Effective Social Work with Children, Young People and Families: Putting Systems Theory into Practice

Books

Steven Walker

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  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Part I: The Practice Implications of Theoretical and Philosophical Foundations

    Part II: Dilemmas and Challenges in Applying Systems Theory in Practice

    Part III: Creating the Difference that Makes a Difference

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    Copyright

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    Dedication

    To Anna and Evie

    Acknowledgements

    I first met Eileen Munro when I did postgraduate study in social work and social policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science nearly thirty years ago. This followed voluntary work with the Family Welfare Association in Hackney, East London. Eileen was among a group of inspiring, dedicated and knowledgeable people with expertise and skills in every aspect of social work. Today Professor Munro is one of the country's leading child protection experts and rightly was selected to review child protection for the coalition government that came to power in 2010.

    Others who have had an impact on me subsequently include: every client I have worked with; every student I have learned from; and every colleague I have worked with or been motivated by as a practitioner or academic. The following people especially require my gratitude: Joy Nield, Hugh Jenkins, Rose Rachman, Shula Ramon, Bob Holman, Lena Dominelli, Peter Leonard, Steve Herington, Jane Dutton, Annie Turner, Barry Mason, Damian McCann, Andrew Maynard, Maire Maisch, Ann Jackson-Fowler and Judy Hicks. There are many others I could mention and while space does not permit their inclusion here their absence does not imply a lesser importance to me: they will know who they are. I am also indebted to Sage and Sarah Gibson for their confidence and support and the practical help offered by Katie Forsythe and the copyeditor and proofreader. Any omissions in terms of copyright or acknowledgement are regretted and will be rectified upon notification.

    The strength and love I derive from Isobel and Rose ensure they are my bedrock and secure base, as well as the source of much support and inspiration. There is a symmetry about my beginnings in social work in Hackney more than three decades ago and the contemporary inner city borough as the crucible for the ideas and practices informing the Munro Report and its current impact on social work practice. The circle feels complete. Hindus and Buddhists have a word for this, Karma, which refers to actions/deeds that cause a cycle of cause and effect, or in Tibetan parlance, this means a continuous pursuit or flow of life. The cover image for this book is a Mandala, which is the Sanskrit word for a circle, and a variety of images can be found to symbolise this. The Celtic circle is also a variation on the theme of an unending circular link which is highly symbolic of systems theory.

    About the Author

    Steven Walker has worked in social work for thirty years, starting as a volunteer with the Family Welfare Association in Hackney, East London. His work has included all aspects of social work with children, young people and families: adoption and fostering; family support; child protection and safeguarding; residential child care; youth justice; therapeutic work; domestic violence and forced marriage. He is a senior social work academic, consultant and expert witness, with eight published books, and has recently conducted research into the mental health effects on young people suffering from cyber-bullying.

    Introduction

    It is reported that Nelson Mandela once said ‘There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children’ (Bakan, 2011). Bakan understands the importance of keeping children in mind in this thoughtful and compassionate text which echoes key themes throughout the following pages. The changing context of children and young people's services involving the planned structural, organisational and funding changes heralded in the Munro Report, together with an austere economic environment, highlights the need for every social work practitioner to develop the capacity to undertake unified assessments and interventions in a wide variety of settings – with individuals, families and groups–where there are child protection/safeguarding concerns. Central to this prospect are a reduction in long-criticised bureaucratic procedures, the notorious Integrated Children's System, and the release of social workers to allow them to spend more time with families using a systems theory framework. However, it is noteworthy that the present government has not ring-fenced any extra funding or produced an outcomes timetable or any definitive measure of how the Munro proposals are to be measured and evaluated. This book has not been written as a dry theoretical text: it uses systems theory lightly to inform relatively simple practice changes that can make a difference to the safety and well-being of children and young people.

    The different ways children's services will develop will increase the requirement for staff to understand their particular role and responsibilities and how to enhance working together with others within new organisational systems. Such activity needs to be understood in the context of statutory duties, agency requirements and the needs and wishes of service users, specifically those of children and young people, and firmly underpinned by anti-racist and anti-discriminatory practice.

