Monday, October 21, 2013

What’s wrong with Child Protection?

For years I have been writing about my involvement with clients who have become involved with the child protection system. I am always reading what is happening not just in Australia but all over the world. It interests me that there are very few jurisdictions where they have it “right”. My guess is that the Scandinavian countries tend to have a better understanding of social justice so seem to  have very few detractors. Because of  this perhaps their Social Workers tend to practice differently.

The problem is so complex it is often difficult just finding a starting point. I also understand that because I don’t work within the system I therefore may not understand the complexities. What I do understand is that the principles of Social Work are universal and it doesn’t matter how old you are or when you gained your degree or even how experienced you are the underlying values of Social Work are a constant.

Recently I met with a couple of colleagues who have spent some time working in Child Protection within the government system. They were more than pleased to talk about what’s wrong with child protection. It was somewhat heartening to hear others talk about a system which is damaged because of the lack of effective Social Work practice. A system driven by egos and a strong need to control others. One of these Social Workers predicted that the system will reach a critical mass and implode. This is a prediction which is likely to be realised but I wonder about all the people who will be damaged along the way. For one of my friends, talking about the system under which she worked, was a stressful and saddening experience, it became obvious that the damage caused to her by this unforgiving and relentless industry, was severe.

What I see are Child Protection staff working to establish a power base centred around controlling others and using very covert ways to punish, put down and denigrate others. Time and time again I see toxic relationships being developed between client and worker. I am sure that Social Workers don’t consider for a moment the power differential which exists between them and clients. I suspect that they rarely consider the language they use and the impact their decisions have on the wellbeing of the parent and child.

I am over hearing parents tell me that they have been told not to be emotional around their children during access. As one client stated to me this week. “They don’t have children of their own, they are so young, yet they ask me not to have any emotions when I see the children that I love and I only get to see them for one hour a week”. To ask a parent not to be emotional is just plain stupid. The idea that it will be upsetting to children is just as stupid. Kids need to see that expressing emotions is fine and particularly that they are not responsible for our emotions. What makes it worse is that the parent then is blamed for not moderating their emotions. It is an old fashioned idea which should be sent to the scrap heap. But what it does do is give the worker power and control over the parent and how the child is to experience them. Non-thinking, young social workers would get sucked into these ideas, unfortunately these ideas are propagated by older social workers who are even more stupid because they should be doing things differently. Parents who have these messages presented to them feel devalued, not listened too, disrespected and disempowered. None of this is going to improve the relationship between worker and client. Clients often become so resentful that they begin to push against the system and make life as uncomfortable as they can for the workers. I fail to see how generating two waring parties is about acting in the best interest of the child.

When are we ever going to understand that building relationships with disenfranchised parents is actually in the best interest of children? How are we ever going to break the cycle of abuse if we fail to understand that education and belief in the parent is an integral part of change. We fail to offer parents appropriate solutions to the problems that confront them. We blame them endlessly without weight to the fact that they are often the products of poor parenting.

We have to stop using attachment theory as a tool to justify the removal of a child and realise that the purpose of attachment theory was to educate parents about better ways to attach to their children. We should invest in attachment therapy and work with parents to better understand their own attachment needs rather than blame them for what their parents bestowed on them. 

All I see is the child protection system falsely believing that they are the better parent even though the statistics tell us something totally different. It is about time that Social Workers began to act like Social Workers and strive to change the way they work and to finally focus on the family. However what is lacking here are the skills required to do attain this goal. Social Workers, generally, lack counselling skills, advocacy skills, conflict resolutions skills, mediation skills, engagement skills, problem solving skills and many more. They lack knowledge concerning relationships, domestic violence, drug and alcohol use, gambling addiction and mental health.

From my perspective there are some massive changes which are required before the system works in the best interest of children. Social Workers are often only case managers, and the reason for this is that they are not expected to have the skills required to be effective at their work. It would be abhorrent to those who manage this industry if we actually worked to keep families together, after all it is really about the many people who profit from keeping children separate from their parents. We need to work differently so that parents can learn to nurture their children appropriately and break the cycle which has proved so damaging to them.