Weekly Social Work Links 30

As the days become more distinctly autumnal, I’m sharing some interesting links I’ve come across over the last week. As always feel free to share any other links you find that are related or interesting in the comments section.

I’m always wanting to find new blogs that are related to social work internationally so if you find one I haven’t noticed again, please leave a link!

Firstly, another plug for This Week in Mentalists – a now-traditional weekly round up of mental health related posts from which I stole my inspiration for these round up posts. Essential weekly reading for me and for all those who have an interest in mental health.

Indeed, it was through This Week in Mentalists that I came across the wonderful new blog ‘Veruca Salt’ who works in a CAMHS (Children and Adolescent Mental Health Service) Team and in which she discusses anger management. Rang a lot of bells with me. I really look forward to following her blog which she suggests in her byline, will share ‘views on children and adolescent mental health’.

Keep writing, Veruca, I think this one will be a corker!

I also came across this post on Blogher which is written by someone who worked as a social worker. The title says it all really ‘The Problem with handing out the Happy Pills’. She raises some excellent and thoughtful points about medication.

Social Work Soldier – another new blog I’ve recently found, shares her thoughts on her first weeks in a new job.

While Social Worker Mom looks for a new job.

And as the author of From Media to Social Work gets ready to embark on her course, she shares her thoughts of the shadowing experiences she has had over the summer.

The Masked AMHP shares part one of his ‘genesis’ story or how he got into social work. It’s a fantastic post!

On a related subject the Social Work Career Development shares some motivational quotes and asks for more examples from readers.

Social Worker in the South meanwhile shares a moving story which indicates the importance of this line of work.

and Going Mental explains that sometimes ‘the system’ works.

On Eyes Open Wider, meanwhile, some reflection and thoughts on what the innate sadness in some of the work that is done.

The Modern Social Worker shares a post about Eugenics, Race and a woman’s right to choose. Perhaps particularly timely as the abortion debate ranks up here in the UK.

SocialJerk has some fine posts as always including this one about the paranoias that exist about adults working with children and some of the absurdities that have arisen around these paranoias.

Community Care’s Social Work Blog has a post about a ‘game’ developed by the University of Kent to assist in training around child protection practice through the use of scenarios (I haven’t actually tried the game but would be interested to hear from anyone who has)

Nechakogal’s blog shares some relevant (and freely accessible) research on different subjects,  which is worth checking out. I’m a great fan of open access for research and papers.

How Not to Do Social Work shares his variation on ‘What I did in my Summer Holidays’ post with typical thoughtfulness.

One a completely different note, A Social Worker’s View draws our attention to Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month.

And The New Social Worker Online Blog considers the impact on endometriosis.

The Social Work Tech Blog has a fantastically detailed ‘how to’ post about using technology to ‘observe’ sessions and to learn from them.

Finally congratulations to Gamer Therapists who has published a book on Video Games and Psychotherapy.

How being a Foster Carer has affected my practice as a Social Worker

I don’t bring the foster care that I do onto the this blog too much. It might be because we don’t have a child in placement at the moment (although that could, of course, change at any moment) but it’s because I know my ‘audience’ is related to social work and I am very wary of any information that might identify a child that is placed with me.

However, there are a few general points that I’ve learnt from being a foster carer, going through the assessment and review process and having my own social worker (a supervising social worker who is allocated to us as foster carers) as well as interactions with the respective childrens’ social worker.

1. The power dynamics in social work while being constantly re-examined in practice, can sometimes be taken for granted by social workers. Having been on the other side of that dynamic is a very very strong feeling. I try to remember these feelings in my own practice.  Phoning up social work teams and being passed around/kept on hold/fobbed off can be disempowering. In practice, I try to give people answers as best as I can and be honest with them as much as possible because the feeling that people are ignoring you or are too busy for you is not one that helps an individual or family feel valued.

2. I didn’t grow up in poverty. I see poverty and the effects of it every day at work but having a child come into your house who has never been to the cinema, never owned a book, indeed, lived in a house where there were no books, brings issues of luxury and need v want home in a dramatic way. One child looked aghast at our 32” TV and said she didn’t know people had TVs that size in their homes.  One of her best friends described how she lived in a bedsit with her mum and was too ashamed to invite friends round. It put my whining about wanting a 40” TV into context. I knew this on a professional and intellectual level but seeing it made a difference and made me value more what I have and what I had.

3. Prejudice. I have dealt with schools that have policies which seem to be less equitable for children in care or less thoughtful of the issues that they might face – for example, when school trip places are allocated on a first-come/first-served basis and I have to get permission via social services, it means a child in that situation may miss out (I did have a long discussion with the senior staff in the school about that and they just hadn’t considered it and child got her place on the trip.. but that’s possibly because I’m mouthy and pushy). People I meet tend to assume that foster children are ‘difficult’. All the kids I have had the pleasure to share my home with for differing periods have been wonderful, thoughtful and kind but sad. Very sad. Children are individuals. People are individuals. Labels never help.

