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If Family Support Workers are the answer, what is the question?

By Adrian Williams, Head of Service Development at WillisPalmer

Sally is a recently retired Family Support Worker (FSW). She had been doing the job for over 30 years and saw a lot of changes. Her first job title was Home Maker, a name that, by the end of her career, unfortunately tended to describe almost the opposite of the outcomes of her cases. Talking to Sally about her job she reckoned that the perception of her role in supporting families was more a ‘Home Wrecker’ than a Home Maker. Parents did not always appreciate the help that Sally offered, believing that her presence was motivated by the local authority’s desire to gather evidence that might lead to their child’s removal.

Asking Sally how she managed this perception of her, she felt that sometimes she had to agree that it was a true reflection of her task but not always. However, whatever the reason for her presence in a family, there was always one overriding factor that enabled her to cope with hostility, lies and rudeness – knowing that the child could only benefit from her involvement.

Nine months later the placement is holding!

FSWs like Sally are a bit of a dying breed. Unlike social workers, FSWs do not hold cases so are vulnerable when local authorities look to make cuts to balance budgets.

Nevertheless, the fact that they are not expected to have those responsibilities means that they are in a position to build closer relationships with families and children who may come to view them as more user-friendly than strict ‘officialdom ‘.

For example, Sally described her last task as an FSW:

“I had been working with a family for 18 months. There were four children aged from 2 to 10 looked after by their mother and father. The family was chaotic with no routine, poor hygiene, a terrible diet and other historic concerns. My work appeared to have little effect over the months so we had to go to court. An Independent Social Worker carried out a parenting assessment and agreed that the parents were unable to meet the children’s needs. I had to give evidence relating to the absence of any positive change in the year and a half. The judge made Care Orders in respect of all four children on the basis that they should be placed together due to the strong bond between them and evidence of attachment to their parents.

"However, our fostering department could not find a suitable placement so, on the grounds of ‘least harm’, the children were placed at home under a dual-parenting arrangement. As I knew the family so well, I was asked to continue working with them in the mornings to get the children up, have breakfast and off to school. Other FSWs then went in and dual-parented the children after school until bedtime.

"I continued to try to get the parents to take the lion’s share of parenting but had to continually take over, for example, when their attempts at boundary setting went awry or they made inappropriate comments in front of the children.

"This was clearly not an ideal situation. I found the work physically tiring which was manageable but I found the emotional turmoil of seeing the children continue to live in what amounted to an abusive environment, despite the FSWs’ good work, sad and troubling. Fortunately, our fostering department really came up with the goods four months later when they found a suitable placement within the borough. I worried that the children might vote with their feet and return home of their own volition. However, I felt a little reassured after I had transported the children to their new placement and saw how quickly they took to the foster carers and the new environment. Nine months later the placement is holding!”

Emotional gymnastics

Sally’s description of her last case contains some untypical elements but does reflect the scope of an FSW’s work, particularly the emotional aspect. Their role is in many ways akin to a foster carer who is expected to form an emotional commitment to the foster child in the knowledge that the child has existing attachments that should take priority. FSWs have to perform similar emotional gymnastics in making themselves emotionally available to adults who may have outstanding attachment and dependence needs while also maintaining professional boundaries and remaining task focused.

At WillisPalmer, we have a pool of FSWs who are primarily used in the Multi-Disciplinary Family Assessment Service (MFA). Here typically, a core team comprising of an Independent Social Worker, Psychologist, Psychiatrist and a small number of FSWs carry out a range of coordinated assessments while the child remains at home and within the family network. The child’s safety is assured by the (up to) 24/7 presence of an FSW during the assessment and beyond if requested. This model avoids the disruption and artificiality of a residential assessment and provides children with the best opportunity to remain in their families safely.

The FSW role is key to the MFA. The amount of time the FSW spends in the family home and the situations they can be exposed to provides them with a comprehensive, detailed understanding of parenting capacity and family functioning, all portrayed in reports of actual events, behaviours and conversations. These accounts inform and bring to life the parenting assessment. They tend to make the assessment’s findings unarguable as patterns of behaviour emerge and repeat themselves. In fact, the ISW writing the report has to make a judgment about what examples of good or not so good parenting to omit to avoid unnecessary repetition.

