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.