4. Developing new skill sets. I haven’t worked a great deal with children but I have a strong belief in honesty and openness (while keeping conversations age-appropriate) . It is hard though when a child asks questions that you don’t know the answer to like ‘when can I go home?’ ‘why can’t I go home?’ and the social worker who is clearly pushed for time, endlessly postpones visits so the answers remain distant. I think I expected more support to be honest and more interaction with the social workers and less, just do what you think is best..   Foster care needs a lot of resourceful thinking and quick thinking. It is one of the most responsible ‘jobs’ I have ever undertaken. If ever I feel disillusioned about my idea of going into social work ‘to help people’, I think of the much more dramatic and immediate ‘difference’ I can make with the foster caring. I do despair that foster care has such little regard as far as ‘professional status’ goes and particularly it makes me as angry to hear social workers make flippant and disrespectful comments about foster carers as it does for me to hear some of the foster carers make assumptions and unfair comments about social workers.

5. Assumptions. I think that social workers working with me as a foster carer make assumptions about what knowledge I have and other foster carers who know I’m a social worker are a little bit wary of me.  I am absolutely sure I’ve been told information by social workers that I shouldn’t be a party to. I suspect it is because I’m a social worker and they feel a bit ‘safer’ with me but there are still some fairly gaping confidentiality issues that I have been concerned about. Sometimes they chat informally about other kids they are working with. ‘No no no’, I think, internally – don’t tell me that. I don’t need to know!  At some of the foster carers’ events, other carers seem a bit diffident and less than friendly and over eager to criticise or maybe I’m just oversensitive. I’ve also mentioned this before but as my partner is the ‘main carer’ and is male, this seems to mess with a lot of the assumptions that people make about us and they still seem to default telephone calls and letters to me, because I’m female.

I think that being a user of social work services is something that is enormously helpful in my practice and hope it will continue to be so. It sometimes feels that the two roles pull me in different directions but I also think that both help the other. I know some of the ‘social work think’ and know the importance of not drawing unnecessary lines of ‘status’ betweeen professionals and users of services.

Respect goes a long way but it has to be given if it is to be expected.

Shoesmith, Balls and Appeals

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I was trying to steer away from discussion of the Shoesmith’s appeal against her dismissal by Haringey Council (via Ed Balls, the responsible Cabinet minister at the time) and her victory in the Court of Appeal – but having followed the case from the outset, I can’t quite resist coming back to it.

There are a few issues that have caught my attention in the press and blogs that I  have read over the past few days.

Firstly there is a confusion between the outcome (namely Shoesmith losing her job) and the process (being sacked via the Minister in a press conference on the basis – according to him, at least – of an OFSTED report, the findings of which she was not able to respond to).

I am biased although I have no time for Shoesmith. Like almost every Director of Services (Adults and Children) she is happy to take the pay without having an idea of how the services are, or aren’t being run ‘under her watch’. She doesn’t come across as a particularly sympathetic character and I think her lack of knowledge of social work  – as she comes from an education background – has come back to bite hard.

But, and this is the big but – that doesn’t mean she is suddenly an exception to employment law – and of course, that’s what the Court of Appeal found.

Secondly, Balls hung Shoesmith, and by extension the social work profession and professionals out to dry. It’s all very well saying responsibility should lie at the top  but if that is the case, why not the Children’s Minister himself? You see, the problem with the uproar following the tragic death of Peter Connolly, which led to the highly charged press conferences and shamefully manipulative exchanges in the Houses of Commons is that it was a manufactured outrage. Yes, of course it is beyond awful when a child dies following abuse and it is a failing when the systems that should protect that child break down but Peter Conn0lly isn’t the only child, unfortunately, to die under those circumstances and in the face of Ed Balls’ posturing and much as we would like it to be different, nor will he be the last one.

There was the awful tales of Alex Sutherland, Khyra Ishtaq, Baby B – and many others – so why was Peter Connolly thrust into the public consciousness such that the memories of a boy whose life was cut short are remembered by the details of his death and the photos released to the newspapers?

Well, that would probably be an interesting research project all in itself about media and the human psyche – but Balls admits that he succumbed to pressure regarding Shoesmith and the pressure was put on by the tabloid press. He even added insult to injury by throwing Deirdre Sanders, the agony aunt of the Sun newspaper onto the Social Work Taskforce which was to look at ways of improving social work practice. If anything demonstrates how he threw the profession to the baying wolves, it is that.

