Many social workers and their managers believe so strongly that an authoritarian approach to child protection is right that they not only feel comfortable trying to control families going through child welfare proceedings but also advocate strongly for such practices, according to research published by Dr David Wilkins, a Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Cardiff University, Assistant Director of CASCADE, and project lead at the What Works Centre which assists regulatory body Social Work England. 

The paper argues for an inclusive form of social work, where families feel empowered and safe. Dr Wilkins explains, “Working in a participatory way with families means, at the least, seeking to collaborate with rather than control or unduly influence them.” 

The research, which was published in 2017 in the British Journal of Social Work has been uploaded onto free research site Academia, and was co-produced with Charlotte Whittaker, the curriculum lead at social work training school The Frontline.

Charlotte is responsible for developing the teaching, learning and assessment of a practice model called motivational interviewing (MI), which Psychology Today describes as a practical, empathetic, short-term counselling method which helps people find the internal motivation they need to change their behaviour while taking into account how difficult it is to make life changes. It is this form of counselling that the research paper focuses on.

Dr Wilkins’ research highlights positive social work practices using MI which have made a difference to families’ lives while also pointing out the dangers of trying to control and coerce parents during child protection proceedings. The research also calls for ground-level reform within social work as well as structural reform to make sure that social workers can put children and families at the heart of their practice.

Parents reacted to the research on social media. One mother told Researching Reform:

“My Cafcass officer doesn’t collaborate on any level. She won’t even contact me directly. She does it through my solicitor costing me more money. Having been in a controlling relationship I definitely feel I have stepped straight into another with her.”

It’s incredibly important to point out that we don’t tolerate coercive behaviour in almost any other context – all we need to do is look at current legislation which prohibits people from using controlling behaviour in a relationship to get what they want from each other. We call that kind of conduct abusive because we know it damages adults, and children.

The paper is a must-read for anyone working with families in a child protection setting, and for families too who have either experienced the child welfare system or are going through it at the moment.

The research is also an important reminder that coercion never resolves an issue as families are never fully on board with an idea they haven’t engaged with or feel any agency towards. It traps families inside a cycle which sees them return to the child protection system over and over again.

This kind of control also creates a deep and lasting mistrust of social workers and the sector.

The research makes several interesting observations about social work practice:

“Participatory principles such as collaboration, empathy and the right to self-determination are embedded in many of the codes of ethics that underpin professional social work practice (BASW, 2012; Levin andWeiss-Gal, 2009). Unsurprisingly, almost all the workers we spoke to believed they embodied these principles in their work (or said they aspired to even if they were not always able to achieve them). And yet our analysis of observed practice suggests that many workers find it hard to acknowledge parents’ feelings, to respect their choices or to draw on their expertise. In discussion with these workers, we found that, whilst they could explain what principles such as collaboration and empathy meant in theory, they found it more challenging to describe how they might be shown in practice.”

Dr Wilkins is part of a growing group of social workers who believe that working collaboratively with families is essential to excellent social work practice and that the system is there to serve families and children. Researching Reform agrees with this view.

You can follow David over on Twitter at @David82Wilkins.