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Special report: Emotional neglect in children with affluent parents

Clare Jerrom looks at the challenges social workers face when working with emotional neglect in children with affluent parents including legal challenges, complaints, intimidation and hostility.

Parents from affluent backgrounds use their social status to undermine the work of social workers, a study has found.

All of the participants in the study by Goldsmith’s University said that affluent parents’ social class placed them at an advantage over the social workers and formed a major barrier to the level and depth of potential intervention.

“The common view expressed was that socially-privileged parents had access to powerful social networks, which some used to resist social work interventions,” said the report.

Emotionally unavailable parents

The study investigated what factors arise for social workers in responding to child neglect in affluent families after it emerged that there was a dearth of research regarding affluent families in the child protection system and how this affected social workers’ practice. Participants included stakeholders from across children’s services including frontline social workers, team managers, an Early Help team manager, principal social workers, designated safeguarding leads, service managers, a Head of Service for Safeguarding Standards and a Local Authority Designated Officer.

Because the children who came to social workers’ attention had affluent home environments consisting of excellent housing, a nutritious diet, first-class educational opportunities and access to a range of enrichment opportunities, it was often difficult to differentiate when their home environment lacked emotionally-nurturing parenting behaviours.

The families were often involved with private providers, such as GPs, therapists, nurseries, and schools, and there are often difficulties in getting private health care providers to understand emotional neglect, the report said.

These children largely experienced inadequate parenting from emotionally unavailable parents who were not investing parental time in them. The majority of their ‘parenting’ came from paid carers.

Hostility

Children were often bought to the attention of children’s social care due to children’s emotional and behavioural difficulties and social workers felt that stemmed from parents’ detachment from their children. Parents were often affronted that the quality of their parenting were being questioned, or that they were being accused of neglecting their children.

Participants in the study were consistent that it is a challenge to get affluent parents to understand the issues pertaining to their children’s relational attachments and their emotional experiences of care.

As a result, any questions that social workers had about their parenting and the emotional home environment were often met with hostility and conflict, and parents strongly resisted any intervention. Their obstruction towards social workers often manifested in formal complaints to senior managers and elected councillors and the threat of legal action.

Drugs and alcohol

A key finding concerned the high levels of domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and parental mental illness that were a feature of a number of cases of neglect that social workers interviewed dealt with. Often these issues were hidden and only came to light when parents were going through acrimonious separations and needed a Section 7 Report.

“Getting parents to understand the adverse effects on the children was often very difficult when they did not acknowledge that the negative family dynamics placed their children in a vulnerable position,” said the report.

Parental deficits were often masked by the fact that ‘hired help’ such as nannies, private healthcare providers and schools were able to do parenting for affluent parents and masked issues of neglect for practitioners.

A team manager said: “Actually when we are talking about affluent families they are not the people who can't afford to clothe their children, they're not the people who can't afford to feed their children, so quite often those basic care needs are being met even if you've got an alcoholic parent, for example. Um, they may be quite high functioning, may be still be working, and childcare comes into that quite a bit too. The children are picked up from school, their attendance is still good, it might be somebody else actually meeting the child's needs, so it might be more difficult to find out what's really going on in the family, but that child's needs are being met”.

Parents with drug or alcohol problems had the financial resources to access private treatment to “remove themselves from the spotlight of social services,” the report highlights.

Resistance to joint-working

A further complexity for social workers was rich parents living overseas or out of the authority’s areas where they were paying for their children to attend private or boarding school. This added to the complexity of safeguarding children when concerns about child abuse and neglect were flagged up.

Practitioners described the complexity of getting schools to acknowledge their safeguarding responsibilities to ensure that all safeguarding allegations were handled appropriately.

Independent boarding schools posed a problem as participants consistently reported that they struggled to see these children as being in need or at risk of significant harm as a consequence of neglect. Participants described that, in their dealings with boarding schools, staff were not always clear about signs and symptoms of neglect, and their awareness that neglect may be an indicator that other forms of abuse may be taking place was very limited

In some cases, the designated safeguarding leads in fee-paying and boarding schools were often very reluctant to raise concerns with parents and to report safeguarding concerns about neglect to children’s social care and were resistant to joint-working.