As for Shoesmith, however she may or may not have done her job, hers was not the hand that beat Connolly. She deserved better from her employers regarding advice although who knows if they gave her that media management advice and whether she chose not to take it or whether she was just thrown to the wolves by her employers.

The OFSTED report by which Balls condemned Shoesmith is faulty in the extreme and was altered. I wonder who might have put pressure on OFSTED to change this.

There is a lot of poor practice and poor knowledge of processes knocking around in this case. It wasn’t all to be laid at the feet of Shoesmith. It looks like the ex-minister had more to gain through his pandering to the press than anyone else and the shame is that it is on the back of a tragedy.

Shoesmith isn’t a social worker and never has been (although the Evening Standard headline seems to state it) but it’s easy for the press to make the leap because they have no idea about the actual facts nor do they check them. They want a hate figure. I am uncomfortable defending Shoesmith to a point because I am not sure exactly where the blame lies but the blame for processes should lie between the police service, the health service and children’s services.  Another Serious Case Review and more about the failings in communication between agencies. The profession really needs far more radical proposals than those set out in the Munro Report but it’s a start.

What Shoesmith was entitled to was the same process of natural justice that everyone else is- I don’t say she shouldn’t have been dismissed, that’s another argument entirely and to be honest, I think she should have been – but Balls was looking to the headlines rather than the law book when he acted to dismiss her.

For that, he should apologise rather than taking refuge in the baying crowds of populism – oh, but he’s a politician. However much I may hate the current government, and however much Osborne makes my skin crawl, I will never forget the shameless pandering to the tabloid press that Balls engaged in on the back of the death of a child.

Social Work Education and the Munro Report

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I won’t apologise for not having read the entire Munro review on Child Protection which was published yesterday (and can be read here)   by this morning – partly because there is so much coverage of the contents in the press –  which I know isn’t the same as reading the document in its entirety myself, but also because I don’t work directly in child protection services so my knowledge of the systems as they are currently and how they are proposed is not based on experience and knowledge so I don’t think I can necessarily add anything to the discussion which isn’t already ‘out there’.

The Guardian has a good general summary of the proposals  and there is, unsurprisingly, extensive coverage in Community Care through a number of articles.

In some ways, it has been confusing for me, as a social worker who does not work in childrens’ services to understand how the Munro report links in with the Taskforce which was, I thought, carrying out a more general assessment of social work and how the specific proposals regarding social work in the Munro report will feed back to the Social Work Reform Board.

I want to focus on one of the recommendations particularly though because it is an area that I think may have significant implications for the profession as a whole.

Recommendation 12 reads that:-

Employers and higher education institutions (HEIs)
should work together so that social work students are prepared for the challenges of child protection work.   In particular, the review considers that HEIs and employing agencies should work together so that:
•     practice placements are of the highest quality and – in time – only in designated Approved Practice Settings;
•     employers are able to apply for special ‘teaching organisation’ status, awarded by the College of Social Work;
•     the merits of ‘student units’, which are headed up by a senior social worker are considered; and
•     placements are of sufficiently high quality, and both employers and HEIs consider if their relationship is working well.

It is incredible to m e that there are not already more guidelines about what constitutes a ‘practice setting’ in social work training. Ready-to-practice Social Workers rarely emerge perfectly formed, on graduation. Yes, there is a need for more stringent guidelines in the universities regarding placements and the quality of students that pass the course but, and this is a big but, local authorities, and in fact, all employing services , really need to take responsibility for training the social work graduate to become a professional. I know there are some steps being taken in this way but it is not fair to demand statutory placements prepare a student for statutory practice and that employers discriminate in favour of those who have been fortunate enough to get the ‘right’ placements. Why don’t local authorities invest a few months to ‘create’ their own internal placements across all areas of social work, adults, children and mental health to ensure that social work graduates get broader experience rather than expecting graduates to perform immediately.

I know there is discussion about having an assessed year in practice before being registered as a ‘social worker’ but this will only happen if it is forced on the local authorities as in a climate of cuts they can’t afford to take on and train anyone who isn’t immediately capable but this weakens the profession as a whole.

I have never understood, not really, why it is the jobs in child protection social work that are taken by the newly qualified social workers. Surely it makes sense to have some kind of post-qualifying training similar to the AMHP role before taking on what is one of the more complex and risky areas of social work. I couldn’t arrange a compulsory admission to hospital for someone until I had substantial experience as a social worker and a further extensive qualification and a great deal of observed practice and had to pass an additional legal exam before I could do so. Why is it not the same in child protection work?

