An exploration of social worker and parental communication concerning parental capacity to change

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Sch for Policy Studies


Research Question
How do parents and social workers perceive communication regarding the issue of parental
capacity to change?

1. To explore how and when social workers discuss parental capacity to change with parents
2. To identify language and reasoning used by social workers and when discussing parental
capacity to change
3. To explore how parents perceive and experience discussions about their capacity to change
4. To consider factors that influence interpretation of meaning between social workers and
It is widely accepted that children who have suffered harm have better outcomes when timely,
proactive decisions are made about their future care, as recognised by the introduction of the Public Law Outline guidance for care proceedings (DfE, 2014). To inform these decisions, it is important to consider the likelihood of that parents will implement any required changes within the child's developmental timescale i.e. their
capacity to change. Parental capacity to change is "the range of attributes, capabilities,
motivations, contextual factors and so forth that may enable a parent to make changes for the
benefit of the child(ren)" (Platt & Riches 2016 p.142).

The little research available on social workers assessment of parental capacity to change suggests
that, while the majority of social workers feel it is an important element of their role, this is not reflected in written assessments. In a recent study which considered complex Children & Families assessments, parental capacity to change was explicitly commented on in only 11 of 126 assessments (Macdonald et al, 2017). This indicates a significant and substantial gap in practice and practice methodologies.

Without clear and appropriate guidance to explore capacity to change thoroughly, social workers are likely to rely on heuristics based on previously obtained risk assessment information, combined with professional opinions about parental engagement (Ward et al 2014). Before further investment in structured approaches to assessment it is worthwhile exploring how social workers are combining the variety of new approaches with their practice wisdom in conversations with parents.

The proposed study would focus on the assessment assessment of parental capacity to change in routine Local Authority social work practice, as yet unexplored by research, and add to emerging research on the everyday reality of practice that is vital to better understanding the dynamics of relationships between social workers and parents.

Preparation: Ethnographic observation will first be used to investigate where, when and how social workers explore parental capacity to change. Observations will be analysed thematically and coded before beginning stage 1.

Stage 1: Ten pairs of social workers/ parents will be recruited for observation and recording of a
routine session where parental capacity to change is likely to be discussed. Data collection will include key characteristics of the parent, social worker and wider context of the relationship that may influence communication. Recordings of conversations will be thematically analysed and coded. Datasets from the preparatory stage and Stage 1will be compared.

Stage 2: Reflective interviews with the parent and social worker to explore the intended and
perceived meaning of the stage 1 discussion.

The detailed methodology will be developed in Year 1 of the doctoral training, together with an appropriate analysis plan, and a plan for dissemination and maximising impact.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000630/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2094712 Studentship ES/P000630/1 01/10/2018 01/10/2022 Katharine Anne Riches