, parents and partner agencies to take a systemic approach in how they are working,” explains Precey.

She is frequently commissioned to run safeguarding children training courses for multi-agency professionals from social work, schools and health settings, carries out consultancy work, works on projects ‘that don’t fit into most people’s criteria’ (“I recently worked on a case where a mother wanted to adopt a child with Down’s Syndrome, but there were concerns about her motivation. The authority commissioned me to carry out direct observation for a second opinion”) and direct work as an ISW which includes her work carrying out parenting assessments.

“The parenting assessments are usually related to care proceedings or pre-proceedings looking what the issues are. Sometimes it is a direct commission from a local authority before court but it is usually in that arena and I am part of the evidence base,” says Precey.

Fly on the wall

Having good inter-personal skills is key in forming relationships with parents, says Precey. “I let them know my role and explain the relationship of this to other professionals.” She meets with the parents and spends time observing their daily routine and listens to the issues that they may find challenging.  Precey adds that it is important to be on time to show respect to the family and to be straight with them throughout the process.

As an ISW, she says that she has the luxury of time when it comes to assessments. Naturally given the current financial climate, local authorities tend to put a cap on the number of hours that they can pay for which, Precey says, is 30 hours for a single parent or 40 hours for a couple, depending on the number of children in the family. However, a recent case involving a non-English speaking family with a lot of history required 60 hours work.

I usually spend more time with families than the allotted time frame,” says Precey. “It is important to get to know the families and sometimes I will spend a whole day with them so I can get a real ‘fly-on-the-wall’ perspective of the situation. I always try and understand the lived experience of  the family, it is important.”

“It is a luxury you have as an ISW. Local authority social workers are not able to do that. For example, recently I was working with a mother who had her benefits for her disabled child reduced and she managed to get legal aid to challenge the decision. I did the assessment and, with her agreement, got to her house at 6am in the morning so I could see what it was like to get the child up in the morning and what procedures she had to go through during the day until the evening when she was washing the child and putting her to bed. It gave me a view of her life and what it was like every day. She managed to overturn the decision,” says Precey.

In another case, a mother was living in a safe house with her young children having escaped from a violent partner. The safe house was miles from where the children went to school and the mother was being criticised for not getting the children to school regularly. Precey again visited the mother at home at 6am, observed her morning routine and what it took to get the children up and ready and to the bus stop for 6.30am, only to see bus after bus after bus drive by as the buggy space on board was already occupied.

“Sometimes courts are told that people don’t have the parenting capacity but sometimes you need to see what someone’s life is like. Sometimes, they don’t have the parenting capacity. But sometimes that is not the case,” says Precey.

You need to be prepared to be confused during assessments

Precey suggests that sometimes it is good to go into a parenting assessment with your own approach and rely less on formal techniques to assess how well the family is functioning.

“I very rarely use prescriptive techniques, I never rate anything on a scale of one to five – although I may ask parents during the assessment how well they rate themselves on a certain task on a scale of one to five,” says Precey. “I adhere to the three domains of the framework: the child/children’s needs, parenting capacity and environmental factors, but the key is knowing which of the  dimensions within those three domains needs to be focused on the most, rather than spending equal time on everything.”

Precey says that when conducting an assessment, you have to remind yourself why you are there “and go where the family takes you, listening to their concerns, observing and getting an idea of how the family function”. The assessment usually takes around six weeks and parents often tell Precey that they see more of her during the assessment than they have seen of any social workers in the whole proceedings prior to the assessment as local authority social workers are so constrained for time. Being reflective, building a good relationship with the parents, listening to their point of view and getting a sense of the ‘smell’ of the atmosphere in the family makes you feel are also key components of an assessment.

Newly qualified social workers can carry out parenting assessments, Precey says, although it is beneficial to have someone to accompany them on the assessment, possible through the ASYE, although she points out that the quality of the support provided can be “variable”. Common pitfalls for less experienced social workers conducting parenting assessments include “de-valuing” their own skills and being concerned that they are not “expert” enough to deal with the case when Precey says all that is required is “an openness and willingness to be open to what the family brings to you”.

“You need to go in, be reflective throughout the process and remain neutral about what you think and what you think you are going to find based on what you have read. You need to be prepared to allow yourself to be confused rather than going in with a pre-conceived idea. You will hear different things, you will read a lot from the local authority, one parent will tell you one thing and the other parent will say something different. It’s a case of living with that lack of clarity until something emerges. Sometimes social workers think that they should have formed their opinion on the first visit. I sometimes change my mind during the course of the assessment. If you go in with pre-conceived ideas, it doesn’t allow you to hear all of the information. You can only seek to find what you are looking for and fail to take into account of information that would dispute what you thought,” she explains.

You can’t engage everyone

Precey does say though that it can be beneficial to bring someone in from outside of the authority to conduct the parenting assessments. “I once carried out a parenting assessment and in my report I highlighted the very poor practice within the local authority and stated that the family had not been served well by the social worker in the case. Yes, there had been problems within the family, but these had been exacerbated by the way the social worker handled the case. There was a complete lack of communication. So when I go into an assessment, I am not just looking at the family but the bigger systemic environment.”

Most parents welcome Precey’s involvement, seeing it as an opportunity to put their side across, however, others are more suspicious and Precey is often told by parents that she has made her mind up about the case prior to her arrival. “It can take a while and I explain to them that I want to hear their point of view,” she says, “but you can’t engage everyone.”

She says she always tries to be fair with the families she works with and tries to visit the parents once she has written a final draft of her report and read it through with them so they know what the report contains before it is sent to the solicitor. If she can’t visit them then Precey will call them and discuss the report over the phone. “They see it as fair and I would rather go over my findings with them even if we agree to differ. The process can actually be therapeutic for the families but they also know what has been said about them.”

As she is self-employed, Precey can choose to work when she wants to and she now has a new challenge in her life –helping to care for her grandchildren - which has taken her back to remembering first-hand what children need. However, she is still keen to keep on with her independent social work and training. “People still ask me to work and I still enjoy it so I don’t see any reason to stop,” she concludes.

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