Thursday, December 13, 2012

Suicide over Prank - The questions no one is asking

I have been following with interested the handling of the suicide of Ms Salsanha. It is very sad to hear that some one with a young family and what we would assume has everything to live for would choose to take their own life. I feel for her partner and children and the energy they would be using to seek and answer why their partner/mother would make such a decision.

I am fascinated by the blame game which surrounds this issue. I am sure that the two DJ's involved are extremely remorseful and will never perform a prank of this nature again. They and their management would never have perceived that such a childish prank would have such devastating results.

What I do wonder about, as a Social Worker, is the state of mind of Ms Salsanha prior to the call? What issues were dominant in her life that would have caused her to take such desperate action? I can understand the humiliation that may result from succumbing to a prank of this nature but it wasn't life threatening and clearly was convincing enough for her to pass the call on to the attending nurse.

What are the protocols regarding a Royal being hospitalised and another Royal wanting to enquire about their well being? We are aware that this is not a normal family but if the Queen wanted to check up on her Grand Daughter in-law could she make a call to the hospital? Were the staff briefed on the protocol?

Lets look to another scenario. It is probably safe to assume the Ms Salsanha had other issues happening in her life that may have made her susceptible to suicidal thoughts. If this was the case - were the hospital staff aware of this vulnerability? Lets assume also that she was berated by her manager for accepting the hoax call. Perhaps she was made to feel guilty and ashamed by the conduct of her superiors. This may have been enough for her to topple into a place of absolute despair and humiliation.

I can't help but think that there is more to this than just blaming the pranksters and the radio station.

Could this be another example of workplace bullying with the most devastating result?

If the organisation is guilty it is now unlikely that they will ever be held to account because of the clever way they have diverted the attention away from the likelihood that they may have handled the situation differently.

Tony Tonkin
Accredited Mental Health Social Worker
International Counselling Service
Ph 0414 883 153

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Beating Workplace Bullies

Every week I would work with around six clients regarding workplace bullying issues. I have personally experienced workplace bullying and certainly understand the degree of despair, sense of hopelessness and helplessness generated by the bad behaviour of a co-worker. I can remember arriving at work and becoming so distressed as I stood at the entrance way to the office block in which I was working, that I was unable to enter the building. I cried uncontrollably, I was confused and bewildered by this outpouring of emotions. As a male I believed I could handle what was happening to me and that I could fight back and defeat the bully. I believed that those in a community service organisation would understand what was happening to me and would support me. I have never been so wrong.

I have used the past ten years trying to understand the impact Workplace Bullying has on people and finding ways to combat the bully. What I am about to explain to you is a process which I have used with many clients over the past year with outstanding success. When I have the opportunity to discuss this with targets of bullies they will often report how empowered they feel and they note a significant decrease in their anxiety. The steps are simple in a way and it surprises me that others haven't thought of using this technique.

1. Power

Ask yourself why does the bully have the power to influence how you feel about yourself, life in general and to affect your mental wellbeing?

Most people give this power to others. People in and off themselves do not have power over us, the power they have comes from what we believe about them. If we believe they can interfere with what we think and feel about ourself then they will have enormous power over us. But this power is power we attribute to them not power they have. We believe they may be able to sack us, prevent us from promotion or prohibit us from taking holidays or receiving professional development. We believe that when they gossip about us that they are able to influence others opinions of us.

Write what POWER you believe the bully has over your life.

Consider if that power is justified. Is it helpful for you hold these beliefs?

Now ask how important do you want this person to be in your life?

Would you invite this person to your birthday party?

Most people would say that if they could they would choose not to have this person in their life at all. That they are not important to them and if they could would prefer not to have anything to do with them.

Once we accept that it is what we believe about the power this person has we are then able to change our belief system and view the bully as powerless and lacking influence on our preferred view of who we are and how we want to interact with our world.

Bullies often are feeling powerless, humiliated, lonely, isolated, rejected, fearful, and believe that they will feel better if they can make you feel similar emotions.

It is your choice as to whether you wish to play their game. What is to follow is the game changer and a way by which you can change the rules.

2. Non-justification

Most of us believe that we need to justify what we do because it will help others to understand our motives and give them a clearer view of who we are. We do this by habit because we also believe it is a polite thing to do. We use an enormous amount of energy justifying our behaviour to people who don't give a damn. SO STOP IT NOW.

The most powerful word in assertion is the word "NO" without justification. Learn to just so "NO". Don't waste your time and energy on people who don't care about you and who are not going to change their view of you no matter how much time you spend explaining yourself.

This change in behaviour will change the rules and leave the bully confused because they will not know how to respond to you. Be aware though that they may became angry and confused, but this is their problem not yours.

3. Questions

This is the most exciting aspect of the three pronged response to bullies.

Remember you are now not justifying anything to them. But now you are going to just ask them open ended questions.

The questions are generic questions which can be used under all circumstances. The reason for asking questions is that the energy the bully is using by attacking you is often absorbed by you and integrated into you by your belief system of the power the bully has. This is now your opportunity to change the flow of energy back to the bully. It is important to make them think about what they are doing rather than attacking you.