Assessing ability to change is a thorny matter

Our FSWs do a lot more than just observe and report however. A crucial element in a parenting assessment is the capacity of the parent to change. If a parenting deficit is identified, the FSW will help the parent to remedy the issue using whatever means is likely to work according to their capacity, level of functioning and motivation. Having a psychological assessment in place is useful in guiding the FSWs and the ISW towards effective ways of working with a parent.

Assessing ability to change is a thorny matter. For example, early on during an MFA Polly (FSW) observed that Debbie (mother) could not get her three and four year olds to sit at the table at mealtimes. Debbie tried to achieve this partly because mealtimes were chaotic and she lost her temper, partly because she knew she was expected to set a routine and partly because she knew it was good for the children. Using explanation, modelling, feedback and encouragement Polly helped Debbie achieve success in this regard until she was able to control the children without prompts from Polly.

However, despite praise and encouragement, Debbie failed to persevere with the regime so mealtimes reverted to chaos. Polly noticed that Debbie’s flatness coincided with text messages from a previous partner. Polly reported this to the ISW who looked into what might be motivating the change in Debbie. It became clear that she was proving unable to balance her own emotional needs with those of the children beyond a very restricted timescale.

Our experience of recruiting FSWs is varied. Some are experienced in working with families, some just with children, while others have particular qualifications or skills related disciplines such as education and health. A number of qualified social workers are happy to take on FSW tasks either while they acclimatise to British culture and systems or following a break from social work itself.

FSW team are able to do ‘real’ social work

Local authority FSWs typically also carry out a plethora of other tasks: wishes and feelings work, supervising contact, transporting children to placements, helping parents fill out forms, group work, and generally supporting the social workers.

Carole is currently completing the last year of a BA in Childhood and Education Studies. She is torn between a career in Education or Social Care but leans towards the latter as her grandmother used to be an Almoner (hospital social worker) in the sixties. Carole believes that starting as an FSW would provide her with a solid grounding in social work and could give her the opportunity to qualify as a social worker.

In approaching her career as a potential social worker and starting as an FSW, Carole would be taking a sensible course. Many social workers will say that their FSW team are able to do ‘real’ social work i.e. building and maintaining relationships with children and families, facilitating the process of change or understanding the dynamics and networks within and between communities. Of course social workers have those opportunities as well but their administrative duties and the increasingly short term nature of their employment can limit that sense of achievement.

It is rare day when there is no drama, upset, shouting or misunderstanding

Patrick is an FSW in a London Borough. He works for an organisation that carries out supervised contact on behalf of the local authority. Each day he supervises up to five families for varying lengths of time at a contact centre.

“Yesterday, a family had contact at our centre for three hours. The parents arrived in a hostile and confrontational frame of mind as they had been told by their solicitor that morning that their social worker had recommended removal of their two children from their care. We were not told about this so had no idea what was going on and were a little under-prepared. Fortunately, the children had yet to arrive so I was able to speak to the parents and calm them down. The children arrived and while they were greeting each other I contacted the social worker’s office and her business support told me that no such decision had been made and the solicitor was wrong. I relayed this information to the parents who were then able to concentrate on their children.

"It’s in the nature of this job that information is sometimes badly or incorrectly conveyed, deliberately misunderstood or just plain wrong. In this case the solicitor denied telling his clients that their children were going to be removed. The social worker said that a decision had yet to be made. The father was adamant that ‘someone’ told him. Whatever the story might be, my role is always to keep the children as my focus. I tell parents that whatever their complaint might be, to keep it out of contact and it can be dealt with another time. The hours their children spend with them are the most precious hours in the world.

"I know that my own job is not as varied as some FSWs. To be truthful, when a contact is going well and parent and child are happy because the parent is meeting the child’s needs, it can be a little bit boring. I make contemporaneous notes which I show to the parent and I make a separate note if the parent disagrees with what I have written. It is difficult to keep repeating the same comments on each occasion that contact happens but important that my notes reflect the consistency. However, it is rare day when there is no drama, upset, shouting or misunderstanding in the centre. I really enjoy this job.”

Going back to the title of this piece, WillisPalmer believe the question is: ‘What do you need to give parents the best opportunity to keep children in their families?’ However, other questions might equally be: ‘What is the best way into social work?’ to ‘What sort of job is varied and fascinating?’

Whatever the question, it is probably true that, if there were no Family Support Workers, we would have to invent them.

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