As a parent involved with children’s services; we are generally suspicious of “The Social Worker”. This comes from the fear that they have the power to take our children away and it’s only natural to feel that way when our families are threatened. Social Workers are seen as ‘the enemy’, depersonalised, mistrusted, vilified and viewed with a cautious eye.
But Social Workers are human beings too. And, broadly speaking, entered the world of social work to try and help people. Some social workers find the current “risk-averse” climate and the focus on “timescales” and “permanence” very difficult to work in, because it doesn’t always allow them to help people in the way they want to.
I wanted a post by a frontline, practicing, child protection social worker, because I wanted the families who read my site to get some advice from a social worker not directly involved with their own family. I know how hard it is to listen to someone who has been responsible for taking your child away. But I also know the value of the advice that most social workers can give, and that that advice is given out of a real, genuine desire to keep families together where it is safe enough to do so.
James – not his real name – is a qualified social worker currently supervising social workers and practising with children and families who are the subject of child protection plans and care proceedings. He has previously worked as a court appointed expert undertaking parenting assessments. These views are his own and based on his own experience. I am extremely grateful to James for taking the time to write this post and I hope it helps you.
I first came across Annie when I read this blog and like many readers, I was blown away by her account and the insights it gave me. We have since met when I invited her to talk to some of my colleagues in what was one of the most moving and humbling presentations I have ever seen.
When I was asked by Annie to write this post I accepted without hesitation. I write in recognition of the inspiration and hope that her brave work has given me and many of my colleagues in her journey so far. She writes honestly, speaks from the heart, and provides sound advice; I will try to do the same.
I also agreed to write this because on a personal level, I often find myself struggling to deal with the demands of my work with families. Sometimes it feels like all we social workers are doing is causing further pain and trauma to those families who have experienced and survived so much already. I hope that by writing this post I can help to redress this and enable parents to better understand and negotiate the child protection system and social work interventions with their families. Nothing gives me more satisfaction than when I or my colleagues have helped a family to make changes to improve their lives and those of their children.
In my career I have worked with parents who have been picking up the pieces of their own difficult childhood experiences, most of whom are still traumatised by what has happened to them.
I have worked with parents who have experienced sexual abuse, physical abuse, FGM, slavery and exploitation, war and conflict, neglect, and emotional abuse.
I have worked with parents whose own parents have had difficulties with addictions, violent relationships, mental illness and more, and have been unable to look after their children as a result of that.
Sadly, some of the parents I have worked with have experienced abuse from within the care system, the very alternative which was supposed to keep them safe.
My point is this; In my work I don’t think I can recall having come across a parent who has not faced and survived horrendous adversity already in their life. In my experience it is often because of the impact of this adversity that many find themselves faced with child protection interventions and court proceedings. What is frustrating is that these interventions in themselves can be brutal for parents and this is something that Annie’s experience so clearly shows. Some parents can make it through, work with professionals to make the changes asked of them and show professionals and the courts that their children will be safe; some cannot. I have only compassion for those parents who don’t manage it and admiration for those who do.
In thinking about what advice I can give to those parents who find themselves facing child protection processes or care proceedings, I am not aiming to help you ‘beat’ the system, but simply to stand the best chance of navigating through it successfully.
Many of you might have heard social workers talk about ‘openness and honesty’ in meetings or seen it used in reports. It’s concept which is very important, and although on the surface it might seem fairly simple, in reality it is complicated. Sometimes for parents it can involve talking with social workers about some of the most difficult things that have happened in their lives such as abusive childhood experiences, difficult relationships, or things which they have done in the past which they might really regret or feel ashamed of. It can even mean talking about some-thing very exposing or difficult, for example, feeling that you might not like your child.
I understand that:
a) not many people would willingly want to talk about these things
b) parents might be suspicious of why these things are being asked of them.
It must be terrifying to be in that situation and easy to think that social workers are looking for problems or reasons for you not to look after your children. It also must be tempting to hold back on talking about these things in order to present a better picture of yourself and your family. However the reality is that social workers are usually asking about these things to try and better understand your life and to think about how they might be able to help you as a family.
