Stories retold and untold: the voice of parents in child protection social work

This guest blog post (and a second to be published on Friday) comes to us from Hannah Blumhardt, with additional input from Anna Gupta (Senior Lecturer in Social Work, Royal Holloway University of London) and ATD Fourth World. Many thanks to you all.

Hannah holds Honours degrees in law and international relations and has worked in an incoherent array of institutions, including Parliament, social justice NGOs, academia, and legal and judicial outfits. Her primary research interests lie in critical theory, intersectionality and indigenous law. In 2014 she worked alongside families living in poverty in London, as part of ATD Fourth World UK’s Policy, Participation and Training team.

The suite of CYF reforms that the government is currently progressing offers an as yet un-grasped opportunity to secure parents of vulnerable children a greater voice in the CYF system. To make this case, this post draws on research emerging from an on-going project in England that builds on family members’ perspectives of how that country’s child protection system could be improved.

One striking feature of the recently released Expert Panel Report on reforms to CYF – apart from the wide-ranging changes proposed – is how much the (admittedly few) personal testimonies of birth parents resonate with those of birth parents in jurisdictions far away. And like those other jurisdictions, what also resonates is the tangential and faintly dismissive approach that the report takes to these testimonies and the stories therein.

Yet these stories are not easily brushed aside. These are stories of powerlessness in the midst of a bureaucratic system; stories of exclusion from life-changing decisions; stories of trepidation about asking for much-needed help; stories of fear that your children might be taken away; stories of not understanding the process, social workers’ expectations, or why goalposts keep shifting; stories of seeking help and support that never arrives; stories of being judged, stonewalled or excluded in interactions with social workers; stories of walking about on eggshells because every action, emotion and response is interpreted in the worst possible light; stories of not trusting the system and the system not trusting you; stories of the stress and shame of having social workers turning up at the door; stories of pain, anguish, and a life ripped apart when children are removed. Stories of not having a voice, not being heard, not being asked…

These are also stories that are grappled with almost daily at the UK branch of the international anti-poverty organisation, ATD Fourth World (ATD). ATD is a deeply grassroots movement that works alongside individuals experiencing poverty and social exclusion, supporting them to challenge the endemic stigma they face, and their systematic exclusion from decisions that directly affect their lives.

In England, many of the individuals with whom ATD works have experience of the child protection system, predominantly as parents. Many have had their children removed on the grounds of neglect, or are teetering on the brink of such a catastrophic outcome. Over the years, ATD’s policy and support work with these individuals has come to reinforce research identifying the fundamental nexus between poverty-afflicted households and allegations of neglect.

In 2005, ATD and Anna Gupta (a Senior Lecturer at Royal Holloway University of London) launched the Getting the Right Trainers project, which formed the basis for a poverty awareness training module for social work students. Over the following decade, these modules have been devised and delivered annually to training social workers, by parents with direct experience of poverty and social services intervention.

In 2014, ATD and Anna Gupta began refreshing these modules through a new project, the Giving Poverty a Voice – Social Worker Training Programme, which has the additional aim of promoting critical social work practice. The project’s methodology relies on thematic study groups that feature academics, practitioners, and family members with experience of poverty and social services intervention as participants.
How can the recommendations and findings from the recent ATD study groups inform an analysis of the Expert Panel Report in Aotearoa? The transferability of international examples is necessarily partial (not least because an integral awareness of Te Ao Māori and learnings from iwi and Māori organisations should not be displaced in the New Zealand context). Nevertheless, the striking similarity between parents’ articulated experiences in the Expert Panel Report and the ATD research suggests the value of drawing parallels, particularly given the difference in the recommendations drawn by each. What can be learnt from this experience?

Giving parents a voice
“… you are sat there observing what everyone else is doing with your life, and your children’s life (who potentially have no rights) on the basis of strangers around the table. It is degrading, humiliating. Everything is taken away from you.” – Participant from ATD Fourth World (Gupta et al, 2015)

Ensuring that birth parents have a voice in social services, child welfare or child protection processes is crucial. Parents in the ATD study groups repeatedly recount their frustration over the system’s endemic barriers to communication, and their exclusion from discussions and decisions on matters pivotal to their families’ lives. Parents describe feeling disrespected and ashamed when they are ‘kept in the dark’ or unable to understand decisions and processes being said or ‘done’ to them. These phenomena compound to create an overwhelming sense of powerlessness and voicelessness.

In the Expert Panel Report, these sentiments are echoed in parents’ recounts of CYF as “difficult to make sense of” (50) and in their experiences of exclusion and of feeling “powerless and helpless in the face of CYF” (6). Parents explain that these feelings make it hard to function and participate (6), causing confusion, anger, defeat and desperation (51). Ultimately, they “felt many of the decisions made were pre-determined, the process was slow and bureaucratic, and they lacked a voice.” (51)

Despite noting these problems, the report makes virtually no recommendations for addressing them. While blaming narratives surrounding the parents of vulnerable children can make it politically difficult to defend parents’ rights, we should be very concerned if parents’ voices are shut out of CYF’s processes. Why?