Cost, I suspect – but since I qualified 10 years ago, and probably for a long time previously, it was a known fact among my cohort that there would always be jobs for newly qualifieds in child protection – and then, often, comes the burnout and the move into management – not by people who have any particular management skill but the people with the ‘right’ faces or those who just want to apply in order to escape from frontline practice themselves. Being bitter or having had poor models, they perpetuate the toxic and oppressive management styles that are embedded in systems which are dependent on targets and so others come into the system with poor supervision and poorly modelled management roles and the profession deskills as no critical appraisal is required – just form filling ad infinitum.

Student units existed before my time but I’ve heard only positive things about them at Practice Assessor’s forums when other Practice Assessor’s hark back to the ‘old days’. The utter frustration of working in this profession is the cyclical learning or non-learning processes which seem to lead us back to where we started from over and over again.

The report also says

Degree courses are not consistent in content, quality and outcomes – for child protection, there are crucial things missing in some courses such as detailed learning on child development, how to communicate with children and young people, and using evidence-based methods of working with children and families. Theory and research are not always well integrated with practice and there is a failure to align what is taught with the realities of contemporary social work practice.

I’m in a lucky position in that students have come into teams I have been working in from just about every London university – because of this, and in discussion with them, I do pick up an idea of the differences between universities and yes, differences in content and quality (I can’t really judge outcomes) is massive in my own experience.

I am concerned about the focus on detailed learning related to child protection as I am sure it would probably push out learning which is already significantly limited in adult and mental health work.  I hope that universities reading this don’t forget that the training is generic. One of the differences I’ve noticed between universities is that some ask their students to specialise after one year (in the Masters) or two years (undergraduate). I’m not sure how helpful this in a generic degree where there is little enough time to cover everything anyway. I would hope that the year post-qualification when the newly qualified social worker has a position would be the time to specialise and train in a more focused way in a particular area.

I don’t think it’s fair to expect universities to pump out ‘ready to practice’ social workers. There is not time enough to do that. There needs to be more training and development in practice.

This all costs though, and there’s the rub with almost all of the proposals. Changes cost. Although of course, the cost of not changing could potentially be much higher.

So many people with and without voices have a stake in creating a good, strong and cohesive social work profession – I just worry that between a College of Social Work, the British Association of Social Workers which has decided to also call itself a College of Social Work, a Social Work Reform Board and a possible Chief Social Worker – we don’t end up with too much confusion at the top of the profession and lots of talk in the absence of any change.

I’ll try to be hopeful though because if I weren’t I’d despair.

Things can only get better.

Give The Fish or the Rod? – (A Guest Post)

(This is a Guest Post by Noel McDermott

Many Thanks to Noel for allowing me to reprint this )

Give The Fish or the Rod?

Having spent over a couple of decades in health and social care in the broadest sense and in a variety of guises I’ve been presented with the above question on more than one occasion: if someone is hungry is it better to give them a fish or to give them a fishing rod?

I’ve left an ambiguity in the title because giving them the rod in the context of this writing has another potential meaning. This writing is going to look at and ask us to think about the abuse of children.

A sense of the field

Most analysis in this field, child protection or more pertinently the lack of it focus on obscure technical points in regards to systems and structures; an example of this being the inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie. Few outside of the events understand what the inquiry did. But I would pose this question, why not? Most adults have children, so why so few engaged in issues about protection of their children? Is it because most people don’t protect their children, or are secretly abusing them? Of course not!

The vast majority of people are protecting their children from abuse and harm day in day out and don’t even begin to frame what they do as protection.

I’d like to present professional questions in child protection as a moral choice. Presenting it as a moral choice asks us, will you choose to protect that child no matter what, will you eschew excuses and take responsibility when you fail a child? Ask most parents that question and you know what their answer will be. Into this category, ‘most parents’ I will add the professional parents known as foster carers. Although they are generally tasked with having more professional awareness of the work of parenting, on the whole they don’t let that professionalism get in the way of the kids they protect and nurture.

This writing will contend that we have professional child protection services in this country with little awareness that what they are doing is child protection. These are often referred to as the universal children’s services (schools, children’s centres, GP’s, health visitors etc.).

Additionally we have multi-disciplinary teams often referred to as child protection teams but they are in fact child abuse teams. It is the abuse agenda that gets the upper hand, not the protection.

One or two Axes…

As a child I was persistently, daily and severely abused by two parents who undoubtedly loved me and by siblings and I visited abuse on my siblings who I love. At the age of 14 yrs I chose pacifism as a way of dealing with the rage engendered by my childhood, identifying in Ghandi and Mandela figures heroically extravagant enough to contain my pain and fury and terror.

In my forties I live with and accept this, and then get on with my life. It is something I bear in mind to help me navigate; it is my stuff.

