It’s behind you! The purpose (and distraction) of reviews in supporting families

A guest blog post by Kate Morris, Professor of Social Work at the University of Nottingham. Kate is one of the authors of Re-imagining Child Protection: Towards humane social work with families. In this post Kate reflects on her recent visit to Aotearoa New Zealand and the similarities between politically motivated reviews of child protection services in England and NZ.

I was privileged to visit Wellington and Auckland recently, with opportunities to spend time with Māori services, advisors, state children’s teams, policy makers and practitioners. I had been invited to give a keynote paper at ACCAN and also a seminar at University of Auckland. My first time in Aotearoa New Zealand, a truly beautiful country. Through our discussions we identified many common areas of concern – the impact of risk averse practice, the rise of technical solutions to complex judgements, the impact of inequality and the struggle to place children and families voice at the heart of policy making. I valued enormously the knowledge I gained and witnessing the thoughtful analysis and reflection underway. Towards the end of my time the Child, Youth and Family (CYF) review was announced. As an English social worker and social work academic reviews are by now familiar, but I still was struck by important similarities, not least the gap between the words and the actions….

In 2006 I managed the large scale national evaluation of a prevention programme, we generated important learning about prevention, early intervention and multi-agency working (Edwards et al 2006). We noted the absence of any organisational structures that supported continuity of learning, and a decade on those messages still ring true. The ‘fresh start syndrome’ has no evidence base to support it, and yet in some Alice in Wonderland way we regularly cycle around the fresh start track. It’s more than a little ironic that the strong message from research with families where children suffer harm stresses the need for continuity and unbroken relationships (Morris 2012) and yet we plunge our systems and staff into a never ending process of review. The gap between research and politically driven change is, at times, a gaping chasm.

I have long argued for change in the practices and policies concerned with supporting families and protecting children. Our book (Featherstone et al 2014) explores the almost desperate need for humane family minded services, delivered by supported practitioners and in the context of just organisational cultures. But change works best where it builds upon strengths, where it utilises expertise and existing learning. If a review is created that then has to generate additional structures to hear this expertise and learning it has missed a trick, but why would a review not be drenched in professional and family expertise? Well, maybe if the CYF review is the answer we are distracted by the wrong question.

Our English experience of recent reviews have been that they open the door, indeed at times kick down the door for the neoliberal project that is underway. Beware the refocusing of services, the regrouping of training and the reconfiguration of policy and policy makers. Social justice is the core business of social work, and thus we are pesky professionals too connected to the feckless failing families that cause such unpalatable costs to the state (a concept redefined as hard working families in the neoliberal policy narrative). If services (including our practice) can be found wanting to such an extent wholesale change is the order of the day, the next steps towards outsourcing services become justifiable. If families are demonised and excluded from reviews, a shift away from humane practice towards technical fixes becomes a sensible management strategy. And somewhere in the process of reduced state funding, outsourced services, technical training and objectified families an abdication of societal and political responsibility for the most vulnerable slips easily into play.

References

Edwards A, Barnes M, Plewis I and Morris K (2006) The National Evaluation of the Children’s Fund Final Report London: DfES  .

Featherstone, B., White, S. and Morris, K. (2014) Reimagining Child Protection: towards humane social work with families Bristol: Policy Press.

Morris K (2012) Troubled Families: vulnerable families’ experiences of multiple service use Child and Family Social Work.

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