I will give you some questions you can ask. These are so simple and have to integrated into your normal response when you are feeling attacked.


I am curious as to what you meant by what you just said?

I am wondering if you could clarify what you just said?

When you say ......... I am wondering if you know how that makes me feel?

The goal here is to have them justify what they say or do.

Write a list of questions which would best fit with the bully in your life and commit them to memory. Test the questions on people you know. Remember, there is nothing offensive or disrespectful by asking questions.

Above all have fun with this. Watch how the bully responds. They will become defensive when they realise you are changing the rules. They may even step up the bullying but as they do they well expose themselves as a bully. The best place to ask questions if you have the courage is in meetings so that others can observe the bullies response. Never enter into a debate with the bully if they begin to attack you. Maintain the focus on the questions. If they fail to answer a question just ask the questions again.

This strategy often results in the bully leaving you alone. One they realise that they no longer have the power to control you they will move onto someone else, unfortunately.

If this works for you become the educator of these techniques with you co-workers. Together you will change the workplace and the bully will either change their behaviour or they will leave.

Once you have tried this drop me a line and let me know how you have gone. If you want further help contact me through this blog or call me on the number below.

Have fun and be safe.

Tony Tonkin
Accredited Mental Health Social Worker
International Counselling Service
Ph 0414 883 153

Monday, November 12, 2012

Male Violence is not Maleness

There is nothing which churns the stomach more than hearing men talk about the way they have been able to dominate or control another person. Recently in an anger program I was facilitating a young man told me that he felt empowered by knowing that others are fearful of him. What concerned me most is that he was not concerned about how others felt towards him but he believed he was getting what he needed out of the relationship because those around him were compliant to his wishes. I told him that it saddened me that he didn’t care about the impact of his behaviour on others. Another client told me that he will not tolerate people holding a view of him which he didn’t believe was true. He would beat them to a pulp, this was a veiled threat towards me if I challenged any of his views about maleness or any view that may be different to his.

Over the past twenty years I have worked with some of the most violent men our society produces. I am interested by the notion that being tough is a true indicator of character and somehow makes one happier and provides a sense of safety for those we love the most. For some men that is not important. For some the safety comes in their sense of power and the exertion of control over others. These men fortunately are not the majority but it is scary when one considers how often I meet them, far too often.

The true sense of “maleness” is determined by our humanity and particularly our love for our partner/s and children. Anything else is a myth. It takes more courage to build a respectful and equal relationship than it does one which is violent and abusive. It takes true conviction to walk away from a fight than it does to stand face to face abusing the other and resolving nothing but creating further pain and mistrust. How dumb are men that they think this form of conflict is helpful. There are very few men who will agree with the men mentioned above that violent behaviour builds a better relationship. What it does breed is discontent and unhappiness.

We may not like the idea, but inside of us often sits a little boy who at some point has been treated badly. This little boy is desperately looking for love, connection, tenderness, respect. Unfortunately, because men are who we are, he hasn’t been shown how to gather together all of these wonderful qualities. Yet there is something inside that innately tells him that these are important and good qualities and certainly different from what he experienced as a child. There is the desire to experience what these qualities offer. Of course he is unable to articulate what he wants, he doesn’t talk about his feelings, so is unable to describe them in any meaningful way. So instead he demands that they be provided by others. Sex should be on demand. He should always be respected and when he feels disrespected he becomes violent. Sex is the only time that he feels connected and loved.

As men become further separated from the very goal they desire they become increasingly violent and abusive. They often don’t understand that their behaviour is prohibiting them from attaining what they need. Failure to take responsibility for behaviour is another distancing practice. It is unfortunate that all of the strategies men employ to get what they want are reinforced by the version of “maleness” we have presented to us while we are growing up. By the time we reach adulthood we have been sold on the idea that we are entitled to have all those things we desire and that we can have them regardless of our behaviour because we are simply, “entitled”.

Yes, we are entitled to be loved and cared for and feel close to others, but what we want is not a “given”. It is something we have to work towards. Most importantly we have to understand our own emotions and feel safe – independent of others. Where ever violence abounds there is insecurity, fear, betrayal, a lack of trust.

As long as we continue to act in violent ways we will never have what we so desperately want.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Enjoying the voice of Andrea Bocelli

This is a little different from the normal posts. For years I have been fond of Andrea Bocelli. There is something about the quality of his voice which reaches my soul like nothing else. I am sitting at my desk with a collection of his songs playing over YouTube.

A few years ago my wife asked what I would like for my birthday. I knew that Bocelli was coming to Australia but was disappointed that he wasn’t coming to Adelaide. My wife suggested that we could travel to Perth to the concert as my birthday gift. It was one of the most emotional birthdays I have ever had. The venue was the very crappy Perth Entertainment Centre but it didn’t really matter. Just to hear that voice live was remarkable. I can’t say that I am a lover of opera because I am not, I wouldn’t know one opera from another nor one singer from another. However I do know that I love this mans voice like no other.