    ‘Child protection’ and ‘safeguarding children’ are used synonymously throughout social work and other agencies concerned with children's welfare. These terms appear interchangeably in social work texts, yet they will mean different things to different people while official government policy guidance can add to any confusion about the distinction between the two. They indicate a shift that was meant to take place after the Laming inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie, from a focus on investigative procedures designed to ‘prove’ abuse or harm which would lead to a child being placed on the Child Protection Register, and a care plan focused on their eventual removal from the register. The term ‘safeguarding children’ began to substitute ‘child protection’ as a signal that the focus for social work and other agencies would shift towards early intervention, the development of preventive resources and better working together/collaborative practice, especially communication between agencies. However, as Parton (2011) argues the recently elected government has shifted the emphasis back toward child protection, implying a policy of increased surveillance of vulnerable families and targeted interventions based on assumptions drawn from dubious risk assessment factors. Both of the above terms will feature in this text to acknowledge their currency and historical use among a variety of agency staff.

    Recent estimates from reputable researchers, including those from the Institute of Fiscal Studies (Jin, 2011), indicate that current government policies will push an extra 300,000 children below the poverty line, while England and Wales still imprison more 14 year olds than any other European Country (Home Office, 2010). Thus the social policy context, which is a crucial aspect of systems theory and practice, is challenging practitioners to think differently.

    In Britain at least one child dies each week as a result of adult cruelty. It has been estimated that about 5000 minors are involved in prostitution in Britain at any one time. In 2010 there were about 384,200 children in need in England. Of these 69,100 were looked after in state care while the rest were in families or living independently (DfES, 2010). By the end of the same year there were 21 per cent of children in Britain living in poverty, increasing their risk of neglect (DWP, 2011). One quarter of all rape victims are children. Seventy-five per cent of sexually abused children do not tell anyone at the time. Each year about 30,000 children are on child protection registers. Recorded offences of gross indecency with a child more than doubled between 1985–2010, but convictions against perpetrators actually fell from 42 per cent to 19 per cent. Fewer than one in fifty sexual offences results in a conviction, plus there is still a major shortfall in the supervision and treatment of sexual offenders thus reducing the opportunity to reduce re-offending rates.

    This statistics sample conveys the scale of the problem facing those who care about children's welfare and want to safeguard them. Individual and family-level factors have historically dominated the analysis and locus of child protection legislation, policy and practice. With the publication of the Munro Report (2011a) there is now an opportunity to ensure that the community-level factors inherent in child abuse and neglect are fully considered. There is now a more intensive focus on integrated work in safeguarding children and young people, and a reminder if one was needed to maintain every child at the centre of all activities. This means reinforcing the conclusions drawn from evidence that demonstrates that child abuse is everybody's business. And this does not just mean every professional working with children but the whole community system within which children and young people live, work, play and are educated.

    The police always remind us that they cannot stop crime without the help of the community and it is the same with safeguarding children. An African proverb states that it takes a whole village to raise a child, while ancient Maori custom expects whole communities to get involved when a family has a problem. This is not a manifesto against professionalism but an illustration of a neglected area in modern welfare organisation which has lost sight of the fundamentals in our computerised, technocratic and bureaucracy-driven culture. Our task is to find innovative ways to engage communities and other systems in safeguarding children by encouraging and enhancing people's protective instincts that are currently dulled by stress, anxiety, oppression, discrimination, and social exclusion. Or, as Lord Laming put it: ‘Safeguarding children and child protection are too seldom considered to be everybody's business’ (Laming Report, 2003).

    This book is divided into three parts: the practice implications of theoretical and philosophical foundations; the dilemmas and challenges in applying systems theory in practice; and creating the difference that makes a difference. A systems concept is that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’, which neatly describes the book and its tripartite layout. The chapters have been organised into these separate parts in order to help the reader navigate their way to specific areas of interest and to provide a linked, thematic process through which will flow practical pragmatic advice, guidance, reflective activities and case studies. Difference, connectedness, interactivity, circular causality, uncertainty, constant change, reflective practice and skilled supervision are some of the central tenets of systems thinking. This book will equip social workers, students, managers and trainers with the knowledge base, cognitive skills and alternative perspective necessary to understand and harness systems theory in making effective assessments, care plans and interventions. It will enable them to explore a crucial practice resource in work with children and families and learn how the contribution of participatory practice can enrich this experience. The chapters offer practical guidance for different interventions and approaches based on systems theory and assist social workers in considering creative ways in which these might be used in working in partnership with individuals, families, groups and the community.

