Communicating with Vulnerable Children: Understanding the Everyday Practices of Child and Family Social Workers

Lead Research Organisation: Cardiff University
Department Name: Sch of Social Sciences

Abstract

When social workers assess allegations of child abuse they are involved in potentially life and death situations. This work, along with the subsequent requirements to protect and promote the wellbeing of vulnerable children, from infancy to adolescence, through accurate and appropriate communicate with them, demands highly developed professional skills. Whilst there is a substantial body of knowledge about the circumstances surrounding social workers' communications with children in the extraordinary contexts of children being seriously harmed or killed, less is known about how social workers communicate with children in ordinary, everyday practice, the challenges they encounter in this process and the sense social workers and children make of these interactions. There is an urgent need for research to be conducted into social workers' communication with children at key points and places in a child's safeguarding and 'looked after' journey. Two such key points include the social worker-child interaction at the point of referral and assessment and in the course of longer-term relationship building if children become 'looked after'. To date we have relied largely on the retrospective reflective accounts of participants in these social worker-child encounters. We have some ideas as to what happens (children are overlooked or inadequately engaged with), how it happens (parents' use of space, and physical presence to exclude child from conversation) and why it happens (time pressures, power, intimidating emotional dynamics, exposure to risk, fear of what might be said and what to do with what is said). Currently what is missing, and the central focus of this study, is the direct observation of social worker-child interactions. To address this gap in knowledge this study will explore how social workers communicate with children in their ordinary, everyday practice and how the social workers and children involved in these encounters experience and understand them.
The research will take place in two specific settings to encompass communication that takes place across a range of key social work tasks with children: firstly, in the reactive domain of frontline assessment teams, where relationships with children have to be developed rapidly, and secondly, in the more controlled environment of teams working with 'looked after' children in foster, residential or kinship care, where there is the potential for longer-term relationships. The project will have three phases. Phase one will be located in assessment teams in four local authorities across the four UK nations and will involve observations of practice and semi-structured interviews with social workers. In phase two social workers and looked after children in two local authorities will be videoed when meeting to review the child's care arrangements and the video will be used in interviews with children and workers to stimulate their reflections on the meeting. These data will be complemented by a small scale participatory video project with children involved in the study. Phase 3 involves the development of dissemination and training tools, utilising the data from the first two phases, plus videoed discussions of the findings with groups of practitioners from the four local authorities involved in phase 1.
The findings will make an important original contribution to:
-social work policy and practice in national and international settings
-qualifying and post-qualifying social work education
-inter-professional work with vulnerable children
-social science knowledge

Impact will be realised in different, complementary ways:
-digital and paper-based resource packages for professional training and development
-academic and professional conference presentations;
-publications in academic and professional journals;
-academic-practice knowledge exchange activities.
-enhanced professional knowledge and skills of practice and research participants

Planned Impact

The study will address two of the three economic and societal impacts identified by Research Councils UK. These are:

1) Increasing the effectiveness of public services and policy: The project will make a contribution to knowledge and skills in relation to social work with children and young people as well as to knowledge about obstacles and opportunities in terms of communicating with vulnerable children more broadly.
2) Enhancing quality of life, health and creative output: The project will have a direct impact on those who take part in it (social workers and children), and will be of benefit to many more through the project's knowledge exchange activities. It is likely to be welcomed throughout the UK and beyond, as those working with vulnerable children struggle to find attuned ways of communicating with them. Similarly, the innovative method and tools will be readily transferable to other research and practice projects centred on work with children.

Who will benefit from this research?

Impacts are anticipated for different groupings of non-academic and academic beneficiaries:
- Children and young people and practitioners who take part in the research project
- Children and young people who receive interventions and services
- Those working in multi-disciplinary settings with children, e.g. social workers, teachers, school counsellors, early year providers, children and youth workers, child health professionals
- Those concerned with child welfare and child and family social work at a policy and management level, e.g. local and national policy makers and managers of children's services in both statutory and voluntary agencies.
- Social work academics and academics from other social science and professional disciplines.

How will they benefit from the research?

The study will have a differential impact according to levels of participation in the project:
- Those who are involved as members of the advisory group in developing the research study's design,tools and dissemination strategy will experience an immediate impact (practitioners, policy makers, care experienced young people) in terms of learning about research and its application to practice.
- The study will have a medium level impact on those who take part in the research as participants (social workers and children and young people). This includes being provided with the opportunity to reflect on their experiences.
- All those who take part in the knowledge exchange activities (seminars and events), who access the articles and summaries and who use the practitioner training materials will also experience some impact. This includes increased knowledge and skills.
- There is a potential for long-term and secondary impacts on children and young people about whom there are welfare concerns. They should benefit from better facilitation of their ability to express their views and better understanding of their needs, wishes and experiences by practitioners. This should lead to more accurate assessments of risk and need and better targeted provision of services.
- The research team will benefit from enhanced research experience and skills and the broader academic community will benefit from substantive and methodological developments.

Publications

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Winter K (2017) Exploring Communication between Social Workers, Children and Young People in The British Journal of Social Work

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Winter K (2019) Emotional Labour in Social Workers' Encounters with Children and Their Families in The British Journal of Social Work

Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
ES/K006134/1 18/07/2013 31/03/2015 £414,010
ES/K006134/2 Transfer ES/K006134/1 01/04/2015 31/05/2016 £132,736
 
Description The research is on-going until end of January 2016 (no-cost extension granted due to maternity leave)

The majority of data has been collected. We are in the middle of data collection for phase 2 (out of three research phases) and analysis is ongoing.

Expectations re sample size and quality of data have been met. Findings will be reported in stages through 2015 and 2016.
Exploitation Route The findings will be used by practitioners and policy-makers. Early engagement activities suggest taht there will be high demand for engagement events and training materials from the study.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Healthcare

 
Description The research is on-going until end of January 2016 (no-cost extension granted due to maternity leave) The majority of data has been collected. We are in the middle of data collection for phase 2 (out of three research phases) and analysis is ongoing. Expectations re sample size and quality of data have been met. Findings will be reported in stages through 2015 and 2016.
 
Description Continuing Professional Development workshop: Sussex 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Talk led to engaged discussion with the issues

This was too recent to report impacts
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description Paper at CASCADE launch 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact talk was discussed in small groups and stimulated much discussion.

Majority of the participants signed up to receive further information about the research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description Practitioner conference (one English county council) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact presented early findings from study and engaged in discussion with audience.

We continued to conduct research in the area and several practitioners reported that our talk had changed aspects of their practice. One audience member applied to do a PhD in our research group and was successful in securing funding to do so.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description Practitioner workshop: Northern Ireland 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation sparked much discussion and feedback on our emerging analysis. We showed protoypes of dissemination videos and received feedback for their development and future use.

Too soon to say (event happened 5 days ago)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014