“Current assessments focus more on harm to the child and its causation than on capacity to change”
The assessments undertaken by social workers on children who are on the edge of care are significant. Very few, if any, assessments are straight forward; many cases are complex, with children and their families facing multiple social barriers, poverty, crime, addiction or mental health issues.
Very little standardisation of practice exists and the pressure and scrutiny on social workers and their professional judgement can sometimes be unbearable. Increasingly there has been a development in the literature around child protection which suggests that social workers’ assessments should reflect the complexities of family life and should acknowledge efforts of parents to positively adapt their lifestyle in order to allow them to care for their child.
The parental capacity to change, as well as the capacity to parent effectively should be considered in these assessments.
Assessing a combination of motivation and ability, professionals it has been suggested, should work with parents to assess their readiness to accept or deny the need for change when completing their assessments. Provided that change can occur in an appropriate time frame for the child in question, professionals can work with the parents to achieve the best outcome for the child remaining with parents where possible, and returning to parents when possible, if additional action to change is necessary.
There has been a push of late to encourage social services to look at the needs of the parent as much as the needs of the child, and to offer support to families throughout the period the child is with them, particularly when the child has been returned to them after a period in social care.
This approach is about developing relationships between social workers and families and creating realistic, clear and accessible targets for parents, to show their change process, and progress, and to build an understanding of what is expected of them, with the social worker acting as an assessor but also as a motivator and a facilitator to change. Plans should be long term to create stability and a solid goal, but should also be short term enough to show regular results to keep morale high and to regularly show positive progression.
This new long term approach seeks to change behaviour in parents, but evidencing behaviour change can be difficult. Previously, research suggested that parents changed in part, so as to re-gain custody of their children, but that after time they often relapse which led to the child being taken back into care. This inconsistent approach is something which government and the third sector are trying to address through relationship building and long term consistent and implemented strategies, although it is becoming increasingly difficult given the increased demands on budgets and calls for greater efficiency within the sector.
As a result, guidance on the C-Change model emphasises that there must also be tangible consequences for those who fail to comply or who relapse – it is about altering a mindset and a behaviour – and rewards should be agreed for milestones and achievements in the same way as consequences should be in place for non-compliance.
Shaking the negativity
The literature which considers parental capacity to change as a way to approach social work assessment highlights a common trend – the apparent failure of social services to provide sufficient support to parents and children once the child has been returned. This in turn, the research suggests, leads to more children being taken back into care.
This is often viewed negatively by the media, who are on the one hand critical of social services for being too quick to intervene and break up family units by removing children from their parents’ care, but on the other are highly critical of their practices and their reluctance or delay in removing children from abusive or distressing situations. This negativity translates into how they are viewed by the public.
Perhaps adopting this model of partnership and change promotion can be a way forward for children and their parents and a way for social workers to reform their practices to create a more standardised transparent way of working where they can share ideas and practice, work in partnership, and be recognised for the good they do and the safeguarding role they play for vulnerable people, rather than the criticism of their inconsistent working or un-compassionate approach, as some make out.
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