    ‘Collaborative working’ and ‘partnership working’ are terms that are used frequently in the practice guidance and professional literature, but without a great deal of reflection about their theoretical base, what they mean, or how to realise them in practice. Reflective practice is easier said than done but is now more than ever a critical facet of modern social work that is constrained by cutbacks, shortages and time pressures. Reflective practice is another fundamental aspect of the Munro recommendations and this book illustrates throughout how it should be a core skill for all staff, as well as fundamental to the learning requirements for trainee/student social workers and experienced practitioners. It will challenge the orthodoxy for compartmentalising practice processes that lead to narrow, resource-driven procedures and conflicts between agencies by revealing more efficient working practices through a systems lens. The core interdisciplinary systems methods and models of child and young person practice skills shared by staff in human services will be highlighted, explored and critiqued using up-to-date evidence and knowledge. The aim will be to produce a rich, informative resource that can be valued by a range of practitioners requiring a synthesis of systems theory and social work practice in an accessible, understandable, pragmatic and practice-focused text: it hopes to offer social workers practical resources to draw upon and also enhance a progressive perspective that will deliver empowering, child-focused practice. There is a need to provide social workers with an accessible, practice-oriented book to help guide their work in the developing context of multi-disciplinary team working, joint budget arrangements, care management and integrated services.

    This book is primarily aimed at social workers, but because of the nature of the Munro concept this will be of great value to an interdisciplinary audience including health, education and youth work practitioners. It will offer a valuable resource for those employed in statutory, voluntary or independent organisations offering support to children, young people and their families in the context of the imperatives of Every Child Matters (2003), The Children Act (2004), The National Service Framework (2004), Children's Trusts, new Working Together guidance (2010), the Social Work Reform Board (2010), the new Capabilities Framework (2011) and the Munro Report (2011), in addition to government policy drivers requiring the integration of children's services and the expansion of providers in the third/charitable sector. It will also be particularly relevant to students undertaking foundation degrees in social care, the early years and social work degrees, as well as social work practitioners who are embarking on social work post-qualifying studies or training.

    Terminology

    The terminology in this book has been kept as accessible as possible within the confines of the editorial guidelines and the intended audience. It is necessary however to explain how certain terms have been used in order to at least offer the reader sufficient context to understand their use. Principally there is still confusion and a lack of clarity about the terms ‘safeguarding children’ and ‘child protection’ as mentioned previously. Therefore both terms will appear throughout the text due to their continued use in legislative and practice guidance from government and employing organisations in health, social care and education contexts. This will ensure that the wide interprofessional readership feels included. ‘Culture’ is used in places where it is specifically defined but elsewhere it is used in the sense of the organisation of experience shared by members of a community, including their standards for perceiving, predicting, judging and acting. ‘Black’ is used in the contemporary accepted sense of meaning that group of people who by virtue of their non-white skin colour are treated in a discriminatory way and who experience racism at a personal and institutional level every day of their lives. ‘Race’ as a term is declining in use due to its origins in meaningless anthropological classifications by early imperialists seeking to legitimise their exploitation of indigenous land and wealth. It is a social construction but one that is still found in statutes, policy material and common parlance.

    ‘Therapy’ is used in the generic sense here to mean counselling, psychotherapy or systems practice that seeks to attend to the complex intra-familial and obscure web of connections within and between communities. ‘Ethnicity’ is subject to much definitional debate in the literature, but for clarity and brevity the term is used throughout this text to mean the orientation it provides to individuals by delineating norms, values, interactional modalities, rituals, meanings and collective events (Sluzki, 1979). ‘Family’ is also a term around which there is some debate as it is both a descriptor and a socially prescribed term loaded with symbolism. In this book the term is used to embrace the widest ethnic and cultural interpretation possible, one that includes same sex partnerships, single parents, step families, kinship groups, heterosexual partnerships and marriage, extended family groupings and friendship groups or community living arrangements.

    England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

    Within Britain there is huge diversity in the legislative and governmental guidance for safeguarding children and young people. This text has been generally based on English law for reasons of space and the avoidance of confusion. The Scottish system operates under its own legal system and system of guidance, while in Northern Ireland the health and social services boards make up a very different organisational context for child protection work. The devolved national assemblies in Scotland and Wales further add to this diversity. However, the book's contents have been adapted and designed to provide significant learning opportunities for practitioners in all the constituent countries of the United Kingdom and indeed other countries who are endeavouring to develop new ideas to tackle child abuse and provide appropriate family support: they will hopefully find much of value here.

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