How do we best go about engaging with involuntary and resistant parents in child protection work? From the evidence of recent Serious Case Reviews (SCRs), this could be seen as one of the most difficult parts of social work practice. Findings from SCRs frequently find that such avoidance and resistance in parents is a key feature in professionals’ abilities to protect a child, such as in the cases of Victoria Climbié and Baby Peter.
In his 2003 report on the death of Victoria Climbié, Lord Laming stated:
“I recognise that those who take on the work of protecting children at risk of deliberate harm face a tough and challenging task… Adults who deliberately exploit the vulnerability of children can behave in devious and menacing ways. They will often go to great lengths to hide their activities from those concerned for the well-being of a child…(child protection) staff have to balance the rights of a parent with that of the protection of the child” (Lord Laming 2003:13). In his 2009 report he stated that “ They (parents) become very clever at diverting attention away from what has happened to the child. Therefore people who work in this field-.. have to recognise this in their evidence gathering. They have to be sceptical; they have to be streetwise; they have to be courageous” (Lord Laming, 2009: 51-52).
Whilst with the great majority of many parents we work successfully to achieve positive outcomes, the small number of parents who do resist intervention to a significant degree pose a real threat to their children.
The results of a Community Care/Reconsruct survey (Community Care, 17 November 2011, pp 4-5and 18-20) in 2011 of nearly 600 social work and social care staff show the high frequency of such behaviours towards staff in child protection work.
In the survey,
- 91% of respondents stated that their caseload includes parents who are hostile or intimidating
- 51% said that they dealt with such parents on a weekly or more frequent basis.
- 44% of respondents said that they agreed or strongly agreed that vulnerable children are being put at greater risk because they do not get enough supervision and support when dealing with hostile and intimidating parents
- Only 25% said their organization had existing procedures/guidelines that they all use in dealing with such parents.
A Department for Children, Schools and Families analysis of Serious Case Reviews in 2008 found frequent evidence of lack of co-operation from families, often with overt hostility towards staff. This included threats that could make workers become ‘frozen’, hampering their ability to think and act clearly.
An Ofsted evaluation of 50 Serious Case Reviews in 2008 found that professionals sometimes placed too much reliance on what parents said, and that families were often hostile to contact from professionals, preventing workers from recognizing or responding appropriately to the child’s abuse.
However, these areas of concern are hardly present in government guidance and regulation. In the latest (383 page) 2010 HM Government Working Together regulations there is no mention of the need for assessment of the confounding effects of parental resistance, aggression and avoidance, apart from one sentence:
‘Some children may be living in families that are considered resistant to change.’
Jasmine Beckford’s workers visited her family over 70 times in the 10 months before she died in 1984, but she was seen just once, with her parents.
23 years later, an independent inspectors’ report into the death of Baby Peter Connelly stated that the agencies in contact with the family worked in isolation and without effective communication or information sharing, which was exploited by the mother. The report made the point that such failures increase the risks to vulnerable children. According to Munro in 2008, ‘Robust supervision should have challenged this (the social worker’s) flawed appraisal,’ and helped guard against the social worker’s biases impairing her judgement.
There is a need for greater focus on these areas in regulatory documents and guidance from central government for agencies, and for supervisors and child protection workers to take these risks into account. Agency managers and social workers could be helped more in this by way of improved policy focus, and training, to be able to be more confident in assessing and addressing the nature and extent of the various types of such resistant behaviours.
Brandon, M, Belderson, P, Catherine Warren, C, Howe, D, Gardner, R, Dodsworth, J, Black, J 2008. Analysing child deaths and serious injury through abuse and neglect: what can we learn? A biennial analysis of serious case reviews 2003-2005,CSF-RB023. Department for Children Schools and Families: London.
Lord Laming 2003. The Victoria Climbié Inquiry CM5720. HM Government: London.
Lord Laming 2009. The Protection of Children in England: A Progress Report. The Stationery Office: London.
Munro, E. 2008. Lessons learnt, boxes ticked, families ignored. The Independent, Sunday 16th November 2008, www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/eileen-munro.
Ofsted 2008. Learning lessons, taking action: Ofsted’s evaluations of serious case reviews 1 April 2007 to 31 March 2008. Ofsted: London.
Professor Brian Littlechild is the Associate Head of School of Nursing, Midwifery and Social Work at the University of Hertfordshire.
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