Like a lot of people who experience this sort of childhood trauma and live to tell the tale I have a heightened sense of justice and injustice around this stuff but I don’t often dine out on it. I do bear it in mind.

I am required to be rigorous in my thinking and practice in this field.

Another important concept here is soul as we have introduced the concept of morality, or rather what happens when another’s denied darkness surrounds a suffering child clouding moral choices; this means there is something more than the mere mortal, individual, egocentric at stake here.

Psychotherapists refer to our collectivism as the essence of our individualism, a necessary paradox in our development. In this collectivism could be placed an understanding our moral connectedness and a sense of the decay that happens to us all if we allow a darkness to prevail in the face of moral decisions.

That situations such as the sadistic death of for example baby Peters (the child killed by his carers in full view of Haringey’s child protection teams post Victoria Climbie and that technical and obscure enquiry by Laming) present us seemingly with an existential crisis is perhaps understandable: it seems beyond the comprehensible.

But actually it is accessible if one understands the role of mirrors in our development. For the primary carer of this unfortunate child and many like him it operated the wrong way round in their early years. He became the object of his carer’s lack of empathy and internalised brutality and sadism. His death a foregone conclusion whether that death be psychically or physically.

We then can reflect on how our existential ennui is excited by the situation. When did you do something to protect a child at risk is the question posed by a moral frame of reference. And also one posed by the request, look in the mirror first. Most parents and carers when switched on to this frame will be able to relatively easily answer that. They are doing it constantly.

Ask a professional child protector and often they will be hard pressed to find something they did that day, week, month, year that they can point to and say ‘that provided protection’. When they can see through the haze their answers are framed in a language so technical and disconnected from what they are talking about- vulnerable children being failed by vulnerable adults- that one can quickly loose grasp of reality.

Coming back to you and mirrors, when you look can you look at the darkness: your shame, self-hate, misshapenness, ugliness…? Can you take stock of what you are, not who you desire to be?

‘mirror mirror…who is the fairest of them all? The question asked by baby Peters torturers and asked of the child and if the response in any way suggested ‘not you’ then the mirror was cracked and eventually the mirror died. That’s what lies in store with certain forms of self delusion.

The axes…again

In this context I reflect upon the title of a book by Lenin, ‘Left wing communism, an infantile disorder’. Along with Ghandi and Mandela it made me think as a 14 year old about why I was learning how to destroy? I called myself a revolutionary and that sense of embracing and fostering change hasn’t changed but the identity that goes with it has.

But a split remained with me for some years because I could acknowledge that much of my motivation was quite literally an infantile disorder. But it was also a disorder spanning many generations of vengeance and primary splits; the conflict in Ireland. Working through the split has involved some soul searching: I think I found one.

Our inhumanity towards each other can be wrapped up in many different packages and a fight for freedom is just one of them, our capacity to be cruel and murderous to a child another. We can as Pontius did attempt to argue that it is for someone else to make a decision but in fact integration of these events requires integrity and integrity demands integration. A virtuous circle not a vicious cycle.

With a child when they gaze into the mirror that is the loving parent we would hope they see reflected back their capacity to become; this reflection adapting and moving with the internal movements of the self-centred infant, encouraging it to engage and grow and change.

Looking at the mirror that is us in the face of the cruelty and destruction by the carer of baby Peters, what did we reflect? What did you reflect?

What it is to be abused and live on

To navigate through this subject I am going to have to hold my bearings and be aware of the things that may distort my readings. This means I will have to talk about me and my experiences and through that try to draw some sense from the horrors of baby P and Victoria and the tens of thousands, millions of children that have been tortured, abused, neglected and murdered at the hands of their parents and carers in this country over the centuries.

There is a psychic death that is more than a mere mortal death around being abused and it is a profound sense of being alone and isolated. One of the difficulties of coming alive from it is the horror of realising just how much it happens. And more importantly, that we all know that it happens. It can shunt us back to our primitive defences.

It is difficult to come to terms with the shame of it all when it seems that the world is collusive, and then more difficult still when one becomes aware that there is in the world collusion.

That this sort of abuse has been happening since forever should be the most startling fact about it but it is in fact the saddest truth about it all; none of this is new and none of this is a surprise.

Yet we respond in a startled fashion every time it hits the news, ‘what children are abused, tortured and murdered by their parents we wail?’ Yes they are and it is happening right now as you hear these words, a child is screaming in terror or numbed by terror in to silence at this precise moment.

A child is also laughing and giggly and playing, right now. Well actually lots of them are.


It is in this context that the notion of morality coming in to play is startlingly honest and presents us with a stark reality. Are we willing to do what is right: not because of spurious arguments about the cost of not acting, legal obligations, professional boundaries and all the other guff that accumulates when people are trying to find excuses, but because it is the right thing to do?