I find it difficult to listen to him sing and not feel an emotional connection. When we were walking through the car park on the way to the car after the performance Dee asked me what I thought and I burst into tears. I wasn’t thinking much at all I was just emotional. I couldn’t describe it as happy or sad emotions just raw emotions. It was like something inside of me was being cleansed and I didn’t need to know what it was all I needed to know was that I was better for the experience.

I may not always feel the same degree of emotional pain but I do feel a sense of peace and connection when I am quietly listening to him sing. If I ever have a spiritual experience this is it. Perhaps amongst the chaos which is my work there is a place for the soothing nature of his tone and range that breaks through the harsh fibers of the stories I hear and disseminates them into perfect tone and pitch. The awfulness of life seems to be transformed into this other place for a moment. It is a refreshing and calming place to be for me, no wonder it is full of emotion.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Social Work standards and Child Protection

I guess I have written about issues concerning social work standards within Child Protection, in fact many of my blogs seem to be about this. I work in a range of areas and the work I do in the child protection area is a very small part of my business and is the area of my business for which I don't get paid. I am amused by the energy it consumes and the incredibly poor practices I experience by other social workers or those purporting to be social workers. I see child protection as a kind of frenzied inactivity. The morally inept attempting to display their moral fibre based on found-less or misconstrued allegations, which fail to past the most elementary test of common sense or reasonableness. It appears that all that is wrong with social work has found this one place to reside amongst the noblest and arguably the most sacred of causes, "Child Protection". It is here, in this sacred place, that some social workers can hide from being scrutinised and being accountable. It is within the walls of "Child Protection" that they are shielded by the power of the organisation (the government) and the law.

They make decisions that will determine the future of not just the child but also the parents, grandparents, siblings etc. There is no opportunity to confront poor decision making because they will not under any circumstances admit that they may have made a mistake or could have made different more informed decisions. They are not open to the idea that people change and therefore parents change. They are unable to comprehend that children are sometimes better off with parents who are willing to be taught to parent differently rather than being placed in alternate care which often is more damaging.

I have learnt so much by being an advocate for parents whose kids have been removed by child protection services. I have learnt that there are many versions of Social Work and not very many are the same as mine. I have learnt that there are many social workers who don't believe in change and that they parent blame and that they are judgemental. I have felt the injustice parents feel when confronted with a system which doesn't listen to them, and fails to understand the distress associated with losing a child. I have felt anger like I have never felt it before as I know I am being lied to and that the worker is not able to deliver anything that we are asking but they don't have the guts to tell us. Recently I was talking to two social workers from Kadina office, Paul and Keiron, and I now know that they were never going to deliver on anything they said. I wanted to believe in them so much, I wanted to believe that they were going to make a difference and that they were going to believe in my client. Unfortunately they were never going to return the child to her parents. What was really disappointing was that they didn't have the guts to make a stand against their manager Patrick who for some bizarre reason banned me from having a meeting with them in the first place. From that point on I guess I should have realised that it wasn't going to go anywhere.

I have decided to no longer advocate for this parent, not because I don't believe in her but because FSA have now made it so difficult to have a relationship with them that it has made my work redundant. Patrick the manager has told me in no uncertain terms that I am only permitted to have conversations with him and not the two workers. Is this man a control freak or what? So much for the notion of building partnerships. How little respect he must have for Paul and Keiron. I would be pretty upset if I was those two workers but there again perhaps they are so engrained in the culture that they think this behaviour is normal.

So, I will no longer have any meetings with FSA workers and particularly Patrick or any of the workers from his office or where he manages. This doesn't mean that I am going to stop fighting for change. What I have to do is find more creative ways to bring about change. What people like Patrick and others have failed to realise that if they were to work with me we could have brought about significant change that would have enhanced many peoples lives. But because they somehow saw me differently, buggered if I know how they saw me, they decided to do what most bullies do and that is demonise and ostracise the opponent. This is what Patrick has attempted to do. David Waterford on the other hand believed that by having conversations with me would be enough to placate me. This is done under the misguided belief that he has the power and that I would become compliant to his authority. When this didn't work he virtually did what Patrick is now doing.

At every level this has always been about the rights of the child. In the case which involves these people I have worked to have the child returned because I believe passionately that this is in the best interest of the child. That others in the same profession are unable to see this and want the child to remain in an environment which is damaging to her is a concept I am unable to understand. I can not believe that the social workers I mentioned above can demonstrate such blatant disregard to a child's well being when they are there to protect the child. I don't want to believe that this is about my involvement in the case but I do believe that if I wasn't involved the child would not be returned and the parents would be in a worse emotional condition. My involvement though has focussed on the ineptitude of workers and a process which is more about risk aversion than about the well being of children. I therefore become the problem, well that is what they would like others to believe.

The greatest lie I have heard, and it came from Patrick, is that they are acting in the best interest of the child. That is not true, it never has been true.

