A new study published in the UK by Family Rights Group, suggests that cruel treatment of families by social workers is not only common but also affects the likelihood of positive outcomes in cases. The research concludes that social care can and should incorporate humane social work practices, even when the system is under pressure.

The report, “Stepping up, stepping down”, was co-authored by professors Kate Morris (University of Sheffield), Brid Featherstone (University of Huddersfield), and Katie Hill (University of Nottingham) and Dr Mike Ward (Open University).

The researchers collaborated with 20 families as part of the Your Family, Your Voice Alliance, which the report says is a national initiative seeking to “develop humane evidence-informed policies and practices”.

The report includes the views of 27 adults and 10 children. Over 80% of the families interviewed have been involved with welfare services for more than five years.

The study highlights inhumane and cruel encounters families experience inside the social work sector, and offers some heartbreaking stories shared by service users:

‘She saw me sobbing in reception and she walked past me twice and then said there were nothing wrong’ I said to the social worker I wasn’t prepared to leave because XXX was being sick, he was alone and somebody needed to be with him. But it seemed that nobody wanted to listen to what we had to say …It was horrible. All I wanted to do was hug him and I couldn’t hug him, I had to sort of hold him here because he was covered in sick; his clothes were covered in sick. It was crusted where they had not changed his clothes.”

“I don’t feel like she had any time for us at all. I didn’t feel like she wanted to listen, she had made her mind up before she had even got here. I think the thing is, because XXX’s dad has got a history of drug use and prison, she formed an opinion before she met me. I have never taken drugs and have never been in prison. What happened was she came into the meeting, a child in need meeting at school, and me and (my partner) had an argument. She sat there and said, “I was driving here today in the car and I was thinking, ‘shall I put this on child protection or shall I just kick it out? No, I think I will put it on child protection’ “. That is exactly how she said it, in front of all the other people. I thought, ‘How can you make that judgement on one…?’ She met me once. Then she has made a judgement coming to work in her car. That put me off her straight away.”

“They released her sedated after midnight without letting anyone know, she got attacked trying to get home, staggering around with the tablets and we didn’t know.”

The families who took part in the study were selected from the following services:

  • A Post-adoption support project
  • A Family Intervention Project focused on families with multiple problems including antisocial behaviour
  • Three Local Authority (LA) Children’s Services working with highly vulnerable children and families
  • A service working with sexual exploitation and abuse
  • A support group for survivors of domestic abuse and their children
  • A national advice and advocacy service for families whose children were involved with children’s services
  • Two self-help organisations involving families with multiple needs.

There were five key findings from the report:

  1. Services were multiple but scarce, fragmented and siloed
  2. Constant reminders that resources were scarce produced barriers between families and social services, making positive engagement much harder
  3. Not enough time spent with families and too many delays combined to create feelings of abandonment, resentment and misunderstandings
  4. Interpersonal skills are deeply valued by families
  5. Families are often left out of service design, and had negative experiences when complaining about poor service.

The report also offers five key messages from these findings:

  1. Fragmented services leave families feeling demeaned, and need to be streamlined
  2. Develop everyday practices that acknowledge poverty and the impact that has on family life and work with families to try to address their financial and economic needs
  3. Demonstrate respect for families through good timekeeping and where timeliness is difficult, recognise that can also be the case for families
  4. Utilise the knowledge of families to inform professional development and to support the development of humane practice
  5. Involve families in thinking about the commissioning of services , and use the expertise of families who have experience of the child welfare system to develop and evaluate the services.

We are heartened by this latest research and thrilled to see this thinking entering the mainstream. Kudos to the authors.


Family Experiences In Photos, From Stepping Up, Stepping Down Report, October 2018.