In a remarkable scene in the film Aliens, a little child survivor of the slaughter of a colony of space explorers by monstrous aliens asks the heroine of the film why her mother told her there were no such things as monsters when there clearly are?

It is interesting to note that the monsters in the film, the Aliens of the title, are that strange phenomenon of a parasite that kills its host. Seen through the lens of child protection this is how we currently view child abuse and how we conceive of dealing with it.

It’s a horror film with monsters and kids and heroes and heroines and technology and high drama and so-on and so forth.

In actuality abuse is very far from this. It is the everyday phenomenon of a parasite that feeds endlessly on its host and passes itself down the generations: a symbiosis. Death can feel like it is a relief: an evacuation of the horror that is living.

The high profile cases of young children make good media copy but where would it all be in some years time when if baby Peters had lived and was not such good copy because he didn’t get the nourishing and sustaining services he needs to recover a little from his trauma, where would it be when he is in his twenties and lost in despair and forgotten? Where would it be when he is in his forties and a trail of broken relationships and abandoned and almost certainly abused children in his wake?

That would probably have been his trajectory; and if not his it is that of most of the kids I worked with who have been abused and neglected unless they are given sustained care, love and support right into their early adulthood and indeed beyond.

Protecting children is not about abuse, it is about the opposite. But we have services we call child protection that won’t act until there is unequivocal evidence of abuse. Surely there is something wrong with that: how can we possibly be protecting children if the services we say are there to do that only do so if there is evidence of abuse, surely it’s too late at that point?

These services will tell you that they do ‘preventative’ work but in actuality it is at the bottom of the pile of emergencies and disasters they deal with on a daily basis.

This then brings us to an Act of Parliament in 2004 that asserts: Every Child Matters. But that is in fact only true in a relatively random sort of way: the services that engage in what could be called child protection (the stuff that is the opposite of abusing kids) do so without the self knowledge on the whole that this is what they are really doing and also without the statutory framework that allows it to be called child protection: it gets called something like education, early years, nursery nursing and so-on.

The ‘child protection’ teams sit in offices that a child would rather been seen dead in. Mostly the children are only there because it is far, far too late.

Ask any child protection social worker if they know of any kids that walk into their offices to have some fun and they will look at you like you are mad; inside though they are probably in despair as mostly that is what they would like to happen, have kids turn up and have fun.

So why is this?

Here’s the creativity and a little bit of fun

We know where kids like to go, we know what they like to do, we know all about what makes them tick and we then construct services specifically tasked with protecting them from ‘significant harm’ (abuse) that terrify the pants off them and that they would not in a million years turn to for help, advice, support and certainly not protection.

We then engage in a witch hunt when the professionals placed in the middle of this awful farce do what is inevitably going to happen; fail. What other option is left to them?

If actions do indeed speak louder than words then what are we telling our kids about abuse and what are we in fact saying about the importance of protecting children from significant harm?

This then is when the moral darkness sets in.

It may or may not come as a surprise that there were times in my role as a social services manager that I would ask myself this question; what is the more honourable thing to do for the kids in my care?

Option one would be to blow the whistle and tell the world of the horrors inside. Option two is to stay inside and find those moments when you could provide some solace.

So those are the horns of this dilemma, which one would you, take?

1. The horn on the left, whistle blow,

2. The horn on the right, grit your teeth and work from inside?

How about option three: spot that the horns are attached to a bull and then chuck sand in its eyes?

So what does option three look like?

If we are going to protect children from significant harm then I would suggest that the best people to find out how to do that from are kids themselves. It worked for Plato; he endlessly went on about coming at a problem as though one were a child; why not the problem of protecting kids from abuse?

Could we construct that dialogue in a meaningful sense (and I believe we have and we have the evidence of their answers) it might lead to protection services that were the opposite of abuse; a world of colourful pictures, warm smiley adults, games and activities, learning, reasonable boundaries, child friendly toilets and so-on and so forth.

It in actuality is that simple.

No doubt the doubts crowd in about how abusers hide their abuse and complex webs of international child abductors are on the prowl looking for lone children. In fact the majority of significant harm (even using that extremely limited definition of abuse) happens in full view and without any shame on the part of the perpetrator or even without an eyelid being batted. It happens at home and is most often called love by the abuser.

What seems to shock people about Victoria and Peters is how the abuse happened in the full glare of everybody involved in their lives, but that is the norm not the exception.

The taboo that surrounds abuse in our culture is not the abuse itself but our societal collusion in it.

It’s relatively easy to point the finger at a child sexual predator and castigate them; we can all agree that it’s wrong. But the majority of abuse isn’t like that and we fail again and again to listen to our kids when they tell us that their lives hurt them, make them feel scared and lonely and bad about themselves.