Parents are human too and are impacted by the decisions that social services make. As Featherstone and Morris noted in one of the ATD study groups, parents are

“people with dreams, hopes, fears, loves, attachments… Treat them as people who have the right to engage in conversations about what they want for themselves in order to care well.” (Fifth study group, 2015, p.6).

Parents in the study groups frequently emphasise that their love for their children and the anguish caused by removal is often unrecognised by the child protection system or the general public. As one parent stated:

“I don’t know who I am anymore. I am a mum to three of my children that I have in my house… But I have other children who I equally feel I have the responsibility… But I’m told, no, it’s not… my identity has been completely stripped and I now feel like I’m very lost and confused… at the end of the day, I am their mum. I am their mum. And I refuse to let them strip me of that…” (Gupta et al, 2016, p.5).

Similarly, in Aotearoa, parents explained how CYF “could make significant decisions that were devastating for families, but… did not always understand the full impact of the decisions they were making.” (53) One parent told the panel:

“I just ended up in a ball of tears on the floor. And I stayed that way for a long time. I hit rock bottom… The CYF social worker told me it was permanent, and I was never going to see them again. And to me that was heart-breaking.” (76)

Engaging parents, who are key stakeholders, will have spill over benefits for CYF. As a result of direct experience, parents are able to evaluate the system in innovative and insightful ways. In his recent work From Pariahs to Partners (2013), David Tobis described a New York parent advocacy project that revolutionised child welfare in the city and caused a dramatic decrease in numbers of children taken into care. In an article about the project, Tobis says

“[t]he main lessons from our experience were that to dramatically improve the child welfare system, you needed parents themselves… Parents organising as a collective force pressurised the system to change…

Children do not exist in a vacuum, but as part of a family. The report sings the praises of its proposed “child-focussed” model. While this approach can yield benefits, if the system becomes so child-focused that no-one else gets a look-in, we have a problem. Research in the English context shows that child-centrism can artificially pit children’s needs against those of their parents, even though deprioritising the needs of a child’s immediate family is likely to be detrimental to the child. As Featherstone et al (2014) note, policy makers must recognise that while the family is often the context from which difficulties arise, it is also the primary context in which resolution is found.

In promoting a child-centric view without considering meaningful options for improving parents’ experiences, the report teeters dangerously close to replicating England’s artificial disconnect between the needs of the child and those of their parents and family.

Parents are needed to fulfil the report’s aspirations. The report makes great strides in recommending real investment in preventing vulnerability (and drastic interventions) by ensuring families get timely support to enable their children to stay at home. Indeed, it touts these recommendations as “the most significant change for the new operating model” (75). However, without complementary reforms to ensure parents have a voice, how are social workers supposed to accurately identify what a family’s needs are? If parents aren’t respected, how will they be encouraged to speak openly about the challenges they face? If parents do not trust or understand CYF or their social worker, how can they be expected to buy-in to or cooperate with the system’s expectations?

Is it too late?
None of the report’s recommendations intrinsically contradict attempts to increase parents’ voice in the CYF system. While the reforms continue their progress through the various stages of policy and legislative development, considerable scope remains to incorporate recommendations relating to parental inclusion.

The Expert Panel Report makes some important recommendations that, if well implemented, would follow international examples of best practice, including greater focus on providing early support to prevent drastic social work interventions, fostering avenues for children and young people to be heard, and increasing involvement of the NGO and community sector. Nevertheless, the report falls prey to the crucial blind spot of failing to recognise parents as key partners in the quest to move children out of vulnerability, and the changes required to effect this partnership.

Note:To date, ATD Fourth World UK and Anna Gupta have run 6 study groups as part of the Giving Poverty a Voice – Social Worker Training Programme. The summary documents produced for each group, which provide a basic analysis of the content covered, have been relied on for this post. They are available on the ATD Fourth World UK website.

References

Featherstone, B., White, S. and Morris, K. (2014) Re-imagining Child Protection: Towards humane social work with families, Bristol, Policy Press.

Gupta, A. & ATD Fourth World (2015). Poverty and shame – messages for social work. Critical and Radical Social Work, 3(1), 131-139.

Gupta, A., Blumhardt, H. & ATD Fourth World (2016). Giving poverty a voice: Families’ experiences of social work practice in a risk-averse child protection system. Families, Relationships and Societies, pre-published online.

Tobis, D. (2016). How New York City’s parents took on the welfare system – and changed it. The Guardian (24 February 2016, accessible at http://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/feb/24/new-york-parents-child-welfare-care).

Tobis, D. (2013) From Pariahs to Partners: How parents and their allies changed New York City’s Child Welfare System, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Image Credit |Tomáš Petrů

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