Tony Tonkin
Accredited Mental Health Social Worker
International Counselling Service
Ph 0414 883 153

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Social Work becomes personal

How often does Social Work become personal? I had an experience recently where I found myself feeling irritated and angry. I found myself saying something to the another Social Worker which was unprofessional and unhelpful to my client and the process we were endevouring to implement  I spoke in a threatening manner and made a statement which was rather attacking. The very behaviour which I abhor I found myself participating in. To think that I lost control when there wasn't anything that the other participants in the meeting were doing which was offensive. Fortunately I had a long drive after the meeting and used that time to consider what I had done and what there was about the meeting which caused me to feel so uncomfortable. I realise that I can not offer an excuse for bad behaviour so I am not doing that here. What I am reflecting on is why I chose to say what I did in the way I said it?

Often we are confronted with practice issues which are long standing and perhaps eat away at the core of our being. It is difficult sometimes to maintain a sense of calm when inside you are churning with resentment and bewilderment at the senseless behaviour of others. I think it is even more frustrating when we can see the issue very clearly and when other professionals don't "get" it we begin to wonder if we are the one who is missing something vital here.

It takes a great deal of courage to believe in the stance you may be making. Regardless of the monolithic system which prohibits your client from having a voice. It is important for each one of us to resist the temptation to give up and believe in what "the system" may be wanting us to believe. Social Workers often became integrated into the dominant system and fail to think beyond it, or fail to fight it from within. What I am unable to understand is why Social Workers consistently fail clients by acquiescing to values which contradict those of the profession.

When I was confronted recently with a Social Worker who was working hard to engage with the client and to say the "right" things, I found myself becoming very uncomfortable. Given that the Social Worker was doing the above it surprised me that I felt so hostile towards him. What I came to realise that it didn't matter how competent he was at engaging with the client he was unable to provide the solution we have been working towards for a number of years. Even if he believed the parents offered no threat to their daughter he was unable to provide a pathway for her to be returned to them. He insisted that he worked independently of "the system" and that he didn't care what those in authority thought, he was going to make his own assessment and do what he thought was in the best interest of the child. What caused me to respond so badly was that as much as I wanted to believe that he had the best intentions and that he would be able to provide a better outcome for this child, I realised that this rhetoric meant nothing because there was no plan on offer and their was no discussion around how the child could be best returned to the parents.

In my mind I was transported back to a place, twelve months before, when we had asked for an assessment to be done of the family and even though the department acknowledged improvements it cut the access from one day to week to a few hours a fortnight. Never before have I felt so betrayed. That feeling of betrayal still sits deeply in my gut. I could see us heading back to this position and there is no way I wanted myself nor my client to experience this sense of humiliation and hopelessness again. Writing about this now brings the emotions to the surface and I can feel the anger stirring inside me.

Even though I have acted badly around this emotion, I have apologised to this poor unsuspecting Social Worker, I will always use this emotion to realise how cruel other professionals can be, and that no matter how well-meaning a worker may be, it isn't until they produce a plan which fits with the clients and is working towards the same outcome that there will be a complete sense of trust.

If you are unable to do what we are asking then for God sake be honest and DON"T sugar coat your conversations with me nor my client. That is so disrespectful and patronising and devalues out profession.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The cost of having a voice

I am enthralled when I hear someone fighting in the best way they can for what they believe in. It doesn’t matter whether they are right or wrong in the eyes of others what matters is that they have found the strength to state their version of the truth and often in choosing colourful  language to do so. You can hear their anger at the injustice they believe has been perpetrated against them and others. You can hear the desperation to be heard. You can hear the pain associated with being a lone voice. Sometimes you hear the intelligence and courage associated with not being compliant to a system which is more powerful.

I was inspired to write this blog because recently I have been considering what it means to be an advocate and what it means to self-advocate. There is a Facebook page attacking Families SA in the most ferocious and I believe the most unhelpful ways. It is full of personal attacks, naming workers and threatening physical harm. Even though I accept the emotions expressed I wonder about what some of these people wish to accomplish. As a social worker I would be very concerned to think that children were in the care of people who expressed their anger in such aggressive ways. I know that if I was a worker who was threatened in this way it could generate a degree of fear which would impede the work I do. I can remember a time when I had to lock down my office because of a threat from a client. It was a very uncomfortable period and one I wouldn’t wish on anyone. It does anything but enhance the relationship with the workers.

Recently a client, when told the department was going for a GOM 18, she destroyed the office and threatened the workers. They placed a restraining order on her and decided that what they saw was the sum total of this woman and therefore she wouldn’t ever get her children returned to her. She attended an anger program and realised how unhelpful this behaviour was and wrote a letter apologizing for her behaviour and acknowledging how this must have impacted the workers. The letter was beautifully written and full of remorse, it was genuine. But regretfully the damage was done. Fighting back from this position is almost impossible. I can understand the emotions of the moment but there is no excuse for threatening and damaging behaviour. I do wonder how this news was delivered and what effort the workers had made to engage with the client in a meaningful way in the first place.

