In the second of a two-part guest blog post Hannah Blumhardt (with input from Anna Gupta) builds on the suggestion in Part One that parents should have a greater voice in the CYF system. The Expert Panel Report, which makes wide-ranging proposals for reforming CYF, offers virtually no recommendations for boosting parents’ inclusion. Drawing on recommendations from an English research project, this post considers possible options for rectifying this omission.
Build partnerships with parents
“When families and social workers can work collaboratively in the best interests of the children, it builds a better knowledge base for both parties and the outcomes are likely to be better for the children. As you work together, you learn from each other.” – Participant from ATD Fourth World (Gupta et al, 2016, p.10)
Parents will be heard if they are treated as CYF’s partners in achieving the shared goal of reducing child vulnerability. True partnership requires mutual trust and recognition of the expertise each side has to impart. Some key recommendations from the ATD research for partnership building are that social workers:
• invest time in building trust with parents
• recognise parents’ expertise in matters relating to their own family and children
• ensure that parents are involved in discussions and decisions relating to their families
• work with parents to understand what drives their needs, rather than assuming without asking
• recognise and build on a family’s resilience and strengths, rather than simply focussing on shutting down ‘bad behaviour’.
The expert panel report mentions the concept of partnership over 150 times – in relation to iwi, community organisations, other agencies, and caregivers – but not in relation to parents. The report does not consider how to build trusting relationships with families, nor does it present a blueprint for listening to parents to understand what support they need. This is disappointing because the new focus on ‘prevention’ via “strengthening families” presents an opportune context for such an approach.
Break down judgement and prejudice
“…how can I get justice for me and my children when I’m seen as something so different to the norm?” – Participant from ATD Fourth World (Third study group, 2014, p.2)
A key message from the ATD research is that you cannot build a functional relationship with someone you do not consider your equal. In England, the widespread demonisation of parents involved in the child protection system has inflected social work practice, causing organisational cultures and behaviours that are patronising or blaming. This is a barrier to constructive partnering with parents.
In 2013, Ruth Lister participated in an ATD study group. She explained how her framework for affording “respect & recognition” to people in poverty could help avoid the ‘othering’ or dehumanisation of parents within the child protection system. One parent applied this theory by asking to be “respected by social workers or other people the same as they would expect me to respect and recognise them… because I’m a person and a human being.” (Third study group, 2014, p.2).
The expert panel rightly recommends undoing the “negative image” of young people in care (69) by promoting a “positive care identity” (93). Yet, it is silent on addressing the stigma heaped on parents associated with CYF, despite citing parent testimonies about feeling “at the mercy of individual social worker views, perceptions and interpretations” (6), receiving “antagonistic and punitive responses”, being judged by CYF, and having situations assessed through rigid understandings of “right” and “wrong” (51).
Furthermore, the report’s failure to acknowledge, let alone address, the disquieting relationship between poverty and neglect, and its repeated use of family violence as the sole example of what families may need support with, demonstrates that the narrow and judgmental prism through which parents are viewed is not unique to England.
Foster peer support and advocacy
‘[W]e have been through the system, we’ve experienced it, we know where these people are coming from.’ – Parent advocate participant (Gupta et al, 2015, p.7)
Partnering with parents can also be achieved by developing programmes where parents, previously involved with CYF, provide peer support for parents currently going through the system. While often small scale, peer support/parent advocacy projects, such as this New York project, can have big impacts.
The peer support/advocacy approach recognises that mainstream social services often lack the empathy and perceptiveness that direct experience fosters. Involving peers in service provision can reduce parents’ sense of isolation and shame, improve their confidence to speak out, sidestep communication barriers and misunderstandings, and promote greater critical reflection within the agency itself as parent advocates question business-as-usual approaches.
The Expert Panel Report recognises that peer advocacy is important. It recommends that the voices of children and young people be “embedded into decision-making at both individual and system levels”, via a permanent, independent advocacy service, a Youth Advisory Panel, and new statutory objectives to seek and give effect to the voices of children and young people (22-23). The report adds that these changes will “support people to hold the system to account”. (39)
However, these suggestions, while laudable, do not address CYF’s participation-deficit when it comes to parents. How will parents be supported to hold the system to account? What state-sanctioned peer support groups will help parents navigate the system?
Learn from parents and families; develop a critical social work practice
ATD maintains that parents hold a wealth of knowledge and expertise about the child protection system, which is valuable for evaluating the system’s past, present and future operation, and that injustice is done if this expertise is overlooked. As an anti-poverty organisation, ATD strongly believes that social workers should receive poverty awareness training to understand better the lived experiences of many of the people with whom they work. These philosophies led ATD to advocate and implement social worker training programmes delivered by parents with direct experience of the child protection system and of poverty.
The documented ATD approach could provide a blueprint for innovations in this area in Aotearoa, as could the study group recommendations that social work education promote critical thinking to increase reflective practice and a willingness to critique the profession when it strays from core principles (Third study group, 2014; Sixth study group, 2015). The fundamental tenet underlying all these recommendations is that social work education should equip students to carry out their work with empathy.
The Expert Panel Report acknowledges that a “fundamental culture and leadership change” within CYF is necessary, and that social work education should foster new competencies in the spheres of trauma and evidence-based practice (15). It also suggests that social workers could turn to various experts (“doctors, nurses, teachers, police, social housing providers and others”) for help in identifying “needs across a range of indicators of vulnerability, including antenatal care, family violence, poverty, income, mental health, signs of early offending behaviours, post-natal depression and alcohol/drug use”. (78) Individuals with direct experience of CYF intervention and/or poverty are absent from this list of experts. As is the need to update social worker education to include service users’ voices, even though such reforms have already been called for in the New Zealand context (Beddoe and Keddell, 2016).
The gaps in the Expert Panel Report regarding parental inclusion should be addressed. Although the inexplicable absence of recommendations to increase parents’ voices demonstrates the deficit-approach currently applied to parents involved with CYF, it also shows the vast and untapped opportunities that exist to improve CYF for the benefit of children and families in Aotearoa. Let’s hope we grasp them.
*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. These will be made available on the ATD Fourth World UK website in the next few days*
Beddoe, L. & Keddell, E. (2016). Informing outrage: tackling shame and stigma in poverty education in social work. Ethics and Social Welfare. 10(2), 149-162.
Featherstone, B., White, S. and Morris, K. (2014). Re-imagining Child Protection: Towards humane social work with families. Bristol, England: 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 syste. Families, Relationships and Societies, pre-published online.
Lister, R. (2006). A New politics of respect. Soundings, 32, 89-100.
Tobis, D. (2016, 24 February). How New York City’s parents took on the welfare system – and changed it”, The Guardian.
Tobis, D. (2013). From pariahs to partners: How parents and their allies changed New York City’s child welfare system. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Image Credit |Tomáš Petrů