There is clearly an argument for specific professional investigation of organised abuse for example, but most abuse is disorganised and chaotic.

Our responses to it need to be focussed on that truth and also the truth that the answers are under our noses, because they are shorter than most of us, they are kids. Get down to their level and give them a good listening to, a tickle, a story a cuddle.

That would be the place to start.

So what about the fish or the rod? Well both obviously.

(Copyright Noel McDermott 2011)

Noel McDermott has experience in health, social care and education since the mid 1980’s. This has included working at senior management level in social services and third sector social care provision. He qualified as a dramatherapist in the mid 1990’s is state registered and been practicing as additionally as psychotherapist and consultant since.


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Munro’s Interim Report on Child Protection – some thoughts

Professor Munro published an  Interim Report on Child Protection – subtitled ‘A Child’s Journey’  yesterday with some ideas, thoughts and (most importantly) hard research evidence about changes that need to be made in the child protection system and particularly in the way child protection social work operates.

As will be enormously apparent to anyone who passes by here, I have no experience at all in working in child protection services so I don’t want to comment on some of the details which relate to things that I don’t have any idea about (like ICS – their computer systems).

There are a number of points though that came to me as I read through the interim report. This is, though, from the viewpoint of someone who is very much a non-expert so do take my comments with the proverbial pinch of salt.

Nothing came as a great surprise to me. I have often felt, through conversations with colleagues and friends as well as my experience as a foster carer, that some of the child protection departments sound plain toxic in terms of management styles and healthy workplaces.

Everyone is under pressure to hit targets. I have worked in that style of team myself where you really do feel like an automaton just pumping out work of varying quality to meet targets, targets and more targets at the expense of quality interactions and interventions – or as Munro puts it more simply – help.

It does seem (and this is wholly anecdotal evidence) more prevalent in child protection teams due to the pace of the work and statutory time frames in which to work.

The report itself makes interesting reading – but I fully accept that my definition of interesting might not be a standard normative base.

It is however eminently readable which isn’t always the case with these reports and documents.

There are four chapters after the introduction.

1.  Getting Help Early

This has focus on – as it says – early interventions. I do like her use of the word ‘help’ for families rather than ‘intervention’. It reminds me how distant some of the jargon becomes and how words themselves can frame ways of working and attitudes.

She mentions the planned expansion of the health visiting role and the importance of Sure Start programmes (which the government seem to be cutting).

It’s interesting as well that she focuses on the importance of universal services to ‘catch’ children and families that may otherwise fall ‘below the radar’ – or, as she puts it – meet the threshold for statutory intervention.

She also praises and seems to support the idea of multi-agency teams. For me it’s obvious having worked in a social services team and then moving into an multi-disciplinary team. Working alongside people with different professional backgrounds and specialities is both a pleasure and a very sharp learning curve. There is nothing like meeting, working and talking to people across different services and professions to build relationships informally – going for lunch together, having a cup of coffee and casual chat – to build strong professional relationships. It can’t necessarily be forced but one thing that happens where I work is that if some kind of ‘blockage’ builds up with a particular team – we then go and shadow them and/or they come and shadow us.

There is nothing like knowing the faces behind the telephone voices for promoting better joint-working.

2. Child and Family Social Work

This is a big one. It found it fascinating to read because on some levels I understood but on other levels I was having some kind of insight into an almost parallel world.

Munro ties in very tightly with the recommendations of the Social Work Task Force to improve social work practice throughout the country.

It seems she has worked closely with members of the prospective College of Social Work (the SCIE one – sigh – that is getting boring having to differentiate). I wonder if that’s why BASW have been so quiet about the report.

Munro tries to focus on the expertise that social workers bring to child protection work and particularly to the nature of the relationships that they build and how that is and can be affected by some of the borked systems that are in place – it is what she calls a ‘rational-technical’ approach to social work.  This is a term for the manageralist leaning of social work practice dependent on procedural manuals and completing reams of paperwork at the expense of the face-to-face work with children and families.

Paperwork can be faultless but does that mean practice is any better? Recording of course, is important but as she says it is often the actions that are recorded rather than the thinking and reasoning.

It’s a fair point and there may be other places to record the processes behind decisions being made. The importance is that THERE IS thinking behind the decisions and reasoning and that it does not become process-led or defensive.

There are some thought-provoking paragraphs about the importance of intuition and expertise in communication – evidenced throughout – as one would expect of a professor with a research base.

I’m glad that Munro mentions time and managers giving staff the time to develop their skills and practice. I wonder how this will be possible in a world of contracting and contracting out local authority roles and functions.

But this is a report which recommends an idealised version of practice.