However what inspired me to write this is also a YouTube video where a person visited by child protection services videoed the proceedings. To view the video click here. This is an interesting exercise in what to do and what not to do. He told them when he first opened the door that he was going to record the event. They were on his property so he was entitled to do what he wanted I guess. The Social Worker though objected and became defensive from that moment on. Any form of negotiating was lost from that moment. I would have thought that an important aspect of Social Work is to engage the client. The Social Worker, if quick enough, could have responded by saying, “that is a great idea, you then wouldn’t mind if we recorded what happens as well?” Being defensive creates clouded thinking and prohibits clear and creative ideas.

I am not sure why the police were present, I have no information concerning the history of this person, but the police represent power and authority, which probably indicates that the workers were not feeling very confident in their skills to engage with the client. This probably says more about the workers than the client.

I loved the way the client was specific about his rights. Why is it such a surprise to workers to have someone state their rights in this manner and then for the workers to become almost offended when they are asked to leave the property. In the second video I loved the way the client asked who signed the warrant and if it was really a magistrate. A little over the top perhaps but a sign of too much confidence at this stage. I become very frustrated when I hear people justifying their position to people who don’t give a damn. It was obvious the Social Worker was not interested in what the client was saying even though to her credit she remained silent for most of his explanation.

Why didn’t the Social Worker ask him questions, which explored his experiences? Why didn’t she offer him feedback, paraphrasing or summarising, to demonstrate that she was listening and understanding him? Why couldn’t she identify his strengths, his love for his daughter, his efforts to be a good father etc? Why couldn’t this have become a positive experience instead of a confrontational exercise in who wields the most power?

How hard would it have been to have said to the client, “look, how about we sit down here on the steps and talk about what is happening to you and see if we can help?” I believe that statements of this kind if delivered with sincerity and supported by the appropriate skill set can turn most situations into a mutually beneficial experience.

What was very disappointing was that even though he knew the workers were going to return the following day he made no effort to clean up the home. I have no idea if the condition of the home was a significant issue but the fact that the workers were keen to look through it should have been an indicator that it was a major factor in their investigations. I would have spent all night cleaning the house. So I wonder what motivated him to take no action. If it was arrogance and too much self confidence or a burning desire to have a confrontation then unfortunately I have very little sympathy for him. All the good advocacy he did and the video are worth nothing.

This is not about how loud we can shout or how cleverer than others we are, it is about protecting kids from harm and for a lot of people, about not having them removed, but sometimes I see people, from both sides, acting in ways which are counter productive and damaging to the cause. It saddens me.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Child Protection and Psychiatric Care

Again there is another inquiry into Child Protection. The Queensland Government has commenced the third Child Safety Inquiry in 14 years. As is often the case with every effort to discuss the poor state of the Child Protection Industry we hear of the abuse the state has inflicted on innocence.

In an article in the Brisbane Times we are told of a young person who is placed in an adult psychiatric institution where she suffered every possible form of abuse. It horrifies me the power the medical profession wields in these matters and how when we talk about child protection we rarely talk about the abuse inflicted by the Psychiatric profession.

As responsible as Social Workers may be for poor practice in this area I know that the Psychiatric profession has responsibility for the most vulnerable in our community. Any abuse conducted under their watch is dismissed as necessary because of “uncontrollable and unregulated patient behaviour”.

In the same way that the Government protects it’s workers from criticism so does the medical profession protect its practices. The only difference is that other health professions may feel guilty or, at least, look to vary their practice, with the medical profession this is most unlikely. What change have we seen regarding the treatment of mental wellbeing in recent times? None that I have noticed. We have a wider array of diagnosable illnesses than ever before, all treatable by the use of medication. Who holds them to account for the use of medicating our young and for the way these young people are treated behind the closed doors of the hospital.

I was reminded of a young person I was working with, over ten years ago, who told me the that she was restrained and taken to the local children’s hospital and was placed in the Psych word. She was confused, distressed and with no support from friends or family. In this distressed state she was seen to be uncontrollable so she was set upon by four orderlies who threw her on the bed, pulled down her pants, and injected her in the backside. She talked about the humiliation she felt, an emotion which was still present. Tell me how this sort of treatment isn’t Child Abuse. If a parent treated a child in this manner in order to give them their medication they would be charged with assault and probably have the child taken from them. In the confines of a medical environment almost anything goes.

In the Brisbane Times article there were many professionals present but NO ONE chose to make a stand for the children being abused. No one saw that there may be a different and more effective way to work with my client either. As this blog is written, and as you are reading this, take a moment for to think about those lost and vulnerable people who are at this moment being abused because they are unable to cope with the stressors their lives have provided. Some of these abuses will be conducted by the very professions which are relegated to a level of authority which is never questioned and which conducts itself like a secret society, above the purview, of us mere mortals. 

The medication of children as young as six months with Ritalin, is equally abusive but I have yet to hear of a medical practitioner being charged with unprofessional conduct or abuse.