Relationships with parents prioritised over needs of child

A number of participants also stated that some schools’ reluctance to report signs of abuse stemmed from the parents’ transactional arrangements with the schools, which meant there was a hesitancy from schools to pass judgement on parenting behaviours and confront the problem of child neglect. Indeed, participants questioned whether the schools prioritised their relationship with the parents over the needs of the child as a consequence.

It was also suggested that some boarding schools foster what they refer to as “normalised parental deprivation” and that this idea is not widely talked about. Therefore a number of public schools dealt with any safeguarding concerns in-house and participants stated that developing a shared understanding of neglect was often “very challenging” and highlighted that effective joint work to build a picture of children’s experiences were often very difficult.

Sense of entitlement

Participants in the study explained that the parents’ class backgrounds gave them an “unspoken advantage”, which meant that they were generally knowledgeable about the workings of organisations such as children’s social care and the safeguarding process.

Furthermore their “sense of entitlement,” brought a greater confidence to challenge the child protection decision-making processes.

Affluent parents were also found to “look down” on social workers who they considered beneath them due to their own social status, income and educational backgrounds. As a result, social workers’ intervention was often seen as an “unwarranted intrusion”. This formed a major barrier in terms of social workers being able to form a constructive relationship with parents.

  • Some participants spoke of being belittled and humiliated by parents in meetings, leaving them feeling as if they had to prove themselves and establish their credibility.
  • Some reflected the view that affluent parents did not welcome the experience of being told what was in their children’s best interests and would use the stance that the wishes and feelings of the parents should take precedence over the needs of the children.
  • Some parents felt that if they had to be subjected to social work involvement, they should be able to deal with social work managers.

Scrutinising practice

Indeed, affluent parents used their financial status to hire legal advocates to help them resist social work interventions, and were therefore more likely to either make threats, complain or make unjustified complaints in a bid to dilute the assessment of risk that social workers undertook.

“According to participants, power is exercised through their use of solicitors and lawyers and they described what they referred to as the “scattergun approach”: affluent parents were more likely to write long letters or emails quoting the relevant passages from The Children Act (1989), Working Together to Safeguard Children, or to directly contact senior managers, elected council members and MPs, with their vexatious complaints,” said the report.

All participants felt that the parents’ socio- economic status privileged them to subject their practice to a level of scrutiny in a way that families from lower-socio-economic backgrounds did not.

Social workers were also forced to use more time, effort and skill in these cases due to the extra scrutiny from parents.

“Put briefly, affluent families who came to children’s social care’s notice were more likely to have the resources and capabilities to resist social workers’ intervention. There was often a great concern that the parents would make a formal complaint; thus, the subtleties and nuances of class privilege had a key role to play in parents’ ability to resist child protection investigations,” said the report.

Non-compliance

Participants encountered challenging behaviours when attempting to escalate concerns for a section 47 investigation. Specific barriers included difficulties engaging parents, gathering information to build up a picture for the assessment of the safety needs of children, gaining knowledge of families’ histories and functioning for assessing emotional neglect or its severity and its chronicity.

Parents resisted the level of probing and questioning that is required, and in some cases their non-compliance made it significantly more challenging to make the children the subject of a child protection plan. Again, parents used solicitors or the threat of legal action to challenge the decisions of social workers, or to avoid social work intervention.

“Participants consistently cited that highly resistant parents were more likely to use legal advocates or the complaints procedures to challenge social workers when they attempted to escalate their concerns to child protection, which could have considerable influence on the outcomes of the case,” said the report.

Intimidation

Practitioners felt under pressure to respond to parents’ demands, which made it more difficult to remain child-focused. Others felt intimidated by parents and found it difficult to carry out direct observational work with children and their relationship with their parents. More often than not, parents prevented practitioners from seeing and listening to the child and therefore, were often left with insufficient evidence to progress to a section 47 investigation, resulting in drift and delay in some cases.