Munro also considers the career path of social work which currently heads straight from front line work to front line management to senior management. There are no ‘professional experts’ within teams and few, if any, promotion or development prospects if you do not want to be a manager. That’s somewhere I’ve arrived myself actually. I’m quite happy to be a practitioner and have developed in the sense that I’m a Practice Assessor, and AMHP and a BIA but that’s probably as far as I can go without a managerial role that would take me away from front line practice. And I have over 30 years to go until I retire. If I ever retire.

I’ve pretty much exhausted available post-qualification training that is open to me at the level which I am at.

Actually, that’s quite depressing when I think about it. I’d love to study more. I sit with my nursing colleagues who are working on research projects, my occupational therapist colleague is also currently engaging in research, medical colleagues are conducting their own research. Why can’t I, as a social worker, take that path (while practising – I don’t WANT to leave the front line to do research work full time)? I can’t because the local authority have no training budget and I can’t afford to fund myself.

I hope that’s something that is picked up on. I would love to be an ‘expert practitioner’ type! Oops, got off the topic a little there.

3. Managing Front Line Social Work

Munro starts this chapter with a great line that I’ll paraphrase by saying that social workers have spent so much time on guidelines and regulations and concentrating on good reports from Ofsted that they have lost sight of the needs of the child in the process.

The bureaucratic monster is proverbially eating itself and forgetting who it is meant to serve.

Munro highlights a blame culture that seems to permeate the sector. It is hard not to feel that when you have ministers like Ed Balls showing so little support to the profession. But that was yesterday (I’m  not going to forget that, Balls).

The front-line manager often creates the culture of the organisation to their staff. This is crucial and managers need to be very good at managing and not just experienced professionals who have reached ‘their turn’ at promotion. Perhaps poor management is a reflection on the levels of progression for social workers. People might feel pressured into managing when it isn’t what they want because that is solely where the career progression lies.

Colleagues of mine often comment about me not being a manager or a senior practitioner because of the amount of time I’ve been hanging around in the service. It is rarely positive comment – something along the lines of ‘oh, you’re still in that job’. It doesn’t bother me because I have an idea of what I want to do but I can see it would play on the mind of others.

Munro also mentions the process of supervision and how it  has become a task based run down of management issues. I’m very lucky to have professional and management supervision separately.

I meet with a senior social worker in a different team and we discuss my professional development and issues away from my office. She knows my managers and colleagues but mostly just by name and it allows for some distance ‘from the ground’ and discussions about issues in social work, use of theories – it is something more like the supervision I might do for a student than the type of supervision I tended to get prior to this as a practitioner.

My manager still supervises me for case discussions and to see where I’m up to and I would go to her for advice about managing cases but being able to talk about the wider issues of social work in a different setting has been a real breath of fresh air in my practice and my enthusiasm for the job and the profession. I can’t speak highly enough of the split and I hope it is something that is promoting throughout the sector. It does take time though and partly works so well because I get along with my supervisor (which is completely random – I had never met her before she was ‘allocated’ to me). She tells me she gets as much from it as I do.

I completely understand that I am somewhat unique in that I have these two supervisors. It dates back to a particular incident where I kicked up a bit stink that went to senior management and demanded more professional support. It was conceded but it was hard fought and it is far from standard in my organisation.

4. Shared learning and accountability.

I’m not going to comment much on this because it refers to details which really are out of my sphere of knowledge.

Munro considers the role of Local Safeguarding Childrens’ Boards and the learning from Serious Case Reviews.

This is also where she considers unannounced inspections of services as opposed to planned inspections which take significant amounts of resources to prepare for.

All I will say here is that unannounced inspections are always the best way of getting a good idea and understanding of practice in any area. I’m a big fan of unannounced inspections in adult social care, care homes, hospitals and social services departments.

My old manager used to randomly patrol the office and pick out random files from the old filing system and take them to her office to read though to check on case recording quality and that paperwork was where it should be. It meant we were much more attentive and careful on a continuous basis.

This is a very slanted and somewhat haphazard almost stream of consciousness piece about my response to Munro so I apologise in advance for that. Busy week at work!

I feel the recommendations are positive but I do worry that the whole narrative of change in the social work profession is being led solely by child protection social work.

I am concerned that, for example, if there is a proposed Chief Social Worker, they will completely forget that there are other areas of social work that exist and again, just as in the training and throughout my career,  the protection of vulnerable adults and the needs of older adults will be pushed into the periphery by the more headline-grabbing needs of child protection.

For the moment though, I hope it becomes an opportunity to improve social work practice across all sectors.

(Don’t worry, I’ll get back to the Mental Capacity Act tomorrow – I just couldn’t resist the opportunity to comment on this review!)