We need to offer a voice for all those whom we work with. To allow this institutionalised abuse to continue places us along side the abuser. We become as one and our silence allows it to continue.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Child Protection and Great Social Work

A few weeks ago a client had organised a meeting with their new workers from Families SA. When the client told them that I would be attending they told her that if I was present they would call the meeting off. My client was told that this was because the issues they were to discuss had nothing to do with me and was general access arrangements etc. On a couple of previous occasions my client had terrible experiences with FSA workers and was unsure as to how this meeting was to go regardless as to how benign it was to be.

My reason for being there was to ensure that any of the previous behaviours were not revisited and that my client was treated with respect and that she was heard. I had been told by the CE that the department didn’t have an issue with advocates being present during meetings with clients. I was bemused by the response of the supervisor in this instance because I had never met him and what I understood from my client he seemed more than reasonable. Up until this moment I was looking forward to meeting him.

I was son concerned about his response that I contacted a senior department officer and asked if he could intervene. He responded by telling me that if I wanted to be at the meeting then it was my decision. It has always been my policy to back out if the work I was doing interfered with the best possible outcome for the client. This was one of those moments where I was questioning the efficacy of my work. I discussed this issue with the client and left it for her to decide if I should be present for this meeting. Over the few days prior  to the meeting I was confused as to whether I should be present or not. I spent considerable time briefing my client on what she should be asking and how she could present her case. She had researched her issues and was very prepared by the morning of the meeting.

By this time I had decided to attend, believing that it was in the best interest of my client for me to attend. I was a little curious as to the reasons why this person would not want me to attend a legitimate meeting of this kind. I had written an email to the department, made a phone call, and felt confident that by the time of the meeting the social workers would have known that I was going to be present.

The social workers were a little vague as to the exact time of the meeting. My client was told that it would be some time in the morning. I wondered how they would feel if they were told to be prepared for a meeting but not told what time it would be held. However, nothing within Families SA surprises me anymore.

Not knowing  the exact time of the meeting was initially a  problem for me but because I was still on leave I wasn’t inconvenienced. I arrived quite early for the meeting, quite understandable given that we didn’t have a time. After a nervous wait for an hour finally the supervisor and social worker arrived. As they walked in the door they noticed me and immediately commented that because I was present they had to leave. I told the supervisor that it was suggested by someone more superior to him that I could be present. I rang my contact and handed the phone to him. A long conversation took place while the social worker, the clients and I made small talk. The supervisor returned and told me that it was his decision and even though he didn’t’ make a comment one way or the other it was obvious that they were not going to leave. They had travelled a long way for the meeting and because this was the first opportunity to meet with the client it probably didn’t make sense to turn around and go home. I think a lot could be said for meetings that occur out of the office. If I was present within their setting I am sure that I would have been asked to leave.

What I wanted to report was that the meeting that followed was the most amazing and respectful experience I have ever encountered. The supervisor, listened, explained his position respectfully, didn’t bully or denigrate the client. Agreed that some of the decisions made by the department could have been made differently. He acted like a Social Worker. This man who didn’t want me at the meeting was the best practicing social worker I have ever met.

For the first time in four years my client felt heard and understood and more importantly, believed. I left the meeting wondering why all this other stuff was present in the first place. Why did they make this about me? I still don’t understand how such competent social workers can make and assessment of someone they haven’t met and be so disrespectful of me and my position and relationship with the client but have such well defined ethics and skills when working with the client.

Again, there is nothing that surprises me but a lot I still wonder about.

Family Court and Child Protection

I have recently been working with a couple of cases which involved the family court and child protection issues. In one of those cases we pleaded with family to investigate the abuse we believed was being imposed on the daughter by the father who had access to the child. The history if this man was one of immense abuse and there was strong evidence that the abuse was continuing while the child was in his care.

From the time the case was first presented to me until the present has been ten months and it has only been in the past couple of days that the CPS has completed their report. The mother has asked for and was granted a safety plan thanks to some good social work by Families SA. This meant that the mother had to contravene an order of the the Family Court by refusing to hand over her daughter. On one hand we have a mother who is petrified every time that he child is on access, because she wonders if the child will be returned to her at all, or that the child will be harmed, or that the child may even be killed by the father. We can only imagine what that must be like for the mother. She has done everything humanly possible to protect her child from this abusive man. She recently was told that because she contravened the Family Court order she may be found in contempt of the court, be convicted and given a suspended sentence.

When the child was physically assaulted by the father and the child was taken to the local hospital to be assessed it took Families SA six weeks to visit the child and make and assessment. By this time the bruising and forensic evidence need was week if non existent.

So this mother who was, by anyone’s assessment, doing all that she could to protect her daughter may now be punished for doing what we expect any mother to do, protect her daughter.

When a case is before the Federal Court it appears that child protection services are reluctant to act. Why this is a so remains a mystery. If a child is at risk of harm it shouldn’t matter what the warring parties are doing in the Family Court. Nor is it up to the Social Workers to make a decision based on the punitive behaviours of both parents towards each other. What is important is what is in the best interest of the child. We agree that often parents don’t understand that concept and from some of the people that I work with appear to be more interested in the battle with the other party rather than focusing on the children.

