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Performing Social Work and Child Protection Practice Professor Harry Ferguson The Munro Review Conference London, 19 th.

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Presentation on theme: "Performing Social Work and Child Protection Practice Professor Harry Ferguson The Munro Review Conference London, 19 th."— Presentation transcript:

1 Performing Social Work and Child Protection Practice Professor Harry Ferguson The Munro Review Conference London, 19 th September 2011

2 Munro: The challenges Reform the child protection system from being over-bureaucratised and concerned with compliance to one that keeps a focus on children. ‘The centrality of forming relationships with children and families to understand and help them has become obscured’ (p.8). We must ‘enable social workers to exercise more professional judgment […and] improve their expertise’ (p.8).

3 ‘Helping children is a human process. When the bureaucratic aspects of work become too dominant, the heart of the work is lost’ (p.10).

4 My focus / questions What happens when the heart is put back into social work? What kinds of skills, knowledge and evidence are needed to support effective heart-felt practice? What does it mean to form deep, helpful relationships with children and families and involve actually doing?

5 Towards child-centred practice ‘the evidence shows that children are not being adequately included in child protection work’ (Munro, p.25) Not being seen enough on their own Yet evidence also shows that children voice ‘the importance of being heard separately from their parents and being listened to’ (p.26).

6 Why? Impact of case recording, ICS etc restricting time for quality practice (White, et al 2010) Deficits in skills & confidence (Lefevre, 2010) More evidence needed of what actually happens when social workers are face to face with children?

7 The struggle to relate to children Social workers not getting into the home Or, getting in but not properly engaging with, moving towards, seeing, hearing or touching children – when in their presence in the home

8 Ms Walhstrom’s record of the children’s health and welfare was that “all three appeared well and happy.” Before us, she amended that phrase to “calm and collected.” The grounds for those generalised words are not apparent. … we find that on that day Jasmine was recovering from a fracture of her thigh and would have walked with an abnormal gait. Since she did not perform any purposeful act of mobility, her healing bone fracture would not have been noticed. Ms Walhstrom also explained to us – and we accept her description – that Beverley Lorrington was waving her arm about so that Jasmine was partially obscured from sight, Miss Lorrington standing between the two of them in the playroom. If Ms Wahlstrom had carried out the elementary task of walking with Jasmine, or talking to her, even in her mother’s presence, the fact of child abuse would have been all too apparent. (The Jasmine Beckford Inquiry Report, 1985, p.126)

9 Much greater attention needs to be given to the places where children are seen and their implications Most often seen on the home visit Must protect children while on the move How can SWs get close enough to ensure safety – ‘intimate practice’ (Ferguson, 2011) What is the lived experience of such practice?

10 Researching child protection practice ‘on the move’ Research needed to get as close as possible to practice Shadowed practitioners in the car, on home visits, in schools Observed & recorded their encounters with service users (with their consent).

11 Getting in: Doorsteps Social worker knocks on the door No reply 2 minutes later knocks again No reply SW asks me: “Did I knock hard enough?” Knocks again Mother comes to the door…

12 Inside the home “It’s like stepping into another world” (social worker) We need a language adequate to describing these experiences Feelings of fear, anxiety, disgust shape what is & is not done Get ‘stuck’, immobilised by the home, hostility, atmospheres, smells, dogs…

13 (Re)gaining composure in the chaos & disorientation requires a highly skilled performance All practitioners admit to some avoidance of doing things they know they should The intolerable feelings the work brings up Can I bear to ask the hard questions of mothers? To go after fathers? Or to go into the depths to understand what this child’s life is really like? To get that close to the child?

14 Significant variation among practitioners about how close they get to children & enter their intimate spaces Some confusion about what it is ethical to do – how ‘intrusive’ to be Why do social workers avoid touching children?

15 Reasons for avoiding touching Organisational - “I don’t have time” Fear – “I’m afraid of being accused of child sexual abuse” Personality – “I’m not a touchy-feely kind of person” Culture – “I don’t touch because I’m English” Disgust – “I don’t like snotty children”

16 Where best to see children alone? The child’s bedroom is a popular place for SWs to relate to children alone - to check on the home conditions - to use the child’s possessions as a means to communicate with them - their possessions as evidence of their role in the family & the amount of love and nurture they receive.

17 But some practitioners rely too heavily on the home & seeing children alone in bedrooms or other rooms Because it saves time – which they feel they have too little of Or they do not understand the dynamics of power in such spaces Children too inhibited to speak the truth - fear their parents are listening.

18 I’d only had the case for 19 days, but I spoke to the children alone in their bedrooms and I should have spoken to them in school. But the case was transferred [to a long-term worker] and one of the children has now disclosed quite a horrific amount of abuse at home and I didn’t pick up on it because I spoke to the children at home and not in school. … in their bedroom with the door shut and they obviously didn’t feel comfortable to disclose. (Social worker)

19 ‘remove the distinction between initial and core assessments and the associated timescales in respect of these assessments, replacing them with the decisions that are required to be made by qualified social workers when developing an understanding of children’s needs and making and implementing a plan to safeguard and promote their welfare’ (Munro, 2011, p.10).

20 Munro recommendations require a different state of mind: that goes with the flow of the child and their readiness to communicate and keeps going back to see them until it feels like everything there is to know about them & keep them safe has been achieved. All done in full awareness of what are the safest places for them to talk openly Including the car.

21 Social worker: I do try with the children I work with that are a bit older, like these boys, to take them out somewhere, because they chat a lot in the car; they never chat much on the actual outing but they chat going along in the car, quite a lot. … Because you are not looking at them, not direct sort of face to face, and it’s the motion of going somewhere maybe taking their minds off things, just like you’re doing [giggles, because I am interviewing her while she is driving a moving car] and they can just look out and just, its not that confrontational type. I mean [the 14-year-old young person] who we just met there on the home visit, she chatted all the way to [the hospital where her mother is] in the car and of course I can’t take any notes because I’m driving; she said some really quite profound things that day going along in the car, more so than she has on any visits I’ve done really. … All sorts of quite profound stuff. I mean we were chatting about other things, about clothes and that. She said a lot in the car.

22 Organisational supports Good practice necessitates being reflective Becoming aware of & working through feelings, attitudes that cause detachment from children But Munro is right, this is not just an individual responsibility, it requires organisational support & leadership.

23 From ‘risk averse’ to ‘risk sensible’ Learning cultures led by senior staff who co-work cases, teach key skills, coach on home visits Managers & supervisors who understand the challenges, conscious and unconscious dimensions Who create ‘emotionally informed thinking spaces’ (Ruch, 2007)

24 Supervision that gives space to think, be still, process feelings, get to know your experiences Relating how or if you moved, touched, got close enough to ensure child safety and well- being.


26 Ferguson, H. (2011), Child Protection Practice, Basingstoke: Palgrave.

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