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.