Openness and honesty are important for another reason too. When we have concerns about a child, one of the things that is most difficult for social workers is dealing with uncertainty. Often when we are thinking about whether children are at risk from their parents, we are thinking about what might be happening in a child’s life when we are not there. If we don’t think a parent is being honest with us, it can have the effect of increasing our anxiety about what we don’t know. However, if what we get is an accurate picture of what is happening, it can make a huge difference to how we think about whether a child is safe in a family.
Tell us if you don’t understand
If you don’t understand something that is being asked of you, make sure you tell the social worker. Scary thought maybe? Well the reality is that social work is bogged down with phrases and terminology. Often I think that social workers hide behind this because they themselves do not fully understand what they are saying. I was once at some training where Andrew Turnell (a big name in the profession) said “if you can’t explain something to a six year old it’s because you don’t understand it yourself”. I think this is a very important point. Everything a social worker says to you should be explained in a way which is VERY easy to understand. If they are not doing so then it is really important you tell them. If it still does not make sense, ask them to explain it until it does. The stakes can be very high and it is important that you understand what you are agreeing to or being asked to do. It won’t reflect badly on you if you say you don’t understand something, but it might do if you are seen not to stick to an agreement, but in reality have not told anybody you did not understand what you agreed to.
Some people have real difficulties in understanding what is happening when social workers are involved with their family and need some extra help to do this. If you think you might need some extra help then think about asking to be referred for an advocate. An advocate is somebody who can help you to understand what is happening and help you to make informed choices and decisions. They will attend big meetings with you and talk to you about them before and after. If social worker suggests you would benefit from an advocate then I would recommend you consider this. The social worker should be able to arrange this for you too.
Listen to what the social worker is saying and try and understand their perspective. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything, (and say if you don’t), but it is really important that you listen to, and think carefully about what they are worried about. You might agree with them and be worried about some of the same things too. Whatever the case may be, it is important that you are able to listen and think about what people are saying to you, no matter how painful it might be to hear. Often in my experience when parents are able to really listen and reflect on what people are worried about, it can be the turning point in our work with their families.
Emotions can run high in meetings with social workers, and often in these situations I would guess that parents can forget what they wanted to say or the points they want to get across. The same happens for me when I am placed under strain. The best way to deal with this is to prepare some notes beforehand and take some notes at the time. It also comes back to my earlier point about understanding what is being asked of you. There is no reason why you should not take notes but if you do choose to during meetings or visits from social workers, then you might want to explain why you are doing so. It’s better to be clear about this than to leave any room for misunderstanding.
Ask for help
This relates back to being honest. It must be really scary to admit to a social worker that there is a problem, but if you can, try to have the confidence to ask for help with any difficulties that you might be having. This can often be the starting point for getting help and making changes. A social worker will always want to help your family and will be able to work with you to think about what you might find helpful.
Build a relationship
Every social worker should treat you and your family with respect, compassion and openness. This does not mean they have to agree with you on everything, but if they don’t agree or if they are worried about something, they should tell you, and do it in a sensitive and respectful way. If you don’t feel this is happening then ask to speak to their manager about it. If you do this, then as I mentioned before, prepare yourself carefully so that you stand the best chance of getting your point across.
There can be many reasons why you might find it difficult to build a relationship with a social worker. This might, for example, be to do with their gender, religion or background. It might also be because of your own experiences (maybe they remind you of somebody or something unpleasant). If there are difficulties, then have a conversation with them about it. If it doesn’t change, then consider asking for a change of social worker. Your relationship with the social worker is so important and it is vital that you feel as comfortable as possible with them.
Talk to us if you are anxious
If you are anxious about a social worker visiting, tell them. The prospect of having a social worker visit can, at times, I imagine, be terrifying for families. It must be so tempting at times for parents to cancel appointments. My advice is that if you are feeling overwhelmed by what is happening then rather than avoiding or cancelling appointments or meetings, ring the social worker and try to tell them about it. Not always easy I know, but they should be understanding and be able to help alleviate some of your worries about this. It will also help them to understand what is going on for you.
Get sensible advice
I know that Annie is a strong believer in the work of the Family Rights Group and I would thoroughly recommend you have a look at their website www.frg.org.uk.
If you are looking for information online, choose your online resources carefully as there is a lot of misinformation out there. I would recommend reading what Annie and Sarah Phillimore have said about this already on this website.