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Promoting humane social work with families

Date:22 FEB 2016
On 19 February 2016 I attended the conference about promoting humane social work at Kings College London, which had been organised by the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) in conjunction with the University of Bedfordshire and Making Research Count. For more details on this conference, see the BASW website.

I am very grateful to Brid Featherstone for inviting me. It was both an interesting and inspiring day. Have a look on Twitter using #cpchange2016 for tweets about the discussions and issues raised.

I hope we can continue the conversation further at the Second Child Protection Conference on 3 June 2016, organised by the Transparency Project. We will be joined by many of those who spoke today - it is clear that top of the agenda must be to discuss how we can go about setting up an organisation for parent advocates; it works in Finland and it works in NYC.

Why organise this conference?

Guy Sheenan, (the current Chair of BASW), Brid Featherstone (Professor of Social Work at the University of Huddersfield) and Maggie Mellon (Vice Chair of BASW) opened the conference, explaining why they had organised it. Social workers needed to find their voice as difficult conversations needed to be had.

What kind of society do we want? Is social work about 'helping' or 'fixing'? What's going wrong, and what can we do about it? The paradox is that we pump enormous amounts of resources into a system that doesn't seem to be helping - in fact, can often be terrifying for families. There is too much focus on a complex system that 'investigates' more than it helps.

This was one of the most popular tweets of the day from the CPR Twitter:

The views of parents

Amanda Boorman of charity The Open Nest spoke of her experiences with her adopted daughter, and how she made contact with her birth family to enable her daughter to make sense of her history. She showed a short film, 'Severance', which showed daughter and mother meeting after five years of separation; powerful, moving and very compelling watching for anyone tempted to think adoption is a panacea for all the problems of traumatised children.

We need to think more critically about what we are trying to achieve and how we do it.

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Blogger Surviving Safeguarding spoke of her wish to set up a national scheme of parent advocates, to enable others to get the help and insight she had needed to successfully fight for her son.

She spoke powerfully of her experiences, including her recognition that she had to take ownership of her own difficulties. But neither she nor her family were helped by a punitive and adversarial approach from her local authority. Her story is also told by journalist Louise Tickle in The Guardian.

Working together to change a system

The impact of parents to act as a powerful 'countervailing force' against a rigid bureaucracy was taken up by David Tobis, author of 'From Pariahs to Partners: how parents and their allies changed New York City's child welfare system'.

A sociologist, David has worked with UNICEF and other organisations to improve child welfare systems around the world. For 25 years, he has worked particularly with the child welfare system in New York City which, in the 1990s, was one of the worst in the USA. By marshalling the energies of parents who worked with other allies such as lawyers and social workers, it was possible to create and sustain real and positive change; the numbers of children taken into care falling from 50,000 to about 10,000.

David was clear that none of us can do this on our own. We need to work together. Bringing parents into the process allowed them to tell their stories and be seen as humans, not monsters. This connection helped ease feelings of stigma and shame about seeking help.

The day finished with further panel discussion from Andy Bilson (Emeritus Professor of Social Work at the University of Central Lancashire), Ruth Allen (incoming CEO of BASW), Professor Sue White (of Birmingham University), Anna Gupta (Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Royal Holloway, University of London) and Marion Russell (principal social worker at Cornwall County Council).

We also heard contributions from the floor, from two parents whose children are in care expressing their frustration with the process and echoing the need for change.

Cathy Ashley also spoke of the work of the Family Rights Group and the work of the Your Family Your Voice Alliance, and urged people to join.

Where do we go from here?

The underlying principle of the day was probably summed up best by Brid Featherstone:

I hope we can continue this very necessary conversation with contributions from everyone involved - parents, lawyers, social workers, experts and children. Not only are the Transparency Project organising an event later in the year, but also the Your Family Your Voice Alliance will be meeting on 22 June 2016.

What we need to do now is put conversation into action.

Reference, too, to Margaret Mead: we need to be reminded more often of the truth of this:

'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has'.

This article was originally published on the Child Protection Resource website and has been reproduced here with kind permission.

The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing.