The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care has been published less than a week, but there have already been many, many responses, analyses and commentaries. Most speak from their own particular interest angle, and that is what I will try to do, though I would like to make some general comments first.
As a social worker I have thoughts on the whole report and – full disclosure – my first qualified job was within a patch team where we served a small neighbourhood, working to build protective relationships and activate community initiatives, as well as providing direct support and intervention; so I am all in favour of small, locally based teams working together across different disciplines in a way that is defined by the neighbourhood itself, intervening early on before difficulties are entrenched or crisis point is reached.
We already know a number of things about the state of children’s social care, some of which receive the attention they deserve in this review. Social work is underfunded, social workers are under-supported, case-loads are too big, you may not receive help till crisis point is reached. Young and inexperienced social workers, with only basic training and minimal support, are often thrown in at the deep end to deal with complex and traumatic situations. Sometimes more experienced social workers are trying to make sense of complex family problems without adequate knowledge, supervision or resources. At the same time, there is a body of devoted, committed, amazing social workers carrying out exceptional, imaginative and creative work to support families in the direst of circumstances and with minimal recognition. Being able to hold both truths simultaneously has become an important part of the analysis and commentary on the state of social work.
Much of the work that social workers undertake involves supporting families in poverty, experiencing poor mental health or the impact of domestic abuse. It is good to see this acknowledged. But how to rebalance supporting families early on, with the need to properly investigate and protect when it is needed, is the crucial question. It is clear that what we cannot afford to do is to tinker at the edges. McAllister calls this adding another brick to the Jenga tower. Responding to crises has brought us to where we are. A “once in a generation chance” is a phrase that sounds impressive and attention grabbing. “Radical overhaul” and “no more money” though do not sit easily together, as people have been saying for the last 2 years. McAllister proposes a way through this conundrum that others more qualified than me will now pick over. So I will admit that I was surprised to find there was more to like than I had expected; but other bits that rang alarm bells in the level of expectation on communities to step-up; and I remain sceptical as to whether there is the political will, bravery, consistency and commitment needed to make the changes necessary to demonstrate that the safety and wellbeing of children and families are truly valued. Time will tell.
But from the point of view of families living with child to parent violence (CPV), and those working to bring about hope and greater safety for them, what does the review hold out for us?
The underlying difficulty has always been that CPV does not easily “fit” within any particular department, including within children’s social care. A responsibility to protect the child from, usually, the parent, has meant that families seeking help and advice from social workers have often been sent away, or have been offered parenting advice, or have been investigated for causing harm to the child which has brought about the violence and abuse towards themselves, or for failing to protect siblings. Thankfully this is changing as more and more authorities embrace an understanding of CPV which includes the many and varied contributory risks, and focuses on safeguarding the family as a whole unit.
Listening to the voices of families as to what they find most helpful, and to those of practitioners who are now experts in their field, there are a number of things that are consistently raised, at personal and systems levels: a need for greater knowledge and skills, an understanding of the family as a unit and the expertise that parents particularly hold, the importance of wider community and peer support, more consistent post-adoption and post domestic abuse support, better access to mental health services, the value of early help and of good communication between professionals and agencies – particularly involving education, the centrality of contextual safeguarding; but above all, the importance of respect and a non-blaming attitude, and of offering help not just assessment.
Did I expect CPV to receive a specific mention in the review? It is a question I have been asked. To be honest, no, though it would have been nice, given the amount of attention it has received as an issue of late. But each of the concerns listed above does get space as either valued components of the job or as areas for change and improvement, and if these fundamental things are right then all families benefit, whatever their difficulties. You might think they are pretty basic. They certainly look that way when listed like that. Is it disappointing that they have to be suggested as improvements? You bet!