Social work practice with families is becoming increasingly about mutual distrust and fear, says Maggie Mellon

by Maggie Mellon, BASW Vice Chair

I believe that suspicion of parents and of families has become corrosive, and is distorting the values of our profession.

For the last 20 plus years the number of investigations or assessments into families suspected of child abuse has climbed steadily upwards and now accounts for one in 20 families in England and Wales.

A recent analysis found that since the Children Act 1989 referrals have increased by 311%, from 160,000 per year to 657,800 per year, between 1991 and 2014.

Assessments have increased by 302% over the same period, from 120,000 to 483,800, while the number of cases of ‘core abuse’ have fallen. The figures show that the ratio of referrals to registrations have fallen year on year from 24.1% to 7.3%.

Child protection dominates work.

These assessments will have been carried out mainly by social workers. For social workers in statutory children and family teams there is no doubt that ‘child protection’ dominates every aspect of their work. Despite there being no significant rise in the number of children who die as a result of parental abuse or neglect, risk of abuse is assumed to be high.

What does this say about how social workers view parents and families? And, just as importantly, what must it tell us about how parents view contact with social services? I believe that the evidence is mounting of mutual distrust and fear.

Lauren Devine and Stephen Parker, the authors of this analysis, and other critics of current social work practice, suggest that need has become conflated with risk, and that child protection has become inseparable from family work.

The assumption in any contact with families is that risk is probable and must be screened for. No matter how many assessments find no grounds for child protection measures, the number of assessments continue to climb.

Families are suffering

There can be no doubt that many families are suffering. Need and poverty are rising, as work doesn’t pay, benefits are cut or stopped without any assessment of risk to children, homes are insecure, and warmth is a luxury. Child protection from hunger, cold and misery is certainly not on the government agenda.

And yet what used to be a major focus of social workers – empathising with and supporting people facing personal and social adversities, drawing attention to injustices and inequalities and needs – has now almost disappeared in this area of work.

Families pointing to empty cupboards, damp walls, vermin and red bills report being told that ‘we are here for the children, not for you’- as if children’s welfare can be separated from family welfare. As if parental poverty and stress is not a major blight on children’s lives.

So there are important reasons for everyone to be concerned about social work with families.

That is the reason behind BASW hosting a visit to England and Scotland from David Tobis of Maestral International, who brings a message from New York, a city that contains even greater extremes of inequality.

Tobis is author of From Pariahs to Partners, which describes the journey taken to challenge and change policy and practice in New York where rates of children in foster care were soaring, and was in fact putting children at more risk than they were in their own homes. He will share ideas from successful system reform, such as in New York City, and how it can to support humane services in England’s child protection system.

We hope that we have reached a high water mark of suspicion and distrust, and that social work with families will now move to working with parents, with children and young people, to support them, to shield them, to speak out for them and to help them speak out for themselves.

Source: Community Care