Then there are the solicitors who are more interested in the parental battle than they are in the best interest of the child. I guess the child doesn’t pay them. It is interesting that in the matter I mentioned above it seemed more important for the solicitors of the parents to use every possible avenue to punish the mother for wanting to protect the child against the father. I understand the need to advocate for the father but at the expense of the mental and physical wellbeing of the child seems inhumane and disrespectful of the child. The appointing of a children’s lawyer in this instance seemed counter productive because he failed to see the abuse the father was causing.

There are so many competing ideas in these matters that it is almost understandable that there is not the space to compromise or put aside personal agendas for the sake of the child. It is sad though that the needs of individuals becomes what governs the outcome.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

A Truth about Child Protection

There is no secret that there is much about Child Protection services which I have objected to in this blog and elsewhere. Now there is an issue which keeps presenting which I am unable to understand. This week I watched on the SBS Insight program a group of people talk about Child Protection and how it has impacted peoples lives. What struck me was the refusal for people to talk about the real reason why Child Protection fails our community, parents and children.

It would be helpful if Social Workers practiced according to Social Work principles but then there is the more important need for the community to become more involved in the issues concerning the protection of children and the education of parents who are struggling. Every day I work with parents from all socio economic backgrounds who have struggled with the job of parenting. Most people would acknowledge that it is the hardest job to do and that the outcomes are not always what they would like. I work with parents who wonder about how their children have become drug addicts, abuse alcohol or are violent. Parents sit before me wondering how their child/ren have become this self centred, egocentric being that apparently doesn’t reflect any of the parents standards.

Somehow, according to the parents, society has failed them, children have too much freedom, we are unable to discipline them as we were disciplined, they spend all their time in their bedrooms and they no longer know how to associate with their own peer group. Kids these days are not only confronted by bewildered parents who feel hopeless and helpless, they are made to feel responsible for the confusion that sits in their lives. If their behaviour is deemed too difficult to manage then we drug them and label them as having a behavioural disorder or ADHD. We give them drugs and later tell them that taking drugs to solve your problems is not the solution. As parents we fail to take responsibility for how our children are interpreting their world.

What has any of this got to do with Child Protection? The connection is simple. As a society we don’t care about how children are raised because we fail to acknowledge the importance of parenting. Doesn’t it make sense then that if a parent calls a Government Department to seek help because they are struggling with this thing called “parenting” that we would have at our finger tips state run programs designed to help parents.

Rather than asking parents to take responsibility for their behaviour and the impact that has on children it is in the governments best interest to blame the parent rather than offer real help. The representative from FIN, on the Insight program, was correct when he identified the failing of governments to fund programs which help parents.

Why don’t we have a group of specialist who work intensely with parents, not just in their homes but in a class room setting? Why don’t we work with parents at a therapeutic level to help them understand what has brought them to this point? We need to understand the barriers which present us from parenting appropriately. In the groups I run I hear clients state that they don’t hit their children because they remember what it was like to be beaten by a parent. However they don’t acknowledge all the other attributes which make a good parent. They often are unable to manage other behaviours which damage children and relationships.

I wonder what it would be like if Social Workers in Child Protection had the skills to enquire about parents experiences and then to build a relationship based on support and care that would enable the client to trust them enough to enable a substantive working relationship? If Social Workers had the time and the skill set to spend with clients so they could connect differently with their children the outcomes would be different and more children would be able to remain with their parents.

Social Workers in general (within the Child Protection Agencies) do not have the skills required to provide this sort of intervention.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Child Protection Manual–Families SA

Over the past couple of years I have written about Child Protection issues facing my clients and those that affect my practice as a Social Worker. I thought that it was about time that we have a considered look at the very manual purported to be used by Families SA.