Social workers were able to get better outcomes when dealing with older children who they had direct contact with and who were able to articulate what it was like living in that household.

“In order to persevere and not be intimidated by the parents, the social workers needed to have good knowledge of child neglect, good communication skills and confidence in their ability to navigate the complexities and dynamics that arise in such cases,” the report highlighted.

‘Participants emphasised that they needed to pay much more attention to how they presented themselves, including how they dressed’

In order to succeed in working with affluent parents where child neglect was suspected, participants highlighted some of the skills required including:

  • Being skilled and knowledgeable in working with neglect
  • Experience and knowledge of neglect with highly resistant parents
  • Assertiveness, confidence and being self-assured
  • Knowledge about child development
  • A very good understanding of the threshold of emotional neglect
  • High level of judgement and assessment ability
  • Skilled in communicating with resistant parents
  • Being very clear in their professional authority
  • Having a very good working knowledge of the relevant legislation and statutory guidance that informs practice decisions when assessing affluent families
  • Having good supervision and a supportive manager.

Furthermore, in some of the local authorities, frameworks for practice, such as Signs of Safety and a problem-solving approach, were named as tools for practice that enabled practitioners to analyse all risk factors.

The role of the principal social workers were critical in many of the authorities in helping to develop a culture of learning and improvement, where practitioners were sufficiently supported to develop their practice in this complex field.

“Participants emphasised that they also needed to pay much more attention to how they presented themselves as an expert and authority figure; this included paying attention to how they dressed and spoke, as they perceived such elements form barriers to engagement with affluent families,” said the report. “There were two examples given of practitioners being removed from cases by their managers due to complaints by the parents that they could not understand the social workers’ accents,” it added, suggesting that negative attitudes towards certain foreign accents are left unchallenged.

Hierarchical power relations

The report concludes that the challenges of working with affluent parents in the child protection system are “multi-faceted and resource-intensive” and neglect in affluent families can be difficult to recognise and address.

The research has emphasised the need for raising awareness of definitional issues of emotional neglect, in order to promote more effective responses to the needs of children and young people from affluent backgrounds who may attend schools away from their home authority.

While social workers frequently work with involuntary and highly-resistant parents in child protection work, there are some distinctive factors when working with resistant affluent parents. While social workers were cognisant of their power as professionals, they also face hierarchical power relations between themselves and affluent parents, which meant that the parents were often very knowledgeable about the workings of the system, and socially well-placed to question decisions.

“One of the most frequently discussed issues was that affluent parents’ confidence and sense of entitlement meant that they felt they could diagnose their own needs, expected children’s social care to accommodate them, and felt that they had a right to challenge those in authority,” added the report.

Training uses case scenarios of poor and working class families

While this group of parents used threat of complaints to deflect from parenting behaviour, participants said this concentrated their thinking on the importance on holding the child as a central focus of the assessment, so that the parents’ interests did not outweigh consideration of what was in the child’s best interest.

Social workers were forced to devise strategies to speak to the children while respecting and acknowledging the status of the parent. It was also argued that affluent parents could be perceived to be receiving a different level of service given the time required to engage with them.

The report concludes how the study has implications for how social workers understand and work with affluent families when there are safeguarding concerns. Though class pervades much of social work with families, the stratification of class is not explicitly named or explored in training events in working with resistant families, for instance.

“A striking example from this study is that even in those local authorities where a good proportion of their interventions involved affluent families, training events on working with difficult or resistant parents only used case scenarios depicting poor and working class families, thus reinforcing the idea of neglect as a social and economic disadvantage phenomenon,” said the report.

The findings from this study thus highlight the need to have more critical dialogue about social class and privilege as it frames understanding of risk factors for children in affluent families, it concluded.

  • The report notes that the small-scale, exploratory nature of this study, means that it was not trying to elicit statistical or generalisable data. Caution is needed before generalising to all affluent parents.

An Exploration of How Social Workers Engage Neglectful Parents from Affluent Backgrounds in the Child Protection System

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