What I find fascinating is that this manual, I believe, is an accurate guide of Child Protection Services and the principles which underpin Social Work. The question has always been what aspect of this Manual are not understood and why is it that Social Workers fail to understand these principles. For the purpose of this blog I will point to only a few of these conflicting areas. Remember that there are many competing ideas and there will be some who work for Families SA who will disagree here. If you do then I encourage you to write your comments at the bottom of this post.
The governing principle is without dispute:-
Children and young people are entitled to be free from harm, have their rights upheld and their welfare promoted. For a child who has been, or is at risk of maltreatment, safety encompasses freedom from threat of danger, harm or loss. It also includes protection from physical, sexual and psychological harm and neglect and is essential if the child is to develop and reach independence.
Regarding the best interest of the child the Manual states:-
The importance of exercising the powers of the Act in the best interest of the child are recognised and consistent with the Family Law Act. If there is conflict of principles or interests, the best interest of the child shall prevail.
I doubt whether these is anyone who would disagree with either of these statements. What I have found confusing is the mantra offered by most Social Workers that they are acting in the best interest of the child. What the next part of the section “Best Interests” it goes on to say:-
This requires a sensitive judgement, based on skilled assessment, to
balance the struggle between the competing demands of immediate safety with the long-term psychological wellbeing of the child.
The key words are “sensitive” and “skilled”. What does “sensitive” mean in this context? It is complicated and requires a unique set of knowing's that go way beyond just acting in the best interest of the child. In fact in order to act in the best interest of the child the worker has to have a range of sensitivities. This includes the parents history and their capacity to change, cultural considerations, support and resources, understanding of the parents strengths, relationship building etc. Crossing over with these sensitivities are a range of skills, empathy, communication, reflection, listening, assessment, non-judgmentalism, counselling, mediation, advocacy, brokerage. There are also a range of further understandings including, family relationships, child development (not just attachment theory), system theory, strengths perspective, distribution and use of power, domestic violence, anger management, mental health, disability, working with diversity, working with indigenous clients and culturally diverse clients.
Herein lies the first problem. In order to fulfill the role of a Social Worker in child protection you are going to need a wide range of skills, training and supervision to meet the most basic requirements as outlined in the Family SA Practice Manual. When Social Workers are bereft of these skills they will make poor decisions and not only leave children at risk but also fail to assess the families capacity to care for the child. The end result is often a greater focus on risk management rather than an effort to practice according to the principles which underpin Social Work and which are supported by the Practice Manual.
The Manual mentions that the governing principle of Child Protection is in accord with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The manual refers to the convention by stating the following:-
The preamble to the Convention recognises the rights of all members of the family and recognises the family as having prime responsibility for the growth and well-being of all members, particularly children.
Why is then that in many cases the family is ignored as being even relevant and on too many occasions we see children being removed without any or very little consultation with the family. In a recent new paper article from the UK it was reported that in some council areas there was a significant reduction on removals because a change in policy which focused on family preservation was proving more effective than removing a child. What changed was a change in practice by the Social Workers. One wonders what that must have saved the government in terms of out of home care?
Now lets move to what the legislation is actually saying about what is in the best interest of children:-
In determining a child’s best interests, consideration must be given to the following:
(a) the desirability of keeping the child within the child’s own family and the undesirability of withdrawing the child unnecessarily from a neighbourhood or environment with which the child has an established sense of connection;
(b) the need to preserve and strengthen relationships between the child, the child's parents and grandparents and other members of the child's family (whether or not the child is to reside with those parents, grandparents or other family members);
I can hear some Child Protection workers screaming that this all seems to pick out issues around the families and their rights and isn’t focusing on the child. The focus on the child and their wellbeing is a given and never needs to be discussed. What I am discussing her are the competing ideas which are part of the equation but rarely considered. I am arguing though that if considered in many cases a better outcome for the child is likely to be found.
If these principles were upheld I am sure that Kim’s Story would not have been needed to be told. Recently Kim told me that he mother was going to be in the same town as Kim was having access with her child. Uncertain and fearful of the department, Kim didn’t know whether she should tell her mother where she was meeting with her child. She rang the Social Worker and asked if it was okay for her mother to meet with her daughter during access. The Social Worker clearly hadn’t read the manual because he said no, they needed more time and prior notice. What for? Some how family connections are not that important. Kim’s mother blamed her for this decision and is not talking to her. How is this decision going to strengthen family connections?
It is worth noting that no where in the Manual does it mention that the child is the client even though I have had Social Workers tell me that this is the case and that the parents in fact don’t have any rights. That is not true. The Manual doesn’t mention clients at all but rather focuses on family connections as being paramount. At no point does the Manual mention Attachment Theory as being critical in making an assessment even though this is a primary tool used by Social Workers to justify the removal of a child.
Under Partnership this is what the Manual has to say:-

When a child protection notification leads to Families SA intervention, the parents have a right to an open and honest approach from social workers who should provide a clear explanation of their powers, actions and reasons for concern. They should strive to maintain a constructive relationship with parents at all times. Participatory case planning will facilitate family members sharing the responsibility for intervention outcomes.

Partnership is working with parents/caregivers and their networks to enable them to carry out the responsibility shared by both the State and parents/caregivers to promote the welfare of children. It is not about equal power, but about working together toward a common goal. It involves attitudes, skills, policies, decision making, services, accountability, and openness. It seeks to build on existing strategies of families, acknowledge power differences, and to work positively withdifference. (Morrison, 1992).

Children and families are best served within a context of multi-disciplinary teamwork, co-operation and commitment to the protection and wellbeing of the child. Families SA should facilitate interagency collaboration and ensure clear communication between government, non-government and community services and networks to ensure best outcomes for children and their families.
All of this makes for good practice but so many times I see Social Workers giving up on clients because it all seems too hard. This is the worst form of Social Work I can imagine. What we need to understand is that the reason why people give up is because they don’t have the skill set to work with the client in the first place. This says more about the worker than it does about the client.
Under Outcomes the manual states:-
The focus of services will be on preserving families whenever possible and Families SA will work with families to strengthen their parenting capacity and to ensure family responsibility for the care and protection of their children.
When Social Workers fail to identify strengths and are unable to provide a skilled assessment of clients then it is only inevitable that they will make mistakes and harm children.
It is evident from just the first few pages of the manual that the principles are not followed and that the practice frameworks of many Social Workers (not all) are the antithesis of Social Work and the Manual that is their to guide them.